Xabi Alonso looked at the ball with intent, waited for the right moment to sway it, and unleashed it to his right. Sergio Ramos shrugged off his marker, and guided the ball to the far side of the post,  where an  unmarked Ronaldo  materialized to poke the ball into the back of the net. The celebrations started, but this was a special celebration. The Portuguese captain had outshone his Blaugrana counterpart, and had smashed a barrier that had remained unbroken for an unprecedented 60 years. It was only fitting that he did it in front his home fans, at the legendary Santiago Bernabeu. However, he was not yet finished; he produced another beauty, running with the ball and unleashing a powerful shot, to take his league tally to 40 goals in 38 games.

Sometimes, you wonder “What’s wrong with this guy?”. He was not supposed to score so many goals. He was primarily a winger with deadly pace and some cool step overs to enthrall circus audiences. Alex Ferguson made the then not-so-popular decision of replacing Golden Balls – the most marketable soccer star of his generation, a darling of the fans and an acknowledged super star – with a Portuguese. Why emphasize on the word Portuguese? Simply because Manchester United deemed no Portuguese player fit for their club, until they came across Cristiano Ronaldo.

In an exhibition match in 2003, Manchester United were beaten by Sporting Lisbon 3-1; the boy impressed the United players with his skills so much that they urged Ferguson to sign him. He was the first Portuguese to sign for the Red Devils. When you first saw him, he gave you the impression of being brash, obsessed with showcasing his showboating skills; fans looked on in disbelief, wondering how this kid could replace the genius of David Beckham on the right. But Alex Ferguson believed that he had a raw diamond in his ranks. He nurtured the boy carefully,  who grew up to become a star. He let go of Nistelrooy, one of the greatest strikers of this era, when he had to choose between him and Ronaldo, indicating that the success of United would be built on this special teenager. Ronaldo turned out to be just that – Special.

Ronaldo at the peak of his United career

The period of 2003-06 could be defined as the formative period of the beast sleeping inside the belly of Cristiano. In 2006-07, he decided to awaken the beast; in 2007-08 the beast was ready to be unleashed, and unleash he did. With stunning goals and a relentless pursuit for excellence, Ronaldo proved to be the catalyst in Manchester United’s success, as the Red Devils took Europe by storm. Terrorizing defenses with his pace and skills, the beast that was Ronaldo scored an unprecedented 42 goals  in a season, an astonishing figure for a winger, and guided the Old Trafford outfit to European glory. He swept every major award that year, and was judged to be the best footballer on the planet unanimously.

When Ronaldo was setting the football grounds of the world ablaze with his talent, a little Argentine was all set to challenge the might of Ronaldo. Lionel Messi dazzled the world with his skills, and squared up against Ronaldo in the Champions League final. FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi tore United to shreds and etched their names in history.

Then Real Madrid came calling. Even for a player, regarded by Johan Cruyff as the best United player ever, 80 million pounds seemed to be an insane amount. But Ronaldo was already a darling for advertisers. His shirt sales were extraordinary high, and in hindsight, Real Madrid made the perfect signing, in terms of football genius as well as the promotion of their brand on the global stage. The challenge was set for Ronaldo,  and he was out to prove himself at the greatest club in the world, in a different league.

Needless to say, the Portuguese star has delivered beyond expectations.

Ronaldo v Messi

It has become natural for Messi and Ronaldo to be compared to each other, as both of them are central to their club’s success. Messi’s fans point  to his genius and his ability to caress the ball, while Ronaldo’s fans go ga-ga over his completeness. Both of them are great in their respective spheres. Messi was taught to score goals from a very early age, and, if one dares say so, has a natural flair for football; it’s a skill that cannot be achieved by hard work.

Ronaldo and Messi – at constant war with each other

On the other hand, Ronaldo is clearly not as gifted as Messi. He is a winger who has redefined the term ‘winger’. He has worked on his physique, abstaining from things that could hurt his body and maintaining a strict fitness regimen to reach the level he is at currently. He has worked hard in training sessions, developing his free kicks and honed his finishing abilities. Frankly, Ronaldo is not the best in the world in terms of passing , and cannot deliver amazing crosses like Beckham does. But he has realized his strengths and his weaknesses and has come out on top, which is the hallmark of a great sportsman.

Epitome Of Versatility

In an era of specialists, Ronaldo is an epitome of versatility. He can score with both feet, and his headers only add to his personality; the header which won the Copa for Madrid was brutally brilliant.  He also has the uncanny ability to humiliate opponents with his impromptu genius, like the back pass against Atletico Madrid, literally. He can hold the ball to his feet for that extra second and dazzles his opposition effortlessly with his dummies. His off-the-ball movements give his team mates space to exploit, and in spite of being the most marked man in his team, he still gets into good positions and finds the net often.

His 53 goals so far are not an ordinary achievement by any strength of imagination. It’s his years of hardwork and determination that has led to this success and goals tally. He endures a lot of criticism for his selfishness, and is constantly compared to Messi in every match, which is unjustified. But Ronaldo has taken everything in his stride. He has responded with goals, pushed himself to new limits,  and developed his  all-round game, so that he can compete with the world, and more importantly himself.

Ronaldo’s obsession with goals and his selfishness sometimes can turn off fans; but when he does score goals, he does it effortlessly and with a certain swagger that Madridistas are proud to be associated with. He has scored eight braces, four hat tricks and scored four goals in a match  twice. It’s unimaginable for a winger to be associated with such stats, but he is no ordinary winger. He is a special footballer. A coach’s dream. A club’s identity. A complete footballer.

Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. He has endured enough criticism for his diving and play acting, and has toned it down considerably. His efforts on the pitch now are not only confined to the attacking third, but also in the defensive third. He is now more like a well-drilled and well-oiled machine, which knows how to operate precisely at the moment. He is being more generous to his team mates and has been acknowledging their efforts; his fifteen assists so far are a testimony to that. He is that rare breed of footballers who wants to play each and every match and score goals. The irritation is visible whenever he misses a chance to put the ball into the net.

He might not be the universally liked footballer like Ryan Giggs or Paulo Maldini, but there is a charisma and the aura around Portuguese wizard which is impossible to ignore. You have to applaud him for his determination and his desire to score goals on the pitch. It’s a desire that seems to grow every day, setting new benchmarks for himself and for his competitors. You have got to hand it to him when he manages to confound you with his achievements. This is one of those moments.