Cristiano Ronaldo: what next?
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...
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.
“LIFE ISN’T ON LY ABOUT FOOTBALL. AFTER PLAYING I’D LIKE TO GO I N TO THE MOVIES”
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 Fourfourtwo. “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 goes unnoticed, 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 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 WIN An INTERNATIONAL TROPHY WOULD TAINT MESSI BUT RONALDO HAS TICKED THAT BOX
Above The phenomenon that is Cristiano Ronaldo – and he’s less selfish than you might think