Ballon d’Or win is a good time to rethink the Cristiano Ronaldo narrative, writes Adam Bate...
There were no tears this time, just pride and satisfaction. After another extraordinary year, Cristiano Ronaldo has won his third Ballon d’Or and it’s high time for a reassessment of not just where he ranks among the greats, but how the Portuguese forward’s legacy is defined.
It became clear long ago that answering that question necessitates the words Lionel and Messi featuring prominently. Keeping them out of the first paragraph can be a challenge for writers. But that familiar narrative – highlighting those tired old contrasts – must now be challenged.
Imagine if it was Ronaldo. That’s been the recurring thought through much of 2014 and, judging by that purple suit Messi was wearing on Monday night in Zurich, it's set to continue in 2015. The little genius from Barcelona has survived a tax investigation without so much as a blemish on his reputation and now finds himself at odds with his coach Luis Enrique.
After being omitted from the team to face Real Sociedad, there came a missed training session through gastroenteritis that Revista’s Graham Hunter called “really handy”, adding, “Messi is in the middle of a power-play”. Now Luis Enrique is faced with the chop. Imagine if it was Ronaldo.
It’s blurred the lines marked out many years ago. The story of the humble one-club man and the poseur from Portugal was irresistible. It was also our crude caricature not theirs. Logic always dictated that the reality was more nuanced, as Spanish football writer Sid Lowe told Sky Sports in an interview discussing his book Fear and Loathing in La Liga.
“Messi and Ronaldo have really helped to make the narrative that surrounds it crystal clear,” said Lowe. “From a Barcelona point of view, they will then tell you to look at the guy from Real Madrid – they had to spend millions on him and he's arrogant, he's all about himself and he's still not winning everything.
“The Madrid perspective will say that, yes, they do represent the rivalry because, as usual, the Madrid guy will be presented as the arrogant one. He's the victim of a media that wants to see things in terms of good and bad when it's never that simple.”
The last 12 months have complicated things on the field as well as off it. Having had to deal with those chants of “not the real Ronaldo” through the early years of his career, the constant jibes of “Messi, Messi, Messi” have taken on a more hollow ring of late. Ronaldo has reversed the trend.
After four years of Messi being the Champions League top scorer and four years of watching the Argentine lift the Ballon d’Or trophy, it’s Ronaldo’s time. Having topped the Champions League scoring charts for a second successive season, he is the champion of Europe now.
Messi remains brilliant, of course, with 16 goals in 18 La Liga games so far this season. But Ronaldo has a ludicrous 26 in 16. Despite being two years older, Ronaldo is defying the accepted wisdom that suggested he would be the one left unappreciated as the perennial No 2.
It’s been a triumph of hard work for the player who has battled the odds to turn himself into the world’s best. Growing up in poverty in Madeira, the fourth child of a cook and a gardener, Ronaldo played with a ball made from rags from morning until night.
If the overt arrogance is a defensive mechanism, it ought to be forgiven. He was the outsider striving for acceptance, bullied by others in the Sporting youth team who had identified a difference – his broad Madeiran accent. That island now has a statue in his honour and he is a hero throughout the mainland.
Perhaps that explains why the personal accolades mean so much. It’s been a continual fight for acceptance and praise. One that having Messi as a contemporary has extended longer than should ever have been necessary. It’s also pushed him on to greater success than even his biggest admirers might have imagined.
None of which is likely to stop those boos at the away grounds, the unfavourable comparisons or his own histrionics. But what it should do is guarantee that Cristiano Ronaldo is allowed to enjoy his moment. He’s earned it. And he deserves it.