Sportsnet soccer editor John Molinaro will answer one of the world’s great sporting debates, by dissecting and illustrating each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
Below: The case for Cristiano Ronaldo.
(Click here to read the case for Lionel Messi.)
The tears flowed, the emotion was raw.
The great Pele called out his name as the winner of the 2013 Ballon d’Or, the annual honour given to the world player of the year, and Cristiano Ronaldo, the paragon of self-confidence — some would argue arrogance — walked onto the stage to accept the award with millions of TV viewers watching.
Lionel Messi had won the Ballon d’Or four years in a row, eclipsing his rival as the greatest player on the planet. But the Argentine’s streak was broken, and Ronaldo was back on top, winning the award for the second time in his career. It was the perfect opportunity for him to gloat.
Instead, it was a humble Ronaldo who spoke from the heart with his young son by his side, fighting back tears as he talked about all the people who helped him along the way. It was a rare glimpse at a side of the Portuguese star that few see, but has always been there.
Being the best is something that has driven Ronaldo ever since he started his remarkable career at Lisbon-based club Sporting Clube de Portugal, through to his time at Manchester United and Real Madrid. It’s why he is so often mistaken for being cocky. Ambition is a good thing, though, and it’s why Ronaldo broke down when accepting the Ballon d’Or — all the hard work and sacrifices he made had paid off.
Having previously played in four World Cups, Ronaldo will likely grace the tournament one final time this summer in Russia, displaying his considerable skills on sports’ biggest stage for the entire world to see.
But what precisely makes Cristiano Ronaldo so great? Sportsnet took a deep dive and examined the key components of his game.
Ronaldo is one of the most prolific scorers in the sport’s history, with over 650 goals for both club and country, including 120 alone in the UEFA Champions League, more than any other player.
Forwards such as him tend to fall into one of two categories: Target men who play with their back towards goals and rely on their teammates to set them up, or penalty-area poachers who finish off opportunities by feasting on half chances, rebounds and scraps.
Abetted by a technical ability that is the envy of most others, Ronaldo marries the two concepts into one dangerous, goal-scoring package. He’s not as involved in games as he once was, but he’s just as ruthless, needing only a half chance, a smidgeon of space from which to wield his special brand of magic and instantly tip the match in his team’s favour.
As former Liverpool striker Michael Owen, a goal-scorer of some repute during his career, noted in a 2016 interview with The Telegraph: “Ronaldo [is] more interested in making the most out of half a yard of space in the penalty area than moving into areas where there are four yards hoping the ball will come his way. This is why he is breaking so many goal scoring records and is such a phenomenon.”
Some forwards need three or four chances per game just to score one. Ronaldo is more economical. He’s what the soccer nerds call a “clinical finisher.” One chance is all he needs. When he gets sight of a goal, he buries it. And if for some reason he doesn’t, you can bet he’ll bury it the next time around.
Ronaldo has also worked hard at striking the ball in a unique way, whether with the inside or outside of his cleat, so that each time it leaves his foot with more of a wobble than a swerve. This keeps goalkeepers guessing, as they can’t immediately anticipate where the ball is going; if it’ll rise or dip.
Just as important, his goal-scoring instincts are finely honed. He anticipates where the ball is going to be before it gets there. His sense of timing is impeccable.
“People often make the mistake of saying a great finisher makes you a great goal scorer. But it’s the knack of knowing exactly where to be at the right time that makes the difference between a prolific striker and a scorer of great goals,” said Owen. “It doesn’t matter how good a finisher you are if you’re not capable of working your way into positions to get chances. It’s almost taken for granted how good Ronaldo is at this.”
Age has a nasty habit of slowing down even the most elite athletes, and Ronaldo is no exception. As a result, he doesn’t burn opposing defenders with regularity like he used to during his time at Manchester United and his first few seasons at Real Madrid.
But even at age 33, Ronaldo is still fast. Like, freaky fast. A Mexican study published last year determined the 10 quickest players on the planet. The study, which measured players’ maximum speed over the previous season, discovered Gareth Bale, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate, to be the fastest, reaching 36.9 kilometres per hour. Ronaldo ranked seventh, at an impressive rate of 33.6 km/h.
Miguel Paixão, who was Ronaldo’s roommate during his time at Sporting, explained to English soccer magazine FourFourTwo how Ronaldo would use weights to improve his quickness.
“We moved into an apartment, and during the night he had two weights and a ball, and we liked to walk to Marques do Pombal, a nice garden,” Paixão said. “He used to strap the weights in his legs to improve his speed.
“He used to say that without the weights, he felt faster. So much faster, and this is funny… when we were on our way back home he gave me the ball and the weights to compete against the cars at the traffic lights. When the lights went green, he ran very fast to beat the cars. After this, he celebrated: ‘I’m faster!’
“He always wanted to improve, in every aspect. And he achieved that.”
Ronaldo also benefited from a meeting with Usain Bolt in 2009, when the Jamaican sprinter gave the then-Manchester United star some valuable advice about how to improve his running technique.
“I explained to him a few things about when he is running and reaches top speed he starts to tip over — he always does that,” Bolt told the Guardian. “I let him know if he brings his foot on the centre of gravity, or even in front of him, it will be much easier. He will be much better and he will go faster for longer.”
It’s not the Portuguese star’s ability to score goals at will, the majority of them being of highlight-reel quality, that makes him so difficult for opposing defenders to stop. It’s that he dares to attempt what others won’t even consider, and that he routinely makes the impossible, possible.
Ronaldo plays without fear, undeterred by the prospect of failure. While others shrink in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Ronaldo only sees possibility. Leave the door slightly ajar, and he’ll find a way to slither through and conjure a magical goal out from nothing.
Case in point. On April 3, 2018, Ronaldo scored twice in Real Madrid’s emphatic 3–0 win over Juventus in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. It was his second goal, an audacious bicycle kick, that had everybody talking.
Dani Carvajal floated a hopeful cross into the middle of the box towards Ronaldo, who had Juventus defenders Andrea Barzagli and Mattia De Sciglio bearing down on him. The ball was behind Ronaldo, but he contorted his body to make the adjustment, sticking out his leg above his head before firing the ball into the upper right corner.
Players rarely score on bicycle kicks. Ninety-nine times out 100, that play doesn’t come off. But Juventus’s Gianluigi Buffon never made a move — he was glued to the pitch, so perfectly placed was Ronaldo’s attempt that not even one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time could do anything to stop it.
Ronaldo’s goal went viral around the world within seconds, and it was so breathtakingly spectacular that even the home fans jammed inside of Juventus’s Allianz Stadium honoured him with a standing ovation.
Barzagli was impressed, too.
“It was a PlayStation goal,” the Juventus defender told Italian broadcaster Mediaset. “When you play against one of the [best players] in the world, you need perfection. As soon as you leave him something, he punishes you. He made up a goal that will go down in history.”
Ronaldo can beat goalkeepers so many different ways. From open play, whether it’s a long distance shot or from in close. He’s a master free kick specialist. And he’s pretty automatic from the penalty spot.
He’s not too shabby in the air, either. Like his feet, his head is a deadly weapon. A combination of strength, and his slender frame allows Ronaldo to routinely outjump defenders in order to win aerial challenges and score spectacular headers.
In a 2011 test, the University of Chichester determined that Ronaldo can reach heights of 44 centimetres in the air from a standing start and 78 cm with a run-up – seven cm more than the average NBA player. The same test revealed that when Ronaldo jumps, he generates 5 Gs of G-force on take-off, or five times the power of a cheetah in full flight.
Perhaps his best header came while playing for Portugal against Wales in the semifinals of Euro 2016. With the score 0-0, João Mário whipped a cross from the left wing into the middle of the penalty area. Ronaldo momentarily gave the man charged with marking him, James Chester, the slip before the Welsh defender regained his positioning as the ball dropped down towards the edge of the six-yard box. Undaunted, Ronaldo managed to connect with the ball, scoring on a powerful header to give Portugal the lead.
Ronaldo, who stands 6’1”, leapt two feet and six inches on the play – practically from a standing position — which meant he met the ball while eight feet and seven inches in the air. If that’s not impressive enough, consider this: The ball went from Ronaldo’s head towards the net at a speed of 71.3 km/h, leaving Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy no chance to stop it.
The Ronaldo of today is not the Ronaldo of yesterday.
From a tactical perspective, the Portuguese star has evolved over time and has remained on top by reinventing himself in order to combat the effects of age and time that have slowed down so many players before him.
While at Sporting and through most of his time at Manchester United, he was mostly used as a winger down the right side. It was there where he used his pace to take on defenders one-on-one, developing a reputation as a cheeky creator who sped down the flank towards the end-line before looking to deliver dangerous crosses into the box. Although technically skilled, there was an impishness and flair that underpinned his style of play, his famous feints and step-overs becoming his trademark.
A second version of Ronaldo emerged towards the end of his Manchester United tenure, shifting from the wing towards the middle where he played a more attacking role, either as a forward or tucking in behind the main striker, and sometimes as a midfielder. The move allowed him to develop into a prolific goal-scorer, renowned for his cool finishing inside the box, his powerful shot from distance, and his curling free kicks. He became an explosive and relentless attacker, a goal-hungry assassin who’d come at you from all angles.
This trend continued following his move to Real Madrid, where he ruthlessly pursued goal-scoring opportunities while his creative and defensive responsibilities were limited. Initially, he played as a forward, but was later moved to the wing, this time on the left, although he was given license to drift and roam free as he saw fit. In doing so, he drew more attention from defenders, thus opening up space for teammates to exploit.
Over the past five years, a new Ronaldo has emerged. The Portuguese bulked up, developing a muscular upper body, thus increasing his strength and stamina. In doing so, he added a much-needed element of physicality to his style of play, allowing him to retain possession for longer stretches. He still scores with alarming regularity, but he’s much more efficient in his movement, both with and without the ball. He doesn’t run or cover as much ground as he used to. Now the focus is on creating and finishing scoring chances over short distances. Whereas he used to drop back deep to pick up the ball, now he relies more on his teammates to provide him service.
Don’t be fooled by Ronaldo’s rather pedestrian display in this year’s UEFA Champions League final — more times than not, the Portuguese star comes up big in the most important matches, for both club and country. He scored in each of the previous four finals he appeared in, including bagging a brace in 2017 and scoring the penalty shootout winner in 2016.
He’s also a valuable on-field leader, both with his words and with his style of play, challenging those around him to up their games in the vain hope of matching his impossible standards. Even when he’s not on the pitch, Ronaldo displays great leadership.
In the Euro 2016 final, the Real Madrid star crashed to the ground in a heap after being clattered into by France’s Dimitri Payet. He was stretchered off in the 24th minute, forcing Portugal to play the majority of the game without its captain and best player.
The sight of him on the bench as he encouraged his teammates in extra time, and the way he was anxiously walking up and down the technical area, all the while carrying a heavy limp and clearly in physical agony was one of the lasting images of the tournament. Ronaldo’s mental and physical toughness helped inspire his Portuguese teammates to an extra-time victory that day.
Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t a complete player. Even he’d tell you that. He reluctantly deals with his defensive duties, and often can’t be bothered to track back to help out his teammates, or do the unglamorous muck work that is required of players to win back possession.
That’s not to say Ronaldo doesn’t do a lot of running off the ball. He does. But it’s mostly in attack, when his team is in possession and is looking to score. When there’s defending to do, he’s not as eager to get involved.
And let’s just say it because it’s already out there: He’s a bit of a diver, falling to the ground under the slightest of challenges in order to win a foul. Sometimes it works, but more and more it seems as though referees are not giving him the benefit of the doubt like they used to, such is the reputation that precedes him.
Ronaldo is an awesome attacking machine, a goal scorer the likes of which we have rarely seen.
He’s a member of a small pantheon of players who have the ability to single-handedly take over and dominate games, either by their scoring prowess or inventive play.
Goals are at a premium in soccer – scoring them is the hardest thing to do in the sport. That’s what makes Ronaldo so special: He makes you think he is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. He often does.
But since this exercise requires a choice, I’ll have to go with Messi.
(Click here to read the full case for Messi.)
The Argentinian is simply a more well-rounded player than Ronaldo. Messi is more of an orchestrator — for himself and his teammates. And while neither is known for his defensive prowess, this is another area where Messi holds a slight edge. Each alone would be considered once-in-a-generation talents. And while it may seem unfair — or even impossible — to pick one over the other, this is sports, so where is the fun in staying neutral?
And who knows? With the World Cup offering both men the opportunity to present new, emphatic arguments in their favour while performing on the world’s biggest soccer stage, this debate is far from over.
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