Cristiano Ronaldo Before He was World Famous
How Cristiano Ronaldo became the best in the world
He's done it again. The footballer everyone loves to hate has scored yet another hat-trick – his 42nd for Real Madrid – against rivals Atletico Madrid, all but cementing his side's place in another Champions League final.
The 32-year-old superstar continues to defy his critics with his biblical scoring tally. And last night's performance saw him break a number of records.
Ronaldo is now the first player with three Champions League hat-tricks in the knockout stage; he's the first player to score hat-tricks in consecutive Champions League knockout games; has scored the most goals in semi-finals (12 in 18 appearances); the most goals in the Champions League (103), as well home goals, away goals, knockout stage goals and assists.
And we haven't even touched on his domestic and international record – which is pretty good.
Love him or loathe him, you can’t argue with one fact: he’s the world’s greatest. Sorry Lionel.
Here, we take a look at where it all began for CR7, and his remarkable journey from humble beginnings to the very top of the footballing world.
Where do you start with Cristiano Ronaldo? How do you begin to appreciate the impact of last year’s winner of the Ballon d’Or, Real Madrid’s deliverer of La Decima, a man for whom the goals have rained in Spain, notching the kind of numbers (33, 53, even a Dixie Dean-esque 60, followed by a mere 55 and 54) that seem to belong to an era when goalkeepers were the size of houses and had the manoeuvrability to match? How do you encapsulate this beguiling mixture of narcissism and natural ability, petulance and pride, blistering pace and excessive hair gel?
Easy. If you’re English, you start on Saturday 1 July 2006 at the Arena auf Schalke in Gelsenkirchen. There it was, in England’s World Cup quarter final tie against Portugal, that Ronaldo pleaded with ref, Horacio Marcelo Elizondo (an Argentinian, let the jury note) to send off his then United team mate, Wayne Rooney. Having ensured that it was goodnight from him, the one Ronnie then delivered his best pantomime villain wink to the Portuguese bench. And adding a little bit of sodium chloride to a nation’s sore of outrage, Ronaldo inevitably slotted in his penalty to send England home. The always incisive Alan Shearer suggested Rooney should “stick one on him” at the earliest possible opportunity. Others were not quite as measured. It’s fair to say that Cristiano Ronaldo has had an image problem on these shores ever since.
Playing to win: be a cool-headed villain
Eight years and one transfer later, even the most diehard followers of St George must acknowledge that Ronaldo, as our national playwright would say, is the stuff that dreams are made on, a footballing phenomenon, blessed with two great feet, a trademark stiff-legged stepover (honed by youthful practice with weights tied to his feet), aerial ability that’s equalled by no-one and an eye for goals unrivalled by all but his Barça bête noire, Lionel Messi.
But, say the naysayers, look at his monumental ego, his frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command, his petulant displays of childishness that speak of an overindulged Madeiran mummy’s boy. The almost inhuman, icy froideur that saw him tell Real Madrid in 2011: “If it wasn’t for me, you’d be 20 points behind Barça.”
Yet to criticise Ronaldo for appearing aloof and unsympathetic is like taking issue with a prop forward for having broad shoulders and cauliflower ears. It comes with the territory. Ronaldo’s former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, described him as one of the most courageous players he had ever known. He wasn’t talking about physical courage (although Ronaldo is not short of that) but the mental courage required to back oneself to keep driving to the heart of the defence; to persevere with the high-risk strategy of taking on defenders when the safe pass seems the only option; to persist in believing you have the ability to perform the outrageous every time you take to the pitch. In these terms, the preening, the showmanship, the narcissism and arrogance are all part of the package, armour to ward off the unimaginable pressures without which others in the same position descend into limb-biting meltdown or, worse still, like his Gelsenkirchen victim, retreat to a position of safety, risking less and descending into stagnation.
Overcoming hardship with mind games
People, it’s officially time to move on. What’s going on in Europe right now will rank as one of the golden ages of the game and Cristiano Ronaldo, or CR7 if you prefer his brand name, is right at the heart of it. If we fail to appreciate it because of some petty prejudice from the past, it’ll be over before we know it. We need to learn to stop worrying and start loving the Ron.
There’s a kind of creation myth we like to associate with elite footballers. The overcoming of hardship, displacement and poverty is generally central to it: dirt-poor Luis Suárez, one of seven sons abandoned by his dad; Lionel Messi crossing the world as a 13-year-old because Barcelona could pay for his growth hormone therapy; barrio boy Diego Maradona almost drowning in an open cesspit as a child. Growing up in Madeira, Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro ticked some, if not all, of these boxes. The family were poor, his father had a drink problem which led to his premature death when Ronaldo was just 20 and as a 12-year-old he made the long trip from the Atlantic island to Sporting Lisbon, where he was mocked for his hick ways and accent and pined for his family.
Psychology 101 would suggest Ronaldo’s sometimes gauche trappings of footballing success, as well as his own underwear line, CR7 (created with designer Richard Chai and Danish brand JBS), Tag Heuer sponsorship are standard reactions to this impoverished boyhood, but where does his four-year-old namesake son, acquired with an air of mystery worthy of Michael Jackson, fit into this picture? A desire to right the wrongs of his own upbringing, a gift for his mother, a mini-me clothes horse? Certainly, it’s not the standard accessory of the successful sportsman and hints that Ronaldo is perhaps as unusual psychologically as he is athletically.
Further evidence of this is the museum he’s built to himself in his hometown of Funchal, Madeira, a fitting shrine to his outsize ego, so his critics would say. But, run by his brother Hugo, Museu CR7 is a storage solution, tourist attraction and family concern as well, showcasing his many trophies and rapid rise to being the best-paid footballer in the world; an acknowledgement of how, in a little more than a decade, his image has become fixed in the world’s consciousness. It also contains a photo of Ronaldo on the summer night in 2003 that Sporting Lisbon beat Manchester United, described by the player as “the most important night of my life”.
Ronaldo’s performance that night sealed the deal for Alex Ferguson. His subsequent £12.5 million unveiling at Old Trafford, however, reveals the precarious nature of the footballing fates. For standing on the other side of Ferguson on the day of Ronaldo’s signing was Kléberson, a Brazilian World Cup winner, primed for a key role at United but destined to flop spectacularly due to injury and loss of form. If ever a footballer needed an incentive to make the most of his good fortune and flaunt every penny of his wealth, it would be that picture, revealing the twin paths a footballer’s career can take. And Ronaldo took the one less travelled.
While Kléberson struggled almost from the start, Ronaldo’s time at Old Trafford was instantly golden, his verve and flair immediately drawing comparison with the club’s ultimate yardstick of success, George Best. Ronaldo enjoyed three Leagues, one Champions League, one Golden Boot and sundry lesser titles in his time at United. He also developed a leaner style of play and a bulkier physique, as he began to reach full maturity and learned to cope with the physical demands of the English game.
The inspiration of self belief
Suddenly, in the latter half of his time there, his ripped physique began to attract increasing exposure. As robust a heterosexual as Gary Lineker cast admiring glances in the direction of the Ronaldo abs. By Ronaldo’s seat in the Old Trafford dressing room, there was a mirror which did not go unused. Like the man who had worn the Number 7 shirt before him, Ronaldo revelled in his looks and international profile. Ferraris were written off, girlfriends were acquired with the same regularity with which he displayed that toned torso and every season, the rumours of a move to Madrid grew louder.
When in July 2009, he eventually and inevitably followed in the footsteps of Beckham from Old Trafford to the Bernabeu for a fee of £80 million, it set in train yet one more chapter in the greatest rivalry in world football.
José Mourinho has always said that the Italian league has the greatest tactics, the English league the most passion and the Spanish league the most skill. In this context, it has proved the perfect setting for the duel which has lit up the unending battle between Barcelona and Madrid, the contest between the two most skilful players on the planet: Messi and Ronaldo.
While the respective fortunes of the two clubs during that time can be measured accurately (Barcelona have one Champions League and three titles to Real Madrid’s one and one respectively), the duel between the players will always be more subjective. But in the time that Ronaldo has been at Madrid, the Fifa World Player/Ballon d’Or has been won by Messi four times and Ronaldo once, while La Liga’s top scorer has also been won by Messi 3-2. Knowledgable voices in the football world, however, have argued the case for both men. Less knowledgeable ones on the internet have added their measured opinions. Typical of these, hooligangster1993 reasons: “messi is better with his dick than ronaldo is with his right foot”. Most observers believe the contest is somewhat closer.
The truth is, however, that the duel has brought out the best in both of them. On only one occasion since Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid (when Andrés Iniesta won second place in 2010) have the top two spots in world football not been held by Messi and Ronaldo. They are to modern football what Lennon and McCartney were to popular music, each fresh exploit goading the other to scale new heights in the sublime exposition of his art.
Keys to becoming the leading man
From the fiercest rivalry in world football has emerged a contest that has transcended petty trivialities to produce a brand of football that makes everyone richer for the experience. Football, as we all know, is a cesspit of venality, corruption and self-interest, but from this abyss has emerged something so inspiring that it’s like a modern day iteration of the argument about the bad old Borgias producing Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Ronaldo and Messi together make you believe in football again.
For Ronaldo, the move to Madrid has brought greater maturity to his game. Where once at United he might be seen to indulge in one or two extra stepovers because he could, now there’s a remorseless practicality to his every feint and showboat. Some credit Mourinho for encouraging this greater directness, while others see it as a the natural progress of a true great, but whatever the reason, anything that buys a millisecond of extra time to find the corner of the net is ruthlessly employed. Unlike so many of his peers, he is genuinely two-footed. Can defenders force him on to his left foot? Good luck with that. This is a man who will perform a Cruyff turn in the box to put the ball on his weaker foot if he figures it gives him a higher chance of scoring. If you can stand the accompaniment of insufferable Euro house soundtracks, look at the showreels of his left-footed goals on YouTube, but beware: they do run for some considerable time.
No one else, not even Messi, is capable of making goalkeepers seem more incompetent with the prodigious swerve, dip and accuracy of his long- range shooting, nor make the 192 square feet of goal seem bigger. It’s hardly overstating the case to say that he has initiated the current lamentable craze among goalkeepers to push away rather than catch. When Ronaldo shoots, goalies are grateful to get any kind of contact on the ball at all.
Like the true greats, Ronaldo has balance, but his is all the more remarkable given his height (6’ 1”). The model for the modern football genius is Maradona – short, stocky, low centre of gravity, gluteus maximus the size of Saturn. But Ronaldo is tall, with massive upper body strength, impossible to tackle because of his speed on the ball. It’s not difficult to see where his teammate Gareth Bale found inspiration.
Perhaps this extra height explains Ronaldo’s perceived partiality for a dive. Yet the man who fell to turf (repeatedly) might just be looking to employ the same cute tactics that saw him plead for Rooney’s dismissal: anything to gain that extra advantage. Mourinho memorably declared: “He does not have the culture of the swimming pool,” but then José is not the footballing world’s most reliable witness. It’s apt that a man named after one of the world’s biggest hambones – Ronald Reagan – should have his own unique brand of thespianism.
Following the latest World Cup, a disappointment for both England and Portugal, Rooney observed that England need to get nastier. It’s taken him eight years to absorb fully the message of Gelsenkirchen, but perhaps this will be the lasting legacy of Cristiano Ronaldo to our football and national psyche. He might just have taught us that to be a winner is worth it.
Video: How Cristiano Ronaldo Became The Best l Rio Ferdinand l Against All Odds EP1
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