Cristiano Ronaldo is poised to win his fourth Ballon d’Or on Monday, writes Tom Adams, and no one else comes close in 2016.
Before the Ballon d’Or, the Salon d’Or. If there were any flicker of doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo would be named the world’s best player on Monday, it was extinguished when he arrived at training at the weekend sporting freshly applied gold highlights. A crown has been placed on the man who will be king, one year after Lionel Messi took the award back from him in the latest dynastic twist in sport’s most elite rivalry.
It is only right. This has, unquestionably, been Ronaldo’s year. A year when he not only enjoyed his greatest achievements, but became more than himself. When you are talking about football’s supreme ego that is quite some achievement, but Ronaldo managed it and a 2016 which has seen him become European champion for both club and country will end with him back on top of the football world for the fourth time.
The two European finals showed two sides of the man, even if the result was ultimately the same. In Milan, for the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid, we saw Ronaldo perform in the role he is usually cast: the great individualist. After what was by his standards a fairly poor performance, the fates aligned for everything to fall on Ronaldo’s shoulders. As he strode forward to take the decisive penalty in the shootout at San Siro, there was not even a semblance of doubt.
Ronaldo is designed for moments like this, when the flashbulbs and the cameras are all magnetically trained on him and the fate of his team lies at his feet. This is the man who, when asked in an interview this year for his biggest influence, replied: “I was… I never wanted to emulate anybody – I have just always focused on being the best me I can.” Penalty buried, shirt removed, torso exposed, all eyes on me. Being the best Ronaldo he can be.
But in a year when Messi won a domestic double and started playing with the all-round excellence that has seen his range of talents diversify as Ronaldo’s has diminished, one man taking on more responsibility for creation and the other narrowing the scope of his focus to become more of a poacher, winning the Champions League might not have been enough on its own. Thankfully for Ronaldo, what happened little over a month later in Paris made his case unassailable. It gave him the greatest moment of his career and displayed a new duality in a man often cast as a caricature.
The significance of Portugal’s unlikely Euro 2016 run was made apparent when Ronaldo strode into the press conference room in Lyon after scoring a goal and claiming an assist for Nani in the 2-0 win over Wales in the semi-final. “I’ve broken many before and I’m still breaking records for club and country, but this comes naturally and the crucial thing was to make the final. Me and the boys have always dreamt of being there; I’ve always dreamed of winning something for Portugal and it’s just one step away. Let’s keep dreaming.”
The dream could have instead materialised as a nightmare thanks to an early injury in Paris. The cinematic grandeur of the image of a crying Ronaldo being stretchered off the field on the huge screens at the Eiffel Tower made his pain and suffering hyper real, a towering monument to frustrated ambition. But in his darkest hour, a different Ronaldo emerged.
For once he was peripheral to proceedings on the pitch, but it merely allowed Ronaldo to display his greatness in other ways. At a time of personal strife, he learned how to be a leader of men, cajoling his team on from the sidelines as he acted as a de facto assistant to Fernando Santos, barking at a colleague to shake off their injury and get back on the pitch and, in one perfect vignette in extra time, pointing at his forearm to the space a watch should fill as he channelled a growling Sir Alex Ferguson.
“I knew that I couldn’t influence the game on the field, but I could play a big role,” he said. “I gave a speech at half-time and was giving all the directions and encouragement I could from the side. It taught me about the importance of being one. Football is not about 11 on the field, it is so much more than that.”
A lightbulb moment, perhaps, but Ronaldo had been suppressing his individualism for Portugal for much of the tournament. “We are a team – the national team are a unit,” he said after the Wales match. “That’s how we’ve been acting since the beginning. I’ve been trying to help by scoring, scrapping, fighting with defence; I’ve given it my all.” Tales from his team-mates about stirring speeches were given even more credence when video emerged of one he made in the aftermath of victory at the Stade de France.
“Every year since I started to play football has been amazing, but this year was special,” Ronaldo told World Soccer earlier this year. “I’ve won the Champions League three times but my dream was always to win something for Portugal, with the national team, and that’s what we did. We won for the first time and the feeling is completely different.”
In the context of their personal duel it matters, of course, that this summer Messi lost his second successive Copa America final and as a result remains without a trophy with Argentina. Ronaldo, meanwhile, fulfilled the criteria that some apply to true greatness – the Maradona test – by inspiring an average team to achieve something special. And in doing so he discovered something new about himself, something beyond the two-dimensional image he often projects.
It may not prove durable. After all, Ronaldo is a man very much of our time, a man of selfies, social media and self-absorption. To wander through his Instagram feed is to experience the modern aesthetic: the fitness freak, the fashionista and the fawning self-regard. It can make him hard to warm to. Why should it be easy to identify with the man Forbes named as the richest athlete in sport this year? Especially when he stands accused of having employed creative ways to reduce his tax liabilities, which Ronaldo strongly denies, in a potential case which could yet make 2017 considerably more testing than the past 12 months.
“I actually need my haters,” he said this year. “They have helped me achieve all I have achieved.” But in The Year of Ronaldo, he eventually rose above all this – the ego, the image, the criticism-as-fuel – to find something else and embrace a bigger truth: he was the best footballer on the planet again.