The date was 13rd January 2014.
That was the night when for the first time in 4 years, Cristiano Ronaldo managed to snatch the golden trophy from the loving arm of Lionel Messi.
But Ronaldo would be the first to tell you that it was anything but easy. You can even tell from the looks of his eyes. Teary and weary. It was an emotional night for the Portuguese given the background of losing on the football’s Oscar 4 years in a row.
He cried because he was the only person who knew exactly what he had to go through to be in that position.
Many would be content with being regarded as the undisputed second best player on the planet. This is because the best at this era is NOT just any great player, but also the one often touted as the greatest this game have ever witnessed.
4 ballon d’Or at 24 years old. 91 goals in one calendar year. Was in the GOAT conversation when he was 23. Nobody has ever played the game as good as Lionel Messi. The little Argentine has earned himself the right to be feared by the opponent before they step on the court. Many great players would feel honored if they were even being mentioned in the same breath as ‘La Pulga’.
Not for Cristiano Ronaldo.
This is a man who completely rejects an elite status of being the second best player on the planet, and probably of all time, as if it was a sign of mediocrity. If you ask 10,000 objective football fans who is the best player on the planet, you would be surprised if the ratio was any less than 80:20.
Ask Ronaldo, though? You will see from his accentuated body language that he feels superior in every way compared to the little Mozart and rightfully so. If you have a chiseled abs, earth-shattering quads, and a seductive figure at 6’1″, you’d be fooled not to think that way.
Yeah, I get it. You might think that Ronaldo is a selfish, arrogant, and narcissistic footballer who spends 14 of 15 minutes halftimes rest looking at the mirror. In a way I agree for the fact that it is very easy to despise him as a footballer (save the charity work for another debate please), more so when he’s not at your side of the pitch. There are better role models for kids out there than the 33-year-old Portuguese.
But nobody comes close to have his persistence, self-confidence, and mental toughness.
From the go, Lionel Messi was a football prodigy and the GOAT status (Greatest of All Time) was a title that was reserved as if it was his birth right. Meanwhile, Ronaldo was ‘only’ a good young player that seemed like his ceiling was Ryan Giggs (don’t get me wrong, ‘Giggsy’ was a wonderful player).
I first sensed Ronaldo’s potential greatness in 2006 World Cup when was 21. He was a flashy dribbler but at times, the majority of his step-overs confused him more than it did defenders. Nonetheless, he was already a big deal even then.
One of the biggest criticism the public had on Ronaldo at the time was that “he was really often fell into his own self-indulgent show that caused him oblivious to his environment.” Not only that, the criticism also started to get personal to an extent where it was hardly relevant to his playing style. People called him a pretty boy, arrogant, selfish, and a child who acted like a spoilt kid whenever he threw a tantrum after being fouled. As harsh as that sounded, they were all true 12 years ago.
People knew. He knew.
The world expected Ronaldo to crumble under that kind of criticism and were ready to add him into the long-list of players that “could’ve been”. Given the immense pressure and scrutiny being put at such a young player, that prediction would’ve been well justified if it was any other player.
Ronaldo was not just any other player, however.
Shortly after scoring 23 goals in 2006-07, Ronaldo spent the summer of 2007 with Rene Meulensteen, United’s assistant coach, to improve himself. “I want to be the best player in the world”, said the Portuguese to Rene. But Rene had a simple reply to him: “The problem is your attitude”.
Rene believed that “it was not the young man’s work rate, which was exemplary, or his skills, which were amazing, that were holding him back. It was his desire to be noticed as a star performer.”
Ronaldo realized where he lacked and committed to work on it, brutally. He trained differently and worked on his efficiency as well as his awareness of the pitch, especially in the final third. Consequently, Ronaldo was seen less and less dribbling the ball or showing fancy tricks and instead focusing on what actually mattered.
Putting the ball into the back of the net.
At one point in that same season, Ronaldo had amassed 27 goals which had already surpassed the previous season’s tally. Not satisfied, the 22-year-old and Rene were ready to move to the next level, and the new focus was body language and mental focus.
He ended that season with 42 goals.
In his United days, while his team-mates went for showers, Ronaldo went out to the back of the training camp, where it borders on a patch of woodland so that he could practice his ball control in difficult conditions. In the woodland undergrowth, the terrain was very uneven, full of exposed tree roots, and he would kick the ball hard into that area and chase after it, trying to bring the unpredictable bounces under control.
Once again, this is where many people are wrong about Ronaldo.
He is an all-time great and is talented, that’s for sure, but Ronaldo has never been the most talented of the bunch. Who else remember when people said Rooney and Quaresma were more talented than him?
The truth is that when he played his first professional game, Ronaldo never had any business to be mentioned in the pantheon of the greats despite boasting a decent talent. It is his work ethic that has always been unparalleled even among professionals, thus setting him apart from everyone else (except this one guy).
Ronaldo’s greatness are not built on his footballing skills and highlight reels, as good as they were. It is the Portuguese Adonis’ will to improve every single day even after he was in a position where people would have assumed that he was too spoilt and selfish to try. It is his mental strength that earned him the right to be feared and respected by millions.
That’s exactly the kind of legacy that Ronaldo builds. The relentlessness and persistence. The desire and determination. The hunger and self-belief.
Likewise with his will to improve, he also possesses a self-confidence that is a borderline bullet proof. If he misses four consecutive goalscoring chances – which is extremely rare – he will put everything he has on the pitch to create the fifth.
It doesn’t matter if you put him against a backline four of Cafu-Maldini-Beckenbauer-Moore with Lev Yashin at the goal, it will be like watching Lion chasing a Gazelle and he is not the Gazelle.
Ronaldo loves spotlight. He loves being at the center of the attention. Some people call him narcissistic, but it is actually a glimpse of the incredible sheer focus that he had during the game.
It doesn’t matter if you put him in a stadia with the capacity of 1 million people specially tasked to boo, mock, and berate every cell of his being. Ronaldo is impossible to intimidate and penetrate.
He will keep coming back at you. Again. And again. And again. And again. Until there is no pulse left in your vein.
Atletico Madrid boasted arguably the toughest, meanest, and dirtiest defense in world football since Diego Simeone took charge – and yet it didn’t make Ronaldo flinch even a bit as illustrated so eloquently when he scored a hat-trick against them in 2017 UCL knock-out like there was nobody guarding the goal.
The whole city of Paris were united to take down the King of Europe earlier this year when the Real Madrid visited Parc des Princes for the second leg of UCL 16-round stage. The air inside the stadia was still filled with a thick smoke from the pre-match pyrotechnics while the PSG ultras were in fine stereo throughout the game. They tried to create a hostile environment with the expectation to intimidate Ronaldo.
Too bad they messed with the wrong guy. Casemiro crossed the ball into the penalty box with Ronaldo looming in the shadow to storm the ball 8 feet up in the air. We don’t need to watch the game to know how that usually turns out.
He will not hide and will not shy away from his responsibilities that he’s only too glad to shoulder. He doesn’t fear ridicule. Hell, he got booed in Santiago Bernabeu. His own house. Do you really think a mere 70,000 people who he was never familiar with will tickle him?
Be Like Cristiano Ronaldo, not Lionel Messi
All these reasons above are exactly why if I ever have children, I will tell them to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo, not Lionel Messi. Before you say anything, I just want you to know that it has nothing to do with who’s the better footballer.
Let me make myself clear here. Messi is the greatest footballer I’ve ever witnessed. There is no fact, number, and highlights that will ever sway me from this opinion. However, I just feel like Ronaldo’s path to success warrants more success than Messi’s if followed correctly.
I’m not saying Messi doesn’t train hard. It doesn’t matter how much talent you possess, you don’t get to that level without rigorous training. Obviously, Messi had his own adversity to deal with too, but what are the chance that you are trained by one of the world’s best football academies since you are 14 after hitting the ultimate jackpot for talent lottery in the world’s most famous sport?
Slim. None, even.
I know that Ronaldo was also talented, but not Messi-talented. If he was born 10 years late, I highly doubt that he would be seen as a better prospect than Romelu Lukaku. Ronaldo had his own share of luck too, but it’s clear as day how hard he trained to get to where he is today.
Not only about his skill, his self-belief is something that I will always admire about the man. Just imagine that you train as hard as you could only to finish second for four years in a row in an award that you crave the most. Add to the facts that pundits all over the world constantly hauled your nemesis as the GOAT over you.
If you have average mentality or low self-confidence, you would just succumb to those opinions and slowly but surely, you will also start to believe what people say about you too (that you’re not the best). But Ronaldo refused to believe any of that and instead trained as hard as he could to prove them wrong. There was not a second in his life during those 4 years where he thought he was not the best player on the planet.
I’m not an expert. But I know that you will achieve success if you apply this mentality towards everything in life.
Other than that, I also want my children to emulate his mental toughness. Again, I’m not saying Messi had it easy. He is an excellent footballer who’s also mentally tough and it’s not rare to see someone trying to get into Messi’s head.
But it’s not a stretch to say Ronaldo has always received hate at illogical level unlike any other player I’ve ever seen. His first test to criticism came when he did that wink against England in 2006 World Cup. The backlash weren’t only from England’s public in general, many United fans also showed displeasure with his gesture, thus making him the public enemy for a while.
During his early stint in Madrid, he was always seen as the bad guy as opposed to Messi’s good boy persona, even among ‘Madridista’. Messi was winning awards left right and the pressure to deliver La Decima was too big to ignore. When he finally delivered the 10th and also his second Ballon d’Or, he never looked back again.
From the beginning of his career until now, Messi never had to cope with the level of pressure that was even remotely close with what Ronaldo had to face. He was never seen as the ‘bad guy’ or made as the scapegoat whenever his magic took a day off.
The only time he has his back against the wall is when he puts on La Albiceleste jersey. That’s the only time he ever faces the “win or get blamed” situation, and that’s why he looked burdened against Croatia several days ago. I don’t blame him for being in that situation because those reactions are the accumulation of the environment he grew up in as well as his personality.
But that’s also exactly what forged Cristiano Ronaldo into the man that he was in the recent years (and still is). 4 Ballon d’Or in the last 5 years. He might not be the best player in the game, but you can count him to deliver in big games when all odds seem to favor the other side of the pitch. He’s not afraid of the moment not only because he has been there many times.
But also because he has faced worse.
The tense and hostile atmosphere of a big game is nothing compared to the pressure of being the public enemy of a whole nation. The pressure to deliver in an UCL knockout away games are a piece of cake compared with getting booed by your own fanbase.
There are players who perform their best when they receive full support at home. Then, there are players who swig the ear-deafening jeers from ultras with relish. Pressure will evoke the most passionate performance of their life and allow them to thrive. This stratosphere is inhabited by the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and Franz Beckenbauer.
Then, there is Cristiano Ronaldo.
UCL’s all time top scorer. 6 times UCL golden boot winner. Real Madrid’s all time top scorer. Most goals in UCL knockout stages. Most hat-tricks ever in UCL. Most goals in UCL Final, Semi Final, Quarter Final, and 16 round. Euro’s all time top scorer.
The best big game player the game has ever seen.
Yes, Messi is the better player and more complete in every other facet of the game. Not only is he more skilled, he is also a team player whose playing style benefits those around him. Watching Messi is a like listening to a poet – you never really understand what they’re doing or how they do it, you just know that it’s beautiful.
But if I have to choose someone to play a football game with the life of the entire human race at stake, I know who I’m calling first.