Brick wall gives way as Ronaldo gets his reward
Few believed any player would reclaim the Ballon d’Or from Messi but one man always did
Cristiano Ronaldo has banged his head against the brick wall for four years; now the brick wall has given way.
Ronaldo was apparently doomed to be forever tortured and defined by Lionel Messi. By regaining the Ballon d’Or from Messi, and winning the award for the first time since 2008, he has produced the most decisive reminder – if one were needed – that he is one of football’s all-time greats.
Ronaldo’s victory, which was confirmed at the endearingly absurd Fifa ceremony in Zurich last night, is a triumph for strength. The physical part we know about. The cliche that he is a freak of nature has not diluted its essential truth.
Ronaldo is a cross between Dixie Dean and Usain Bolt. He scores goals in quantities which, since Dean’s era, have only really been seen on bright screens in musty bedrooms, while he is 6ft 1in and scores headers so classically immense that it feels as if they should be shown in black and white. Yet he can also cover 96 metres in 10 seconds while wearing football boots, as he did during a match against Atletico Madrid in 2012.
For all that, Ronaldo’s physical strength is arguably dwarfed by his mental strength. He has overcome myriad obstacles to win the Ballon d’Or for the second time. “First of all I have to say a great thanks to all of my team-mates with the club and the national team,” said Ronaldo. “Without all of their efforts this would not have been possible.
“Everybody that has been involved with me on a personal level I have to thank. My wife, my friends, my son. It is a tremendously emotional moment. All I can say is thank you to everybody that has been involved. I am very happy, it is very difficult to win this award.”
The last part felt like the deadpan understatement of the night. It is not easy being Ronaldo. His whole career has been conducted against a backdrop of suspicion and sniping – even to the point where he was publicly ridiculed by Sepp Blatter, which was a bit like being called hapless by Frank Spencer.
He is also perceived by many as selfish and self-obsessed to the point of having a messiah complex.
You could certainly understand if he had a Messi complex. He has to endure constant discussion of Messi’s apparent superiority, as a footballer and even as a human being. At times it felt as if Ronaldo simply could not win. If he scored four, Messi would score five.
Ronaldo’s most impressive feat is not to usurp Messi; it is to believe he could do so in the first place. Yet Messi is one of only three apparently unbeatable opponents Ronaldo has had to contend with. He has taken on Messi, Barcelona and Spain, at times single-footedly. Part of that challenge broke even Jose Mourinho; Ronaldo continues to return for more. One nemesis down, two to go.
Nor has he escaped football’s vicissitudes since moving to Madrid. He missed a penalty in a Champions League semi-final shootout against Bayern Munich; he did not even get to take one against Spain in the semi-final of Euro 2012. He could be excused for thinking fate had a vendetta against him.
His peak years, after decades in which football prioritised athleticism, even coincided with football improbably recognising small as beautiful once more.
It is in that context that we should understand Ronaldo’s achievement. He is a miracle of incessant conviction. Any other footballer would have consciously or unconsciously surrendered to an apparently irresistible logic. Anyone else would have relaxed and regressed towards the mean.
Ronaldo ensured that in excess of 50 goals a season became the mean. In 2013 he progressed away from the mean, scoring 69 times for club and country. He has turned “Oh I say!” moments into “Oh” moments. Oh, Ronaldo’s scored another hat-trick. Oh, Ronaldo’s scored from 40 yards in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the European Cup. Oh, Ronaldo’s scored his 50th of the season. He has made the miraculous mundane.
Then again, greatness has always been a fusion of the spectacular and mundane. Ronaldo’s brilliance is as much about his immaculate professionalism as his skill. He is a freak of nature but also a freak of nurture, fuelled by an almost demented ambition to achieve everything he possibly can.
He has already achieved so much that there is no logical reason why he should not be discussed among the greatest footballers ever. Yet when World Soccer magazine asked a series of experts to pick their greatest XI last year, Ronaldo was nowhere near the side. He got seven votes: Maradona picked up 64, Pele 56, Johan Cruyff 58 and Messi 46. Ronaldo picked up fewer than, among others, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Garrincha, George Best and the other Ronaldo.
Perhaps his sheer efficiency does not appeal to romantics. Perhaps his remorseless consistency does not stir the soul. Perhaps people just do not like him. But to paint him as a robotic achiever does not do justice to his innovation and originality, never mind his genius.
Ronaldo is a footballer like no other. He has a good case for being the most three-dimensional of football’s true greats: over a third of his career goals have been scored with either his left foot or his head.
While he did not, as some have suggested, patent the wobbling, beach ball free-kick, he is now the most associated with a technique that he has almost perfected. He has certainly redefined the role and accepted parameters of the wide forward.
The primary reason for that is that he has scored goals in industrial quantities. Of course Ronaldo is a flat-track bully. All the greats are. He has also become a rough-track bully, steadily shattering the perception that he does not produce in big games, to the point where Barcelona fear him more than he fears them.
Ronaldo is nearly 29 and may be approaching his last World Cup; by 2018 he will have played for 15 years, with few injury breaks and goodness knows how many miles on the clock. There is also a new superpower, Bayern Munich, to sit alongside Spain and Barcelona. But Ronaldo will keep banging his head against the brick wall until the brick wall gives way, as it did in Zurich last night.
In Ronaldo’s head the Ballon d’Or is not his crowning glory. It is the start of the defining phase of his career.