FFT100 2018: No.2, Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
If Ronaldo invites you to his place for dinner, say no. The advice comes from Patrice Evra, who once visited him after training when the two were playing for Manchester United. Evra expected a feast, but to his horror, the only food Ronaldo had on offer was salad and plain chicken. “And water, not any juice,” Evra recalled this year.
“We started eating,” Evra continued, “and I was thinking some big meat would be coming after that. But there was nothing. He had just finished and he stood up, then started playing with a ball, doing some skills.
“He said: ‘Let’s do some two touch.’ I was like: ‘Can I just finish eating?’ ‘No, no, let’s play two touch.’ We start playing two touch. After that he said: ‘Let’s go to the pool to swim.’ I was like: ‘OK, after going in the Jacuzzi, the sauna, I’m done.’”
This was between 2006 and 2009, a time when Ronaldo spent every hour of the day trying to become the best player in the world. He hired a private chef, spent mornings in the gym and had a pool built at home to speed up muscle recovery. Five Ballon d’Ors later, the 33-year-old has two goals: to win a sixth and thus outdo Lionel Messi, and to fend off father time.
The latter target should be impossible for any man, but then again so should the former. By all accounts Ronaldo is still living the ascetic lifestyle that has taken him so far. Many compare him to Rafael Nadal for his herculean physique and snarling determination to outfight a more innately talented rival. But like Roger Federer, Ronaldo has also made adjustments to his game to prolong his stay at the top.
One of them is his role as a pure centre-forward. Just as Federer skips the clay season, Ronaldo sits out games to stay fresh for the big clashes; in neither of his last two seasons at Real Madrid did he play more than 30 league matches.
When he struck an incredible hat-trick against Spain at the World Cup, you wondered whether he’d be there in Qatar in 2022, at 37, belting in free-kicks, sprinting down the wing and out-jumping defenders who are two decades younger.
If anyone can pull that off it’s Ronaldo, who only last year proved the doubters wrong. When this list was being compiled in late 2017, he had scored two league goals all season. His conversion rate in La Liga was 2.9%. Then in mid-January, it was almost as if the smell of a sixth Ballon d’Or put him back on track. In his next 20 games for club and country, Ronaldo scored 30 goals.
Some of them helped Madrid on their annual march to the Champions League title, including goals in both legs of the last 16 (vs PSG) and quarter-finals (vs Juventus). One of those was that stunning overhead kick against his future club which was somehow trumped by his own team-mate, Gareth Bale, in the final against Liverpool.
Yet Madrid had barely popped the champagne when Ronaldo told reporters that it had been fun to play for the club. He had issued similar threats to leave in the past, usually to get a pay rise, but this time he wasn’t bluffing. He soon joined Juve for £100m.
Once more the debate flared up about how long Ronaldo could keep scoring a goal per game. The sale of any other player at his age – and at that price – would have felt like a no-brainer, and Madrid president Florentino Perez might well have thought he was selling Juve the equivalent of a shiny Ferrari that would break down soon. A few believed Juve didn’t care anyway; that they wanted Ronaldo for marketing purposes. The Ronaldo effect has certainly taken hold: Juve sold half a million shirts within a day, and by mid-September shares in their club had doubled in value.
But if the Ferrari is still shining, its engine is running smoothly as well. Ronaldo has already hit double figures in the league – one of those bringing up his 400th within Europe's top five leagues, another record – and looks a strong bet for the Serie A top scorer title. Over in Spain, Madrid endured a goalscoring drought of 481 minutes, the longest in their history. When they sacked Julen Lopetegui in late October, the Madrid-based sports daily Diario AS asked its readers who had the blame for the poor results: 86% voted Perez.
By some measures, Ronaldo has become even more dangerous than in his final years at Madrid. Analysts tend to judge a striker on the number of shots he fires off per game, a hallmark of great goalscorers. Ronaldo is trying his luck more often than at any point since 2015/16. He shoots about seven times per league game, two more than any other player in the top five European leagues.
Six weeks away from his 34th birthday, you could say that Ronaldo is showing signs of actually getting better.
As another year beckons, Ronaldo and Juve share the same ambition: to win the Champions League. It makes sense for the Old Lady, who have lost the final twice in four years – following defeats in 2003, 1998 and 1997 since their last triumph in 1996. The prospect of winning it also seems to bring out the best in Ronaldo, who kept hammering home goals in the tournament even during his drought in La Liga late last year (indeed, in 2017 he set a new record for scoring in every group game).
Yet for Ronaldo, the Champions League might above all be seen as the safest route to the Ballon d’Or. The last five editions of the award have been handed to players who have won the tournament that same year. Messi too seems desperate to win it, aware that Ronaldo might surpass him. For his part Ronaldo will surely believe that he’d already be in the lead, had Luka Modric not taken Croatia to the World Cup final.
This year, however, there will be no World Cups or Euros to eclipse whatever Ronaldo might achieve with Juve. You suspect that will be all the motivation he needs to give father time yet another beating.