By Carlo Garganese
Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Alfredo Di Stefano, Franz Beckenbauer, Kevin Keegan, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – these luminaries all share one thing in common: they collected the Ballon d'Or on more than one occasion.
Following Cristiano Ronaldo's crowning as the 2013 Ballon d'Or winner in Zurich on Monday, the Real Madrid lynchpin has now joined this special club and in the process earned himself a reputation as a legend of the sport. The attacker probably recognised this himself as he broke down in tears upon collecting the prize.
To win the Ballon d'Or once – as 33 individuals have done, starting with Stanley Matthews in the inaugural edition in 1956 right up until Kaka in 2007 - is certainly a magnificent achievement but it does not necessarily catapult a footballer to all-time greatness. After all, neither 1986 victor Igor Belanov – a flash in the pan with Dynamo Kiev and the Soviet Union – nor England's 2001 champion, Michael Owen, can be considered among the best that the game has had to offer.
Ronaldo's best numbers
|400||Total career goal tally from 655 apps|
|1.03||Goals-per-game ratio at Madrid|
|69||Goals in 2013 from just 59 games|
|10||Number of major club trophies|
|2||Number of European Golden Shoes|
|2||Number of Ballon d'Or victories|
To claim the Ballon d'Or twice or more is to maintain frequent levels of brilliance at the very highest level, however, something that Ronaldo achieved not only in 2013 but consistently over a number of seasons.
Until a few years ago, Ronaldo was a player who split opinion. In some quarters, he was considered a flat-track bully; a forward who would crush lesser opponents but would often come up short on the biggest stage and against the best opponents. Until 2011, this was a view even held by this writer.
Ronaldo had under-performed in the key matches at successive World Cups and at Euro 2008 and his knockout record in the Champions League – barring a final goal against Chelsea that was followed by a near-fatal penalty miss – was not good enough.
Now, one month short of his 29th birthday, there can be no doubts about Ronaldo's pedigree. When it comes to the big occasion, there is no one who you would rather have in your team than the Portuguese. In 2013, the forward scored in every Champions League knockout round in which he played – including decisive strikes home and away in the last-16 victory over former club Manchester United. He outshone his great rival Messi in the Clasico marathon, memorably hitting a double in a 3-1 Copa del Rey semi-final triumph at Camp Nou and bagging six in as many of their meetings over the course of the season.
And, with Portugal's World Cup qualification on the line in a November play-off against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden, Ronaldo struck four times over two legs to single-handedly take his nation to Brazil. To stand the test of time, you have to deliver when it really matters and Ronaldo has now proven himself in this regard - certainly on the club scene.
His goalscoring statistics since his ultimate breakthrough season with United in 2006-07 are truly astonishing; 321 club goals in 378 appearances at a rate of more than one a game after joining Real Madrid four-and-a-half years ago. In 2013, Ronaldo scored 69 goals in 59 games in all competitions for club and country.
It is true that the Ballon d'Or may have lost a degree of credibility since Fifa's takeover. Wesley Sneijder's omission in 2010, Jose Mourinho's rigging claims, the extension of this edition's voting deadline and the very public spat between Sepp Blatter and Ronaldo have been harmful. It must also be recognised that we are living in an era where, due to changes in the game and a paucity of top-class defenders and defences, it is easier for attackers like Ronaldo to break record after record. But none of this changes the fact that the forward will go down in history as a footballing legend.
What is even more impressive is that, just like his former manager, Mourinho, Ronaldo has confirmed his brilliance in more than one environment – having starred in two major European leagues. He has demonstrated his ability to change his skin and adapt to different styles, systems, coaches, competitions and cultures.
"He is the best. The best in the world. Probably the best ever," Mourinho said of his countryman ahead of the Champions League return at Old Trafford last March.
'The Special One' was likely exaggerating as he attempted to win the battle of the mind games with Sir Alex Ferguson. Ronaldo is not at the level of a Diego Maradona or Pele, a Zinedine Zidane or Platini, a Cruyff or Beckenbauer - players who took their club heroics to major international tournaments. But Ronaldo still has a chance to close the gap in Brazil this summer.
After claiming the Ballon d'Or for a second time, all that Ronaldo is missing to complete his career jigsaw is to be the star of a World Cup.