Man Of The Year The win­ner was a no-brainer for once. Cris­tiano Ron­aldo de­liv­ered.

Cham­pi­ons League and Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship medals in the bag make 2016 Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s most fruit­ful year to date. Next up, he says, is a plan to con­quer Hol­ly­wood...

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words Ben Welch

Crammed in­side an au­di­to­rium at the Por­tuguese Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion’s head­quar­ters, a throng of jour­nal­ists hold up their phones as if they’re hys­ter­i­cal teeny­bop­pers at a Justin Bieber con­cert. The lights dim and a blan­ket of si­lence en­gulfs the room. Rio Fer­di­nand and Ricardo Quaresma – two fa­mil­iar faces among the panel of lu­mi­nar­ies sit­ting up on the stage – look over their shoul­ders at a gi­ant TV screen. In­spir­ing mu­sic plays in sur­round sound as the screen flick­ers with a mon­tage of Por­tu­gal’s tal­is­man. Hav­ing left his seat for a prime view from the floor, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo is fix­ated on the mon­i­tor, eyes wide, grin­ning ear-to-ear like a child mes­merised by their favourite car­toon. The film stops, the lights come on and ap­plause rings around the room. Ron­aldo re­sumes his po­si­tion on stage next to for­mer Manch­ester United team-mate Fer­di­nand, who asks him to sum up a stel­lar 2016 at the launch of his lat­est sig­na­ture foot­ball boot. “Un­be­liev­able,” says the Por­tu­gal cap­tain, still wear­ing the same un­con­trol­lable grin. “It’s dif­fi­cult to put it all into words. It has been the most im­por­tant year of my ca­reer so far.” There’s no ar­gu­ing with that. Drag­ging his club and coun­try to glory last sea­son with match-win­ning dis­plays in the Cham­pi­ons League and Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship sur­passed all of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s pre­vi­ous tri­umphs, and there have been many.

This year’s ac­com­plish­ments weren’t all achieved with trade­mark Roy of the Rovers mo­ments. Yet, through bad per­for­mances, in­juries, tantrums, tears and rein­ven­tion as a touch­line man­ager, Ron­aldo has emerged tri­umphant, and is FFT’s Man of the Year. Like him or loathe him, the more you learn about the Por­tuguese for­ward’s re­lent­less pur­suit of per­fec­tion, the more you re­alise his un­par­al­leled suc­cess has been well and truly earned. When you tally up Ron­aldo’s achieve­ments in 2016, you could be for­given for think­ing he had it all his own way. In fact, it started with dis­ap­point­ment. His eter­nal neme­sis, Barcelona’s diminu­tive ge­nius Lionel Messi, re­claimed the Bal­lon d’Or on Jan­uary 12, 2015 to win an un­prece­dented fifth award and deny the Real Madrid su­per­star a third suc­ces­sive tro­phy. If you’ve seen Ron­aldo’s doc­u­men­tary, you’ll know this loss would have stirred the beast within him. The Bal­lon d’Or, foot­ball’s most pres­ti­gious in­di­vid­ual prize, marks the uni­ver­sal recog­ni­tion he craves to the point of ob­ses­sion. Spurred on, he plun­dered goal af­ter goal as Real Madrid tried to claw back a poor start to the La Liga sea­son un­der Rafa Ben­itez. The Span­ish man­ager lost his job at the start of Jan­uary fol­low­ing a 2-2 draw in Va­len­cia. In came Zine­dine Zi­dane, but de­spite nine wins in 12 games, they re­mained 10 points off Barça. On April 2, Ron­aldo and Messi met for a Camp Nou Cla­sico with the Cata­lans un­beaten in 39 games. The 10 men of Madrid came from be­hind to win 2-1, a first de­feat in six months for Barcelona, with Ron­aldo scor­ing the late win­ner. It was his 42nd goal of the sea­son on a night when both he and Real were far from im­pres­sive, but he still had the courage and the qual­ity to de­liver at the de­ci­sive mo­ment. This was to be­come a theme of his ca­reer-defin­ing sea­son. Real Madrid’s re­cov­ery took the La Liga ti­tle race right to the fi­nal day, but the Cham­pi­ons League still rep­re­sented their best chance of win­ning a tro­phy. Then they were left stunned by Wolfs­burg, who took con­trol of their quar­ter-fi­nal with a 2-0 win in the first leg. In a side full of su­per­stars, up stepped Ron­aldo – again. His hat-trick in the sec­ond leg sent his team into the semi-fi­nals. For Fer­di­nand, who spent six sea­sons play­ing along­side Ron­aldo at Old Traf­ford, this per­for­mance un­der­lined the dif­fer­ence be­tween CR7 and the rest. “The best play­ers don’t sit there and wait for stuff to hap­pen,” the de­fender tells Four Four-Two. “They say, ‘Give me the ball and let me pro­duce.’ Ron­aldo is a game-changer.” Gal­vanised by the vic­tory at the Camp Nou and the im­pres­sive come­back against Wolfs­burg, Real al­most chased down Barça to win an un­likely league ti­tle. In the end, a sin­gle point de­cided it. At­ten­tions switched to the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal at Mi­lan’s San Siro, against noisy neigh­bours Atletico Madrid. Af­ter 120 drain­ing min­utes, with the score locked at 1-1 and a penalty shootout loom­ing, Ron­aldo went to have a word in the man­ager’s ear. “I saw Zi­dane be­fore the penal­ties and told him, ‘Put me as the last taker be­cause I feel I am go­ing to score the win­ner,’” Ron­aldo said after­wards. “And that’s what hap­pened.” The man for the big stage de­voured the sort of pres­sure that can cause even the best of play­ers to buckle. The com­pe­ti­tion’s all-time lead­ing scorer beat Jan Oblak to win an 11th Euro­pean Cup for Real Madrid and a third win­ner’s medal for him­self. Fer­di­nand, who ges­tic­u­lated ex­cit­edly in the BT Sport stu­dio when his old team-mate scored the win­ning penalty, in­sists that the po­lar­is­ing star de­serves to bask in his mo­ments of glory, say­ing: “He wasn’t go­ing to let any­one else take that penalty – he wanted to be that guy. When you work hard, you de­serve to get re­warded, and he works harder than any­body. I’ve worked with hun­dreds of play­ers and he is the most dili­gent and pro­fes­sional of all of them. “You can’t be re­garded as one of the best to ever play a sport and not have the balls to step up in these sit­u­a­tions.” Barely a fort­night later, Ron­aldo moved on to Euro 2016 and the tri­umph that will put the ex­cla­ma­tion mark on his play­ing ca­reer. Op­er­at­ing be­low his peak pow­ers, he man­aged to lead an un­fan­cied Por­tu­gal team that came third in their group, and won only one match over 90 min­utes dur­ing the whole tour­na­ment, to an im­prob­a­ble ti­tle. Two goals and an as­sist against Hun­gary, in­clud­ing a mag­nif­i­cent back­heeled fin­ish, took Por­tu­gal into the knock­out stages. Again, it wasn’t a flaw­less per­for­mance from the Por­tu­gal skip­per; he was feel­ing the strain, and threw a strop when Hun­gary took a 3-2 lead. But he com­posed him­self and scored the equaliser, as so­cial me­dia churned out a con­veyor belt of vines pok­ing fun at his lit­tle tantrum. What jars with the rest of the world is what makes him so great: a com­pet­i­tive edge that has never di­min­ished. “Cris­tiano hated los­ing at ping-pong,” ex­plains the su­per­star’s close friend and room-mate at Sport­ing’s academy, Miguel Paixao. “When he lost, he’d usu­ally say, ‘You guys al­ways play de­fen­sively.’ And ev­ery time he lost, he would chal­lenge us to an­other game so that he could leave us on a win­ning streak.” There was no need for an out­burst in the semi-fi­nal. Ron­aldo’s goal and as­sist in a 2-0 vic­tory ruth­lessly ended Wales’ fairy­tale. The stage was there­fore set for one of the game’s all-time greats to make a grand state­ment in the Stade de France fi­nal against hosts and favourites France, but his dream was over in 25 min­utes as he went off with a knee in­jury, tears streaming down his face.

Rather than sit and sulk, Ron­aldo the man­ager stepped for­ward. With his knee strapped up, he barked in­struc­tions at his col­leagues from the touch­line, urg­ing them to go for­ward. Eder struck a win­ner dur­ing ex­tra time and Por­tu­gal were crowned cham­pi­ons with­out their leader even on the pitch. It was the dream end­ing, with the lead­ing man play­ing only a sup­port­ing role for once. But Ron­aldo didn’t care as he held the Henri De­lau­nay Tro­phy aloft. He knew that he had played his part, and more im­por­tantly, he knew that this tro­phy filled a hole that had been left gap­ing by his na­tion’s Euro 2004 Fi­nal de­feat to Greece on home soil. “You don’t know what this means for the Por­tuguese peo­ple – it’s a huge thing,” he tells FFT. “It was the best mo­ment of my ca­reer.” And in case we were in any doubt about the per­sonal mag­ni­tude of this vic­tory, Ron­aldo was quick to un­der­line its im­por­tance. “Win­ning the Cham­pi­ons League, the league, the Golden Ball, the Golden Boot is great, but when you win some­thing for your coun­try, it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” he ex­plains. “To win some­thing with Por­tu­gal isn’t the same as win­ning some­thing with Ar­gentina, Brazil or Ger­many. It’s dif­fer­ent.” Dif­fer­ent mean­ing more dif­fi­cult, more spec­tac­u­lar, more wor­thy of praise. Cast as the ul­ti­mate in­di­vid­ual, his role in this his­toric vic­tory was tes­ti­mony to his hunger for team glory – a qual­ity that goe­sun­no­ticed, says Fer­di­nand. “A self­ish in­di­vid­ual does not win,” he in­sists. “He holds the team back with neg­a­tive en­ergy. But Cris­tiano has won too many tro­phies to be a self­ish in­di­vid­ual. He is a team player.” For Quaresma, who re­placed Ron­aldo in the fi­nal, his team-mate’s will to win sets him apart. “I ad­mire his men­tal­ity: he never gives up,” says the Be­sik­tas winger. “He is never sat­is­fied with what he’s got – that makes the dif­fer­ence. He never lets the team down. He is the strong­est per­son that I know.” Ron­aldo fin­ished the sea­son with two win­ners’ medals around his neck. While he spent the sum­mer cel­e­brat­ing, Messi was threat­en­ing to retire from in­ter­na­tional foot­ball, hav­ing missed from the spot as Ar­gentina lost the Copa Amer­ica fi­nal in a shootout to Chile for the sec­ond year run­ning. It was his na­tion’s fourth ma­jor fi­nal de­feat in nine years. Messi’s great­ness should never be called into ques­tion, but his legacy will for­ever be tainted if he doesn’t lift a tro­phy with La Al­bice­leste. Ron­aldo has now ticked the in­ter­na­tional awards box. “Messi looks af­ter his body as an ath­lete should, but what Cris­tiano does is in­cred­i­ble,” said Deco, who played with both of them. “The guy isn’t well in the head – I’ve never seen any­one train like him. It isn’t easy to be like that. He goes to in­sane lengths as he wants to be the best in ev­ery way and com­petes to win ev­ery­thing.” Paixao says Ron­aldo had a vi­sion even when he was a school kid, and showed a work ethic and ma­tu­rity be­ly­ing his years. “One night, we were watch­ing Real Madrid on TV and Cris­tiano said, ‘One day I will play for Real Madrid,’” Paixao re­calls to FFT. “Dur­ing our spare time he was al­ways think­ing about how he could de­velop more as a player. In the evening he’d put weights on his an­kles and drib­ble up and down the hill of the Par­que Ed­uardo VII. He’d sneak into the gym at night, and when the coaches pun­ished him, he would take buck­ets of wa­ter into the shower and do some squats.” When Fer­nando San­tos, the cur­rent Por­tu­gal man­ager and for­mer Sport­ing coach, caught a glimpse of Ron­aldo’s in­sa­tiable thirst for self-im­prove­ment, he knew he would reach the game’s sum­mit. “To be a ge­nius, you have to join to­gether ta­lent and hard work – and Cris­tiano does that,” ex­plained the 62-year-old. “At Sport­ing I told him, ‘You’ve got a prob­lem: you jump very high but you can’t head the ball, so you need to im­prove that.’ The next morn­ing, I found Cris­tiano work­ing on his head­ing.’” This work ethic put Ron­aldo on a fast track to the first team, and he made his de­but for Sport­ing at the age of just 17. Four­teen years on, that drive has not faded. He has just signed a new five-year deal at the Bern­abeu and a life­time con­tract with Nike, worth £1.6 bil­lion. He has smashed records, won al­most ev­ery tro­phy there is to win – both in­di­vid­ual and team – and se­cured enough money to en­sure his fam­ily are fi­nan­cially se­cure for many gen­er­a­tions to come. Time to start slow­ing down, then? No chance. Sure, he’s had to adapt his game – not even Ron­aldo can defy the age­ing process – but while his jet-heeled bursts and mazy drib­bles fade into mem­ory, his goalscor­ing ex­ploits con­tinue as his preda­tory in­stincts come to the fore. Ron­aldo doesn’t just want to see out his new five-year deal – he’s got his eyes on the next one. “What I want most is to con­tinue en­joy­ing the years I have left to play,” he says. “I still have 10 years. When I say I want to play un­til I’m 41, it’s kind of a joke but se­ri­ous, too. If I feel good men­tally and phys­i­cally, I will carry on. It’s some­thing that I re­ally want.” Even­tu­ally, though, ice baths and foam rollers won’t be able to re­store Ron­aldo’s fast-twitch mus­cle fi­bres to their ex­plo­sive best, and he will have to hang up his boots. What then? Well, just like the 12-year-old Ron­aldo, the 31-year-old man has a plan. “I’m a dreamer, and my mo­ti­va­tion is to have my name at the top level al­ways,” he tells FFT. “Maybe other play­ers don’t know what to do when they fin­ish. But I know what I’m go­ing to do. “Life isn’t only about foot­ball. I’ve been think­ing about my fu­ture for the last five years to make sure I have good things when I end my ca­reer. I’d like to do dif­fer­ent things, like be­ing in a movie.” Cris­tiano Ron­aldo has con­quered foot­ball. Next stop: Hol­ly­wood.

FAIL­URE TO WI n A n I nTER­nA­TIOnAL TRO­PHY WOULD T AInT MESSI BUT ROn­ALDO HAS TICKED THAT BOX

Above The phe­nom­e­non that is Cris­tiano Ron­aldo – and he’s less self­ish than you might think

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