Illustration by Federico Manasse
Few sportsmen have been the subject of as many words or column inches as Cristiano Ronaldo, a footballer whose achievements are so vast, varied and staggering it is almost impossible to comprehend just how significant they are.
When analysing one of the greatest ever footballers not just of Portugal but of the world, few think of the son of a gardener and a cook who grew up on the impoverished island of Madeira. Fewer still consider his achievement in even making it that far, with his mum reportedly only abandoning intentions of abortion at the eleventh hour.
Ronaldo – thus named thanks to his father’s admiration of Ronald Reagan – embarked on a path to glory, but it was not always an enjoyable one. His extraordinary footballing talent was spotted at the age of 12 by Sporting Club de Portugal, allowing the Funchal native to live on his nation’s mainland for the first time.
More bumps on the road were to come. The youngster was bullied due to his Madeiran accent and perceived unprivileged background, with teachers said to have joined in children in taunting him. Cristiano was expelled from his school for retaliating to a particular insult by throwing a chair at a teacher. The following year, his fledgeling footballing career was nearly cut short by a racing heart condition which required an operation before ensuring the green light to continue in Sporting’s youth ranks.
His background of hardship and making his own way is one which endears him to many Portuguese nationals. A devout teetotal (his father died of alcoholism when Ronaldo was 20), frequently donating generously to charity and never being tattooed due to his desire to regularly give blood; this is the humble, gentler side of Ronaldo which is directly at odds with his on-pitch persona of brash confidence and self-assurance.
Few Portuguese felt they would ever have a national talent who would surpass the great Eusébio and were convinced that the ‘Golden Era’, led by Luís Figo and Rui Costa, would represent Portugal’s greatest ever chance of winning their first ever national tournament.
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When that moment finally arrived in July 2016, Ronaldo described it as the sweetest of his entire career. Quite a statement from a man who has won 21 medals at club level including five league titles in England and Spain and four Champions League crowns. Portugal means more to him than any other side due to what they represent and how the nation has shaped him.
His appearance in the European Championship final against France summed up the talents of Ronaldo that are not always the most striking but are certainly the most important: the raw emotion, hurt, anguish and ecstasy. Temporarily limping back into action whilst bandaged up after being stretchered off and orchestrating proceedings in extra time from the dugout epitomised the spirit and character which has driven Ronaldo to unparalleled greatness.
Arguably the finest Real Madrid player ever to don the famous white jersey – surpassing even the great Alfredo Di Stéfano – his achievements prior to moving to the Bernabéu with Manchester United alone could be framed among those of the best players on football’s biggest stage.
Developing from a wiry, skinny winger who arrived at Old Trafford from Sporting, he gradually adapted into an all-round forward, exploding as the world’s greatest goalscorer before his out-and-out striker role more prominently employed throughout his Madrid stint. Ronaldo goes against the trend of phenomenal attacking talents – such as his great rival Lionel Messi – dropping deeper as their careers progress; he instead has played increasingly further forward.
A deliberate training programme adapted since 2015 has seen Ronaldo drop significant muscle mass in order to become leaner, lighter and more alert inside the area, lessening the strain on his body and increasing the possibility of longevity. His movement and attentiveness inside the six-yard box is unrivalled in world football.
There are undoubtedly more chapters to come of what has been a riveting and logic-defying career, but surely few will come close to surpassing Ronaldo’s achievements and legacy within the sport