21st Century Greats – Cristiano Ronaldo

There’s a certain tragedy at the heart of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career.

This is a man whose slavish devotion to excellence has seen him grow from a wispish teenager into the template for the next step of humanity’s physical evolution, from a trick pony into the complete attacking player, from a whiny prima donna into…well okay.

So palpable is his desire to be nothing but the best that you can almost smell its fragrance clinging to him in amongst that miasmic haze of designer aftershave.

One imagines him sleeping each night in a NASA-built oxygen tent before waking to guffaw his way through a daily exercise routine so strenuous that it would result in a prolapsed rectum for us mere mortals.

All for one purpose: to become the greatest footballer of his generation. And the killing joke? He’s not, nor will he ever be seen as such.

Hard to picture as it is, there was a time when Cristiano was not especially highly regarded. He began his career at Sporting Lisbon before signing for Alex Ferguson in 2003 on basis of his Herculean efforts during a pre-season friendly in which he somehow made John O’Shea seem ordinary.

However, the teenager’s first few years at Manchester United were divisive. Despite a magician’s chest of skills, he was often the epitome of style over substance. His petulance and selfishness soured his talents in the eyes of many fans especially when compared with the honesty and enthusiasm of team-mate Wayne Rooney.

But around 2006, things changed. Ronaldo got better. A helluva lot better. His shooting and crossing improved exponentially. His tricky dribbling developed purpose.

The free-kicks which had previously only threatened the testicles of opposition walls began flying into the net with Newton-mocking regularity. Moreover, he started scoring goals so often that it almost became a given.

With Ronaldo leading the line, United dominated England and Europe over the coming seasons and so it came as no surprise when Real Madrid came calling to make him the centre-piece of Florentino Perez’s Galacticos Mark II project. Cristiano went willingly.

If we take his ego into account, that’s no surprise. The biggest talent in football should go the biggest club in the world for the biggest fee ever.

And when he arrived at the Bernabeau, everything went to plan swimmingly. Ronaldo ploughed through La Liga defenders as if they’d been stricken with polio and the goals record, which at United had been superlative, became, for want of a more-accurate phrase, stupid.

There was just one hiccup. At Madrid’s archrivals, Barcelona, there was a short, geeky looking boy who was doing everything Cristiano did and then some.

For years, the two seemed to engage in a never-ending dick measuring contest, with the likes of Racing Club and Levante providing the ruler. But for all Ronaldo did, it seemed that the public opinion always sided with Lionel Messi.

This isn’t simply attributable to the greater number of trophies the Argentine has won, it’s something more fundamental than that. The selfishness and need to prove himself which occasionally discolour Ronaldo’s talent are absent from Messi, whose personal achievements are only a by-product of the ultimate aim: winning.

This is the tragedy of Ronaldo. The same irrepressible need to be the best that has made him what he is prevents him from being just that.

However, we shouldn’t weep too long for Cristiano. A superstar so wealthy he could swim forever in an Olympic Swimming pool filled his own money, Ronaldo is already an all-time legend for two of world football’s biggest teams, at just 30.

God has blessed him with every conceivable gift one might need to become the greatest of his generation, all of them save one: timing.

By Gregory McNally

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