Confessions on the Cristiano Ronaldo conundrum from a Real Madrid fan

We asked Real Madrid blogger Madridista Mac to write a piece on Cristiano Ronaldo after stories came from Spain that Los Blancos would propose a swap deal to United involving the Portuguese attacker and David de Gea. You can follow him on Twitter to keep up with his brilliant work.

As a Real Madrid fan living in Singapore, surrounded by Premier League supporters, many of whom are Manchester United fans, I have experienced the full range of reactions to the discovery of other people that I am a Madridista. From contempt and condescendence “You play in a 2-horse league!”, to kinship “your club is like ours, the biggest in the world.” Yet regardless of their reaction, the Manchester United fans I meet (and have lengthy discussions about football with) have also shown one common reaction to finding out that I am a Real Madrid supporter: envy. And there are two simple words to explain this – Cristiano Ronaldo.

The University of Alex Ferguson

No self-respecting Manchester United fan can deny that the years Cristiano spent wearing Manchester United red were amongst the most electrifying in their football-watching lives. Having joined from Sporting Lisbon, United fans saw with their own eyes what happens to a scrawny show pony with an unquenchable thirst to be the best when he attends the Football University of Alex Ferguson. Under the tutelage of the greatest football manager of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo developed from a skilled showboat, into one of the most devastating footballers ever seen. After scoring 42 goals in the 2007-2008 season, there was a sense that ‘he had done all he could’ at Manchester United – having won every trophy, collective and individual, as a Red. His then-world-record 80m GBP transfer fee also helped cushion the blow of his departure. Both Manchester United fans AND Real Madrid fans however had no idea what he would turn into.

From World Superstar to All-time Great

Despite being the ‘league of the stars’, La Liga hadn’t seen anyone like Cristiano Ronaldo: the latin flair for dribbling, the relish to beat his man, combined with a raw physical power honed from years in the Premier League… he was a footballing superhero never seen before. Shunning the lifestyle that doomed the careers of many galacticos before him, Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Alex Ferguson Education’ shone through, with an unseen level of professionalism on and off the pitch that defined the club culture in Florentino Perez’s reboot of the galactico program. Ronaldo had a ‘good’ first season, having scored 33 goals in season where Real Madrid finished 2nd in La Liga despite tallying a record haul of points in a league campaign. It was during his second season however, with the arrival of his compatriot, Jose Mourinho when Ronaldo reached a level that was just… to put it simply, nuts.

With his explosive pace and dribbling wizardry, Cristiano Ronaldo had the ability to beat multiple markers, while sprinting at Usain Bolt-esque pace across ¾ of the pitch. And if his physical power had already been a force in the Premier League, his off-the-pitch obsession made him even more powerful… turning him into the world’s most physically superior footballer. Under Mourinho, the team was ‘pre-programmed’ to launch outlet balls (usually via Xabi Alonso) to a streaking Ronaldo (or Ozil who threaded passes for the Portuguese to gorge on) whilst supported by his favorite running mates: Marcelo and Benzema. Apart from his pace, power and dribbling wizardry, Ronaldo’s pathological obsession to improve all facets of his game has also turned him into the greatest goalscorer of all time: capable of finishing with equal power and accuracy on both feet, and a leaping + timing ability that also made him the biggest aerial goal-scoring threat in the world. If Manchester United fans thought he had ‘done it all’ during that 42 goal season, they were wrong. In 3 years in Mourinho’s Madrid, Ronaldo would score 53, 60 and 55 goals – winning both domestic competitions in the process.

The BBC and La Decima

Post-Mourinho under Carlo Ancelotti, the team was reworked from Mourinho’s favored 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, which featured an attacking ‘trident’ that would be known as the BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano). Ronaldo would become the spearhead of the most frightening thing in modern football: the Real Madrid counterattack. Contrary to popular belief however, the Madrid counter attack was not a ‘trident’, it was a stampede. In Ancelotti’s La Decima-winning team: Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, (the BBC ‘trident’) would be further accompanied by Marcelo (from the left), Dani Carvajal (from the right) and Angel Di Maria (through the middle) sprinting at full speed. Pep Guardiola, then-coach of an equally terrifying and all-conquering Bayern Munich side, warned of Madrid’s ‘athletes’ prior to facing them in the Champions League semi-finals. Pep’s side would go on to be annihilated 5-0 on aggregate as Cristiano Ronaldo rounded out his trophy grand slam with his second Champions League medal (his first for Madrid)…  and for Real Madrid to win it’s elusive 10th European Cup. 80m GBP for a player with such accomplishments had proven not just to be ‘worth it’ for Real Madrid – it had become a steal.

International and Club Success on the Wrong Side of 30

2016 would become an epic year for Cristiano Ronaldo as he won his second Champions League for Real Madrid and captained Portugal to win his first ever major trophy for his country. It was not lost on everyone though that despite the incredible achievements, Ronaldo had been running on fumes as he crawled through the final of the Champions League (won on penalties) and had to limp off the Euro 2016 final. Fate had it however, that we would be coached by Zinedine Zidane, one of the few men whose stature in the game matched his… and a superstar player who understood fully what happens once father time begins taking its toll on an athlete’s body.

Understanding this as he hit his 30s, Ronaldo would opt for a more streamlined physique, shedding unnecessary muscle mass. He would also grudgingly agree to less playing time: getting subbed off games with comfortable winning margins, sitting out dead rubbers, even certain games prior to critical Champions League matches. Tactically, Ronaldo also changed his game. The days of Cristiano Ronaldo dribbling ¾ of the pitch whilst beating 3-4 men were over. Instead, he played off the shoulder of the last defender, still capable of a 5-meter burst of pace into the box with his ability as a finisher never having left him, while remaining the game’s most dominant aerial scorer. In his first two years under Zidane’s tutelage, he won a La Liga and two Champions League trophies – scoring 51 and 42 goals respectively, the latter being the same total he amassed in his most successful season at Manchester United.

Father Time is Undefeated

This season however, has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster both for Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo with father time seeming to be call even more frantically on him. Ronaldo turned 33 this week and he looks every bit his age on the pitch: having lost almost every bit of his pace and even that last bust of energy to line up his shot to beat a defender or a goalkeeper. Statistically, despite a decent tally of eight league goals, Cristiano Ronaldo owns the worst conversion rate amongst all forwards in La Liga and one of the worst in Europe. Bereft of his pace, he is now completely reliant on service from his teammates to score… and has become ‘just a goal scorer’. Real Madrid, having been overfed with silverware over the last few years is demonstrably less hungry, while Ronaldo’s BBC mates Karim Benzema struggle with his own battle with physical decline and Gareth Bale battle through his endless string of injuries and niggles.

All is also made worse as Ronaldo can only watch as Messi, two years his junior and still capable of deferring his own date with father time – carries on his own superhuman feats with Barcelona. Adding insult to injury, Messi’s former running mate Neymar, who used to be a mere undercard to the Portuguese and the Argentine’s epic battles, has now supplanted Ronaldo as the name to be placed next to his arch-nemesis’ in standing.

It is hard to stare him in the eye and admit it but we must: father time has come calling on Ronaldo. And he is undefeated. Though still with a contract that keeps him at Real Madrid till 2021, it is becoming harder and harder to imagine the current Cristiano Ronaldo the player, (not the brand, not the image of the glories of the past no matter how recent they may be) as the one still standing proudly on top of the football hill. This is the Cristiano Conundrum for Cristiano Ronaldo himself, for Real Madrid and for Portugal.

I say it with pride: Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest Real Madrid player of the modern era (Alfredo Di Stefano of the past era): Greater than Raul, greater than Casillas, greater than Zidane (regardless of how much it hurts to admit it). He is also the greatest goalscorer of all time: greater than Pele, Romario and Ronaldo Narario, greater than Gerd Muller, and yes, Barcelona fans,  greater than Messi…

But I must also now say it and confess it, with shame – not because I feel like an ungrateful brat for doing so (I do), but because it’s the truth: on this day after this 33rd birthday, Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer that player.

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