It’s fair to say that Cristiano Ronaldo has a big couple of months ahead. On Saturday, the 29-year-old will attempt to fire Real Madrid to a historic and long-sought 10th European Cup in the capital of his home country, before the pressure will be on his shoulders as Portugal’s talisman at this summer’s World Cup.
For all the plaudits he has rightly received, it has been a fairly barren time for Ronaldo in terms of trophies since leaving Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2009. At Old Trafford he won three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups, a FIFA Club World Cup and to date his only Champions League crown. On an individual level, he was also awarded the Ballon d’Or in 2008.
Since then, though, Lionel Messi and Barcelona have become his scourge. In his near five years at the club he dreamed of playing at since he was a boy, Ronaldo has been limited to just a solitary league title and two Copa del Reys. Meanwhile, Messi has been a champions of Europe on three occasions and four successive Ballon d’Ors.
The duo are undoubtedly the best two players of their generation, and, despite their protests to the contrary, there is certainly the suggestion of a keen rivalry. After Ronaldo signed a contract to make him the world’s best paid player last year, Messi’s recently announced new deal puts him on top once more. On the pitch, this season represents the first since Messi ascended to become the world’s best in which Ronaldo can eclipse him. Already with the Ballon d’Or in his possession, he now has a second European Cup in his sights, in Lisbon, and a chance to make his mark on the biggest stage of all in Brazil.
To do so, his individual brilliance will have to be melded with a strong team ethic that has not always been evident. It has been easy to cast the team-first philosophy of Barcelona and Messi against the individual ethos of Real Madrid and Ronaldo. The La Masia academy at Barcelona, which Messi came through, is based on the idea of sacrificing personal glory to play the most efficient role in the team. Meanwhile, the Galacticos era in Madrid is far from completely dead, as the record transfer of Gareth Bale shows. It is a club that welcomes and celebrates superstars.
Of course, that is also simplistic. Barcelona are far from the wholly righteous institution they attempt to proclaim. That façade has certainly come down of late, particularly with the signing of Neymar and subsequent controversy. And Messi is far from selfless. His desire to be the focal point of the Barcelona team helped precipitate Zlatan Ibrahimovic being sidelined and subsequently sold, at least according to the Swede. Messi also had a public strop with another teammate who threatened his dominance in David Villa.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, certainly became more of a team player under Jose Mourinho. Yet there is a selfishness that runs through his game that arguably exceeds the inevitable amount that comes with any star player. In each of his five seasons at Madrid, Ronaldo has averaged by far the most amount of shots per game in La Liga, on average around two per game more than Messi. In all-but his first season at Madrid, he has also averaged the most shots per game in the Champions League. He is a man who wants to be the star.
The tears he shed when being presented with the Ballon d’Or trophy earlier this year showed how much the individual honor meant to him. There’s clearly nothing wrong with that, but it is ultimately a team sport and if he can lead his two teams to glory in the next couple of months, it will go a long way to enshrining his legacy among the very best of all time.
That will be tested greatly on Saturday when Real Madrid come up against the ultimate team in Atletico Madrid. Fiercely committed to the joint cause, Diego Simeone’s side are also capable of riling their opposition. Ronaldo’s temperament will be examined sternly. Against the same opposition in last season’s Copa del Rey final, he responded to concerted tough tackling by kicking out and being summarily being dismissed. Saturday’s match in Lisbon is likely to be equally tempestuous and physical; Ronaldo must remain focused on the job at hand, especially, if things begin to go against him and his side.
With Madrid, and especially when captaining Portugal at the World Cup, Ronaldo, as both teams’ best player must be a leader rather than showing frustration with his lesser teammates. For an idea of what not to do, witness his tantrum just over a week ago when young forward Alvaro Morata failed to pass him the ball.
The best of Ronaldo has not yet been seen at a major tournament, a fact he will no doubt be desperate to correct in Brazil. In his last match at the World Cup, Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure in a defensive system in the defeat to Spain in the Round of 16. He was later criticized in Portugal for comments after the suggesting that coach Carlos Queiroz was to blame for the defeat.
Ronaldo’s task of putting his individual grievances to the side for the sake of the team may well be complicated in the coming weeks by a niggling muscle problem. After initially being named in the starting lineup for the match with Espanyol on Saturday, Ronaldo pulled out after the warm-up. Although Madrid continue to play down the issue, it certainly appears that it is a situation that will need to be managed through the summer.
After his best season yet in which he has clearly been the world’s best player, Ronaldo will have to work as hard on his demeanor as his fitness in order to give it a dream ending.