By Mark Doyle
While infamously declaring his preference for Lionel Messi over Cristiano Ronaldo last year, Sepp Blatter displayed a surprising level of insight when he mused that the Barcelona No.10 is “a good boy ... and that's what makes him so popular.”
The Fifa president unwittingly underlined that while the Portuguese may be an advertisers' dream, he has long since lost the Public Relations battle in the war for the title of the greatest player of the 21st century. In the eyes of his critics, Ronaldo's greatest crime appears to be that he is not Lionel Messi.
Even when it comes to comparing their respective capabilities on the field, it is often claimed that the Argentine has the edge because of a mysterious ‘X factor’. Diego Maradona even wrote last month that "Cristiano can do what Lionel Messi does ... well, almost” - without offering any clarification as to what exactly it was that Ronaldo is incapable of doing.
The suggestion that the Madeira native is lacking something seems particularly ludicrous after a season in which he scored 51 goals, 11 of which came either via his head or his ‘weaker’ left foot, and ended with him placing a Champions League winners’ medal in his trophy cabinet alongside the Ballon d’Or for 2013.
We are talking about a serial winner who also happens to be the perfect footballing specimen; an ideal blend of physique and technique; a player of both style and substance. As Michael Owen says, Ronaldo has it all.
"As a complete player, I will say he is probably the best ever,” the former England international told Goal.
“He is fast, scores goals, he is both footed, he has skills and can score with his head. He is also strong and plays every game, so he is durable.
“There isn’t anything he can't do."
Of course, being complete does not necessarily equate to being the greatest of all time. George Best once claimed: “I’m better than Pele. I can kick with both feet.” But, while there are some who would argue that the enigmatic Manchester United winger was more naturally gifted than the Brazil legend, nobody would claim that Best deserves to rank alongside a player who proved himself as strong mentally as he was physically during a far longer and far more illustrious playing career.
Ability is not the only factor when it comes to determining true greatness. Physicality, versatility, mentality and footballing intelligence must also be considered. However, Ronaldo undeniably ticks many of the boxes.
Physically, he is almost beyond compare. At 1.85 centimetres tall and weighing 80 kilograms, he boasts the optimum fusion of power and speed that comes with the frame of super-middleweight boxer. His upper-body strength is such that he only ever goes down of his own accord, while his sprinter-like thighs not only generate sufficient force to strike the ball just as explosively with either foot, but also provide the springboard for leaps of astounding height and sustained hang time. That he is also one of the most accomplished headers of a ball in world football is testament to another attribute, and this time of the mental variety: his dedication to his profession.
Ronaldo was unquestionably blessed with talent, however, he has harnessed his ability to the absolute maximum degree. Thierry Henry once admitted that while he feels that “Lionel Messi is the best player in the world, I respect the amount of work Cristiano has put into the game”.
Ronaldo has certainly come a long way since he first made a name for himself with Sporting 11 years ago. He is no longer the skinny kid with the endless repertoire of flicks and tricks that terrorised Manchester United during a friendly in Lisbon during the summer of 2003. At 29, he is now a true athlete. The evidence of the hard work to which Henry referred is there for all to see.
As Ronaldo underlined by taking off his shirt to celebrate a largely inconsequential penalty in the final seconds of Real Madrid’s 4-1 win over Atletico in the final of the Champions League, he is incredibly proud of a physique that has even drawn praise from Arnold Schwarzenegger. "He's in amazing shape," the former Mr. Universe once stated. "That's why he's such a great footballer."
Ronaldo's topless celebrations are, of course, viewed as vanity; shameless displays of Ronaldo’s perceived arrogance. But one could argue his impressive physical condition is a source of mental strength as much as it as a source of physical strength. As Stanley Matthews, 'The Wizard of Dribble', once declared: “Fitness is confidence.” The better Ronaldo looks, the better he feels and the better he plays. And there is no denying that he has consistently delivered in the biggest games over the past six or seven years. Pressure has never been an issue for him. Not since he first came under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
"After I joined, the manager asked me what number I'd like," Ronaldo once explained. "I said '28'. But Ferguson said, 'No, you're going to have No. 7' - and the famous shirt was an extra source of motivation. I was forced to live up to such an honour."
However, while he subsequently decided innumerable games at the highest level in the favour of United, Real Madrid and Portugal, he has never proven himself capable of running one - and this is perhaps why he falls just short of being the most complete player in history.
Johan Cruyff, for example, was Total Football’s Total Footballer. Like Ronaldo, Cruyff was a winger by trade. But he was so much more than that. He wasn’t just a key player on the game’s grandest stages, he was a director. So deep was his understanding of time, space and movement that in the book 'Brilliant Orange' he is said to have been akin to a "chess master playing 20 different games simultaneously".
Cruyff was a product of a revolutionary footballing philosophy based on the principle that every player could play in every position. Yet Alfredo Di Stefano had been doing that almost 20 years beforehand. "He was, simultaneously, the anchor in defence, the playmaker in midfield, and the most dangerous attacker up front,” legendary coach Helenio Herrera once said of the ‘Blonde Arrow’.
It is difficult to see Ronaldo ever being capable of such tactical discipline and positional versatility. However, the Portuguese’s insatiable desire for self-improvement continues to drive him forward and only last week he expressed his desire to play on until 2021.
Will that be sufficient time to prove himself the most complete player of all time? Who knows. But one thing is for sure: it won’t be for the lack of trying.
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