Cristiano Ronaldo walks out under the lights of the Millennium Stadium. He stalks around the pitch with a ball at his feet. He walks and every now and again jogs before he shakes off and loosens. Then stretches alone and moves to the edge of the penalty area. He gathers several footballs and one by one he dispatches each of them past the warm up goalkeeper.
The Real Madrid team gather together in the last stages of their preparations. There is half an hour until kick off and the feeling in the air is something grand looms on the horizon. The Madrid players huddle and Ronaldo takes centre stage. His speech, although not audible to spectators, is structured to rouse self-belief in the players. To assure them, this is their time. The game is yet to start and he is not even the captain, yet Ronaldo’s influence is unwavering.
He is a phenomenon. Gifted with a natural skill for football beyond ordinary humans. But for Ronaldo, success has been a journey, not a gift.
At a young age, Ronaldo’s talent proved undisputed. A skinny boy from a small island off the Portuguese coast, raised by a mother with little or no income, and a father struggling with the demons of alcoholism. His talent for football became a route of escape. But for all his natural talent and ability – success could not be assured.
Ronaldo possesses incredible mental strength and resilience. In the arc of his career he has taken on facets of all descriptions. An exuberant, showboating winger with outrageous hair and little final product who turned to a pantomime villain for his part in Wayne Rooney’s red card in the 2006 World Cup. But we must not forget he undeniably shows a world class work ethic that elevates him beyond all other footballers of this, and any other, generation.
Ronaldo fully devotes himself to the ideal of being the greatest footballer in the world. He stays late after training to rehearse the mental and physical routines of striking free kicks. It is no accident he is so lethal in front of goal. He eats clean, abstains from alcohol, is a supreme athlete who looks as though he has been sculpted from steel by the spear of a deity, and avoids scandal at all costs. His Instagram feed is one of the world’s most popular but contains a series of stockpiled, carefully chosen selfies.
In Cardiff, he emerges from the tunnel at the back of the Real Madrid line. His eyes are clear and his mind focused. He tells the team to rise to the occasion, to be brave, and believe. The sense of occasion is his hunting ground. It is what sets him apart. He looks around the stadium, Madrid fans roaring to his left, and smells the desire amongst the Spanish contingent. He asks himself one question: “How can I do something spectacular?”
In his earlier days, Ronaldo oozed flamboyance but did not contribute. He wanted to do everything alone. Taking on too many players, shooting from too far out, and withholding a pass because he sniffed glory for himself.
In this season’s Champions League Final, his pattern of play became a microcosmic example for his entire contribution this season. He hardly moves from the centre of the field and seldom touches the ball in the opening ten minutes. He allows the team to build behind him as he tests out the nerve of the Juventus backline. Examining how they track him and where their weaknesses are. Ronaldo is a killer, an assassin, when he smells blood, he strikes.
Real Madrid are second best to Juventus in the opening passages of the match. Ronaldo picks the ball up, lays it off to his right as he so often he does, and moves. He accepts the return pass and half-sweeps, half-lashes the ball into the bottom left corner. Even against the steeliest and tightest of European defences he bends football reality to his will and lifts his teammates above their peers. Lip readers concur he celebrates by saying: “One chance – bang”.
Ronaldo is a cunning and astute beast with an unnerving ability to do very little in matches for long periods of time but still end up scoring two goals or more. Gone are the days of the 60-yard counter-attack sprints. Instead, he adopts calculated precision merged with shrewd movement. His ruthless decisiveness in major matches will forever forge the memories of those watching on.
At 2-1, Real Madrid begin to exert control. The clock reads 63 minutes and Luka Modric breaks free on the right flank. His deft cross glides towards the six-yard box where only Ronaldo is alive. His perfect timing and sly technique to clip the ball past Buffon decides the game and destination of the European Cup. It is Real’s – for the twelfth time in total – and the third time in four years.
Zinedine Zidane expertly guided Ronaldo through the past two seasons. Convincing him rest is requisite to preserve his devastating prowess. Zidane told Ronaldo, it does not matter how many goals he scores, but which goals he scores. Even with fewer appearances, his magnificent impact fails to dwindle.
Whatever you think of Ronaldo; he is a magnificent football player, remarkable goal scorer, and true professional. The 2017 Balloon D’Or is surely his. Time will prove history remembers Ronaldo as one of the all-time greats. And rightly so.