No messing with Ronaldo now!

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has forever been the petulant star, overshadowed by archrival Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, despite his many on- and off-field achievements. The Portuguese international, however, had a dream 2016, winning a plethora of personal accolades, to perhaps finally edge ahead in this great debate of who is the game’s outstanding superstar.

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The latest in the kitty... Cristiano Ronaldo with the Best FIFA Men's Player Award 2016, which was presented to him on January 9, 2017 in Zurich.   -  Getty Images

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A general view of Ronaldo's CR7 Museum in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. There is no doubt that he is for all time.   -  Getty Images

The key to a craftsman’s success lies in his unstinted belief in the supremacy of his work. No great artist, pop icon or statesman has reached the pinnacle of his art while staying humble. An inflated ego, an all-purveying sense of superiority, separates them from us — people blessed with limited or no sense of mastery.

The abundance of their gift — and an awareness of the jealousy and awe that it inspires — puts them on a pedestal higher than us, and we make these overly-talented individuals our icons. Icons are not to be emulated. They are unattainable creatures, aberrations created by a greater force or, at times, by their own sacrifices. They remind us about our fallibility and allow us to celebrate collectively the chance to see and appreciate the joys these performers bring to our life.

 

These individuals shine everywhere — even when they are part of an assembled workforce. Sport, which teaches us the ethos of teamwork, the power of combined will over the egocentricity of individuals, is also replete with bursts of individual doggedness and brilliance that leave a lasting stamp over the shared achievements of a bunch.

Football is a team sport but often it is these individuals that decide games and outcomes, classifying them as a separate breed even in the presence of talented colleagues. They go beyond the crests or boundaries of club or country they play for and garner a universal appeal.

The new millennia have been fortunate to see the emergence and rule of two equally such resplendent stars, both at ease with the ball on their feet, but two very different characters.

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has forever been the petulant star, overshadowed by archrival Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, despite his many on- and off-field achievements. The Portuguese international, however, had a dream 2016, winning a plethora of personal accolades, to perhaps finally edge ahead in this great debate of who is the game’s outstanding superstar.

The careers and lives of the two footballers have been intertwined ever since they finished second and third in the 2007 Ballon d’Or. The award, which goes to the greatest ball player of the year, has become a bit of a duopoly, with others reduced to nominees to just make up the numbers.

 

Post 2007, Messi has bagged the top honour, which was also rechristened as FIFA Ballon d’Or between 2010-2015, five times — 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 — with Ronaldo winning it on four occasions —2008, 2013, 2014, 2016. Ronaldo is also the FIFA Player of the Year in 2016, the award having again been delinked from the Ballon d’Or. As the numbers in the table (on Page 7) show, the two were operating on a higher plateau, scoring an extraordinary amount of goals that won a surfeit of trophies for their teams.

Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose fierce rivalry stems as much from the football field as it does from the complex political realties in Spain, have won five of the last nine FIFA Club World Cup titles, five UEFA Champions Leagues, eight out of nine La Liga crowns and also six Copa del Reys. The two clubs, boasting a worldwide fan base, a disproportionate share of La Liga’s television rights and multimillion-dollar commercial contracts across the globe, have — much like their two superstars — monopolised the major trophies they battle for.

The increasing chasm in the financial might of clubs in Spain has allowed these clubs to extend a vice-like grip on domestic competition. Despite the signing of a new equal revenue sharing model ahead of the 2015-16 season, Real Madrid and Barcelona each picked up €140 million out of a total pie of €1.2 billion shared by the Liga clubs from audio-visual rights. The amount received by the two was more than the Premier League’s top-earner at that time, Arsenal (€131.997m, including prize money). Newly promoted Las Palmas, which finished 11th in the 2015-16 season, received only €28m, an amount significantly lower compared to the Premier League’s lowest earner, Aston Villa (€86.228m).

Real and Barcelona, thus, naturally, have always attracted the best of talents, building a squad of superstars (assembling, in the case of Real), and have always had a say in how European and world football has shaped up. Real, the record Champions League winner with 11 titles, found no difficulty in luring Ronaldo from Manchester United — the biggest club in England — in 2009 and again raided the English shores to add Gareth Bale to its ranks in 2013. The club from the Spanish capital has won 11 trophies since the arrival of Ronaldo, with the forward scoring 249 goals in 272 appearances.



RONALDO vs MESSI

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Ronaldo — who occupied a wide role, usually of a right winger in Manchester — revelled in the directness the game afforded in the Premier League with Sir Alex Ferguson giving him the freedom to utilise his pace to rattle defences down the wing, while drifting inside to test goalkeepers with his long-range efforts from outside the box. A hundred and eighteen strikes in 292 appearances were phenomenal returns for a player who largely operated on the flanks. His best games, however, came when he was part of a flexible front three with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

A move to the La Liga and games under the tutelage of a more rigid Jose Mourinho, who managed him between 2010-13, or the tactically astute Carlo Ancelotti (2013-15), improved the current Portugal captain’s overall game, making him more involved in team dynamics and collective play.

Ronaldo has kept up his relentless goal-scoring form, only improving, even as age and injuries diminished some of his speed and power. A change in position sees him operating as a traditional No. 9 for Real and Portugal these days, with a supporting playmaker or auxiliary striker playing behind or alongside him. The player’s positional awareness and aerial ability in the box make him an ideal man to lead the line, and a more mature outlook has seen him take up a leadership role for both country and club.

Ronaldo, their talismanic leader, saw a ragtag Portugal side lift the EURO 2016, defeating favourite and host France in the final at the Stade de France in July. Robbed of his moment of glory after a freak foul from Dimitri Payet cut short his stay on the field in the 24th minute, a teary-eyed Ronaldo left the field, only to return to act as his teammates’ most passionate supporter, egging them on to perform a near miracle. After 109 minutes of bruising football, Eder scored in extra-time and an exhausted Portugal, buoyed by the captain’s unbridled aggression from the touchline, held on to win its first major silverware.

A month earlier, Ronaldo was leading his team from the front, scoring the decisive spot kick in a 6-3 (1-1 at regular time) shootout victory over neighbourhood rival Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final.

Ronaldo, on or off the pitch, was the catalyst behind both these victories. Football, after all, is not about the Ballon d’Or or the FIFA World Player award. It’s still a collective sport, where the triumph of a team always supersedes the numbers an individual collects. Diego Maradona’s greatness is not measured by his 582 career goals; we don’t know Pele for his 1,000-plus strikes. Diego is adored for his virtuoso performance in leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, Pele will forever be romanticised as the 17-year-old who mesmerised the lovers and non-lovers of football at the Sweden World Cup of 1958.

The Portuguese, following those two highs, however, has had a difficult start to the current campaign. A persistent knee injury has seen him miss nine club games this season and of late Ronaldo has been found wanting as Real Madrid suffered back-to-back defeats to Sevilla and Celta Vigo, bringing an end to its 40-match unbeaten streak.

However, Ronaldo, at present, has that all-important victory for his country, a feat Messi is yet to achieve despite playing in four finals. The chiselled athlete, forever arrogant — an antithesis of the calmer and quieter Messi — has taken a head-start in this race. It’s Messi’s turn to feel the pressure, to announce hasty retirements and equally quick comebacks, or lose his cool and argue with the referee, as seen in the recent Copa del Rey clash against Athletic Bilbao.

Now perhaps, finally, not even the best in the world can match CR7.