People have been truffling about for a through-line in Saturday’s Champions League final and having some trouble doing so.
Real Madrid is a demonstrably great team. Liverpool is a good one. Real wins this thing on the regular. During Liverpool’s last period of sustained dominance, the Bay City Rollers were a big deal.
Unable to find a good wedge in that way, they drilled deeper. Maybe the individual competitors had some star-crossed quality, something that bound them as rivals.
They settled on Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo versus this year’s emergent global star, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
Then an interviewer made the mistake of putting that comparison to Ronaldo.
He was kind enough not to sneer, though you know he wanted to. A decade ago, he might’ve have torn off his mic and stormed out. But Ronaldo’s porcelain ego has hardened in recent years. He lets others do (most of) his bragging for him.
The pompous edge is still there, more amusing than irritating now. Sounding a little like Dr. Seuss doing amateur-player development, Ronaldo listed all the ways in which he and Salah were most definitely not alike.
“He plays with the left. I play with the right. I’m tall, he’s a little bit shorter [this part with helpful hand gestures to indicate that, he, Ronaldo, is a giant, while Salah is a waist-high Lilliputian]. I play with the head …”
Okay, okay, we get it.
“I am different than everyone,” Ronaldo said.
It’s more than that. Salah’s been great for one season. Fifteen years into his career, you are finally coming around to the idea that Ronaldo may be as good as it gets. After winning his fifth Ballon D’Or as the game’s top player in December, Ronaldo appointed himself the capo del tutti capi.
“There’s no more complete player than me,” he said. “I’m the best player in history.”
Not so long ago, people would have yelled back “Messi” or “Pele” or “Maradona” and mocked Ronaldo for his presumption. But this time, few did.
He has scored and won more than the 30-year-old Lionel Messi, on a much larger professional stage than Pele and is still doing it at an age when Diego Maradona had entered the prosthetic-penis stage of his career (to dupe doping testers).
The key to this isn’t skill, as such. All great players are monstrously skilled. One of my favourite moments covering soccer was watching Ronaldo warm up ahead of a Portugal-Iran match at the 2006 World Cup.
He was alone, lazily dribbling up and down a sideline. He began cycling the ball through his feet, popping it over the back of his shoulder, allowing it to arc up over his head and land on his toe, then starting over. He didn’t stop running and the ball never touched the ground.
I watched him do it and I could not tell you how it was done. So, skill he’s got, but it’s impossible to say who has the historical edge in that regard.
It’s also pointless to compare eras.
If you time-warped Pele into the modern day, would he dominate the way he did in the 1960s? Of course not. The game’s sped up, the ball is lighter, the men are bigger, tactics have improved. Everything’s changed.
But if you moved Pele’s birth date up 40 years? He’d develop differently and probably be even greater.
What separates Ronaldo from his peers both in the past and present on a like-for-like basis is sustained brilliance. Now 33, Ronaldo has become a high-profile science experiment in delaying the effects of aging.
Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney came into the game at roughly the same time. For a short moment there, you would have said the Englishman was the better of the two. A very short one.
Though a year younger than the Portuguese, Rooney, a boozy secret-smoker with a body you just know wants to run to fat, is done as a top-level player. He’s in the midst of closing a deal to move to DC United in Major League Soccer, where his career can die in anonymous peace.
If other players treat their bodies as temples, Ronaldo’s is the Taj Mahal. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t eat sugar or processed food. Most of his meals consist of fresh fish. He’s got a cryotherapy chamber in his house.
(Another English comparison – that country’s star striker, Jamie Vardy, saying a couple of years ago that the team’s medical staff told him “there’s nothing wrong” with chewing tobacco during games.)
It had become legend that Ronaldo did 3,000 sit-ups a day until he debunked that one. He only does two or three hundred at a time. Like all normal people.
Whatever he’s doing, it works. He was photographed last week on a beach vacation with his family. His body now seems comprised entirely of right angles. The only round part of him is his head.
An elite forward declines in direct relation to his foot speed. Once you lose that first step, you’re finished. Ronaldo has a personal trainer who works on this one specific aspect of his game.
He remains one of the fastest players in the world. Last year, an international sports-analytics company tracked him at a top speed of 33.6 kilometres an hour. (Usain Bolt averages around 38 km/h over the entirety of a 100-metre sprint).
This is especially impressive because of his size. At 6-foot-2, Ronaldo is far taller than the average player and, at 185 pounds, bulkier as well. He can still run by most competitors. If the way is blocked, he can also go through them.
This is why Ronaldo so often seems to be coming down the wing in a wide-open space. Defenders are afraid to get near him and so be humiliated when he runs them over.
His stamina in this regard is Herculean. By contrast, Messi tends to remain stock still when the run of play does not directly involve him. I once watched a frustrated opponent run around him in small, slow circles while the Argentine stood there with his hands on his hips, watching the game go on further up the field.
Ronaldo is constantly moving off the ball. He tracks back. He defends more now than he did in his early 20s. Over all, Ronaldo puts in nearly two kilometres more a game than his Barcelona counterpart.
Nonetheless, each season the question of how long Ronaldo can keep this up is raised. He’s got a very specific idea on that score – eight years.
“I can keep playing until I’m 41,” he said this week. Presumably, he is targeting the 2026 World Cup as his final trick.
Given advances in training, remaining a top athlete into your forties no longer seems ridiculous.
But we’re talking about goalkeepers, or knuckleballers, or quarterbacks. People who don’t have to move around all that much.
An outfield soccer player still starting for a top club at that age is nearly unheard of. A few bold-face names have done it – Ryan Giggs, Paolo Maldini, Javier Zanetti, et al.
By the end, all of them functioned more as team mascots than central figures. They could be played sparingly and hidden in the middle of the pitch when they did. It’s been done, and never quite worked.
But a true striker holding his own at 40? It doesn’t happen. Not unless you drop down to the sorts of leagues filled up with plumbers and part-timers.
If Ronaldo does it, he’ll be the first. But would you doubt him?
His personal “greatest of all time” CV is filling out nicely. He already ranks near the top in the main metrics – goals scored and games played. He’s won every available trophy but the World Cup.
In Saturday’s game, he has several opportunities to pump his own rather overinflated tires – first player with a goal in four finals, first to win five titles, already certain to lead the tournament in scoring for the sixth consecutive year.
In relative terms, none of that means very much. No one has ever become iconic strictly by having the longest appendix entry in the record book.
To go that one step further, Ronaldo has to do something more than win. He has to win when it doesn’t seem possible. And he has to do it by himself.
He’s got that second part sorted. No one believes Portugal can win this summer in Russia. The bookies have it at 11 to 1 to make the final (Germany and Brazil are up top at 2 to 1).
A World Cup would help his cause immeasurably, so long as Messi’s Argentina never gets there.
But mostly what he must do is what he’s doing right now – keep going.
If in five years we are still talking about Cristiano Ronaldo the way we are now, what is already likely true will then be undeniable.
There have been more charismatic players in history, better liked ones, and most certainly better teammates. But better, full-stop, for so long? Ronaldo is already different than everyone in that regard.