• Ballon d'Or

Ronaldo too good to be ignored

John Brewin
November 18, 2013
Portugal poised for disappointment?

"I don't understand, against Cristiano every time it's polemic," says the man himself.

April 2007: Ronaldo has won and scored a decisive but controversial penalty for Manchester United against Middlesbrough in an FA Cup quarter-final. "Maybe they hate me because I'm too good," he smirks to Sky's interviewer.

His stand-off with FIFA follows similar lines, but that hint of knowing levity is absent. Following his mockery by Sepp Blatter, and fresh outrage about FIFA's website underselling Ronaldo, Spanish reports abound of a boycott of the Ballon d'Or ceremony in January. The votes, from international coaches and captains plus a select journalist from each nation, had to be in by midnight on Friday. Ronaldo's headed winner against Sweden might have handed some voters a reminder but bookmakers make Franck Ribery odds-on favourite.

Ronaldo has few doubts in himself. He cannot countenance why he is not recognised as the best player in the world, Lionel Messi or not. Back in 2008, on the red carpet for a Ryan Giggs tribute, he was asked who the greatest player of all time might be.

"Me," came the reply. Giggling alongside him were Rio Ferdinand and Anderson, who both chose Diego Maradona. Yet there was only the barest intimation of Ronaldo joking. Never a truer word spoken in jest?

"I've never tried to hide the fact that it is my intention to become the best," he has admitted. Humility is not optioned. Self-possession is key to the quest to become the best. From the time the skinny, spaghetti-haired teenager arrived at United in the summer of 2003, he was telling teammates of his plan to be the best in the world. By the time he departed Manchester in 2009, there was much talk among Old Trafford insiders that individual honours meant as much to Ronaldo as the many trophies he had won as a United player.

This year has seen him outstrip Messi, who by the pair's extra-terrestrial standards has struggled. Injuries and a relentless schedule finally caught up with the Argentinian. And while Real Madrid have floundered, Ronaldo continues to shine.

Friday's was Ronaldo's 63rd goal of 2013 for club and country. Messi, for whom football is over until 2014 due to injury, is mothballed on 45. Not that FIFA Ballon D'Or website page would tell you that. It highlighted Ronaldo's Liga goals, less than Messi, never mentioning his Champions League haul. This season, Ronaldo has equalled Messi's all-time record for group-stage goals, and has two more matches to play. Ronaldo's 63 have come in 55 appearances, while Messi has slackened to under a goal a game with 45 in 46.

Yet this is not just about Messi. Bayern Munich are the indubitable team of 2013; Ribery is their standard bearer. A German grasp of realpolitik has campaigned solely for Ribery, rather than having his chance ruined by a split between Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Mueller, Arjen Robben or Philipp Lahm. Messi won the award in 2010 when Spain's hopes were split between Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Cristiano Ronaldo is up against Lionel Messi and Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery © PA Photos

That all brings into question the award itself. If it were a prize handed to the most talented in the world, then Messi would probably win each year until he retires. If it were to reward the player who scored the most goals then Ronaldo would win this year. If it were a reward for the leading player in the best team then Ribery might well win (Ronaldo will finish 2013 trophyless). If it were to be given to the player who scored the crucial goals in the most vital games then Diego Milito, Internazionale's match-winner in the Serie A clincher, Coppa Italia final and Champions League final would have won in 2010. The answer lies somewhere amid the objectivity of the electorate itself, and they have been known to throw up some strange selections. Last year, Algeria captain Majid Boughera voted Karim Benzema as player of the year while Iker Casillas chose Sergio Ramos as a ploy in their Real Madrid power struggle with Jose Mourinho.

Ribery has not shied from the heavyweight boxer-style ego self-strumming that such awards must now be accompanied by. "I think I deserve it," Ribery told L'Equipe last week. "Before I was a good player, now I think I'm the best."

The Frenchman is a high-grade performer but not remotely on the level of Ronaldo. Ribery belongs to the second tier of talents like Falcao, Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahomivic. Indeed, the hype enveloping Ronaldo versus Zlatan in the World Cup play-offs overshadowed that Ribery's France - suffering a 2-0 play-off deficit to Ukraine - are in grave danger of not being in Brazil next summer.

In 2008, Ronaldo, having starred in United's Champions League campaign, won both the FIFA World Player award and the old Ballon d'Or, before their 2010 merger. It was the last year in which Messi struggled with injury. The following year, the Argentinian dominated the duel, with the Champions League final in Rome providing indelible proof of primacy.

Ronaldo has scored over 200 goals for Real Madrid in the four years since. The teenage amusement arcade is now a cold-faced killer. At 28, he employs far greater economy of movement, only bothering to sprint when a goal chance is sniffed. He has become so ruthlessly efficient that it is sometimes difficult to recall him as a flair player. And the preening self-image fails to endear him to many. Blatter was being fatuously undiplomatic but clearly struck the nerve of public perception when he joked to the Oxford Union of Messi's modesty in comparison to Ronaldo's attention to his good looks.

History will judge him as one its finest, but Ronaldo does not want to wait, even if there are signs of outlasting a freshly fragile Messi. Polemics may count against him, as might the tantrums, but he deserves to win the award. They may well hate him but he is still far too good to be ignored.

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