Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo won Europe’s Golden Shoe yesterday, which recognizes the top scorer across the continent’s top leagues. It’s the fourth time he’s won the award, and it comes after last season, when he scored 48 goals in 35 La Liga games. No one else in the history of the award has won it four times. Ronaldo said he wants to win it twice more. The Portuguese forward is 30, coming off his best domestic campaign ever, and is seemingly indestructible, and so there’s really no reason why he won’t.
There are a lot of athletes in the world out there doing hilarious, seemingly unachievable things that would be literally unbelievable if there weren’t things like cameras and satellites and optical fiber and the like, with which to beam photographic evidence to televisions and laptops and cell phones and so on. Ronaldo is one of the two most famous athletes in the world along with his rival, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. Millions and millions and millions of people watch him every week. Still, Ronaldo does literally unbelievable things.
The benchmark for a great striker relative to their competition is about a goal every other game; if they can grab one from two, they’re considered more or less unstoppable. Ronaldo’s league output last year almost tripled that. Last month, he broke the all-time Real Madrid scoring record. Since moving to Spain from Manchester United, he’s averaged over a goal a game, scoring 323 goals in just 309 appearances. He’s won virtually everything worth winning but a World Cup.
Because of the soccer’s developmental stagnation relative to other sports, and because there are so many different positions, and so many roles within those positions, it’s hard to have a worthwhile conversation about who the best players of all time are. But the main objective is to score, and so the best scorers of all time—guys like Pelé, Maradona, Romário, van Basten, and Ronaldo, Henry, Suárez, and Ibrahimović more recently—are always bunched near the top of any list about the sport’s best players. Still, Ronaldo’s job is chiefly to score goals, and over his career, he’s done so at a higher clip than almost any other forward to ever live. He’s scored 446 goals in 632 career games for his clubs. (Pelé, however, scored a preposterous 643 goals in 656 games at Santos.)
Ronaldo can score from open play or dead balls, with his feet or with his head. His combination of size, strength, pace, and agility is unrivaled, and because of his intelligence, he’s as liable to tap a ball in at the back post as he is to knife through his opponents on his way to goal. Last season yet, scored 61 goals across all club competitions. He is the most physically overqualified soccer player of all time, and is better at his job than virtually any other soccer player has ever been at theirs. If he played in any other time, he would in all likelihood be seen, rightly, as the best player of that time.
But Ronaldo doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and in the negative space of every mention of him lurks Lionel Messi. The Argentine broke into Barcelona’s first team in 2004, two years after Ronaldo debuted for Sporting CP in Portugal. The two became inextricably linked a few years after Messi’s debut when it became clear that the two would rule the sport, whereupon Ronaldo admitted that Messi drives him to be the best the sport has ever seen.
Ronaldo and Messi are two very different soccer players; they play two very different styles in two very different roles for two different clubs. The only thing that really connects the two is the ocean of ability that separates them from the rest of the players in the world. And yet Ronaldo, through no fault of his own, is quite a bit closer to land than his rival.
Ronaldo’s existence is a bit of a tragic one then, because his career best serves as context for his closest rival’s. With 418 goals in just 493 appearances, Messi is a more effective and possibly more complete scorer. He’s also the better playmaker who’s assisted more than Ronaldo at every stage of his career, and has always been asked to do much more for his team than Ronaldo has.
If Ronaldo does the unbelievable, then what Messi does is unexplainable; he shouldn’t exist in any context, for any reason, and yet he does. So perhaps Ronaldo’s most impressive feat isn’t that he’s in the same conversation as the greatest player of all time, but that every now and then he can nick an award for himself. That’s insane, and really, that’s good enough.
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