Still unstoppable at 34 – Ronaldo is the greatest athlete in football history
If Cristiano Ronaldo were like other Ballon d’Or winners, he would have hung up his boots by now, like Marco van Basten, Michael Owen or Zinedine Zidane, perhaps after a spell in MLS, like Kaka.
But Cristiano Ronaldo is not like other Ballon d’Or winners.
Eleven years on from first being crowned the best player in the world, the Portugal international, who turned 34 on Tuesday, is showing no signs of slowing down.
At the end of 2019, he will once again be among the front-runners for football’s most celebrated individual prize, so impressive has his start been to life at Juventus, where record after record continues to tumble on his path towards immortality.
And while the debate over who is better – he or Lionel Messi – will go on forever, no one can question that Ronaldo is the most incredible athlete ever to grace the sport.
“The Portuguese star has the physical capacity of a 20-year-old player,” AS claimed after his move to Juve from Real Madrid, citing his seven per cent body fat and muscle mass of 50%, with both figures significantly superior to those of the average footballer.
The stats ran nicely alongside quotes from his unveiling in Turin, where he said: “I’m here because it’s a very big challenge in my career. At my age, players usually go to China. I’m different from everyone else, from all the players who are 32, 33 or 34 years old.”
Ronaldo set about separating himself from his peers very early in his career. His dedication to being in peak, physical condition is by no means a reaction to him reaching – what most footballers would call – the latter years of his career. He has long been obsessed with his fitness.
“He was the first person I saw employing a nutritionist, a doctor, a personal physio, a chef,” Rio Ferdinand, his former Manchester United team-mate, told ITV . “He invested in himself to become the best in the world.”
The advice from physical fitness experts complements Ronaldo’s unrivalled motivation, something which Carlos Queiroz, Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant, colourfully illustrated.
“I was once in my office at Carrington and saw something moving in the trees far away,” he told the National . “Maybe it was a spy. I called security and asked him. He came back to me and said: ‘It’s Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s training alone’. He was unique.
“It was very rare to see in a young player so much talent and such a strong personality, purpose and commitment. I read about Arnold Schwarzenegger learning to dance the tango. He was obsessed to be a perfectionist. Cristiano is the same.”
It’s one thing to be a talented footballer, but it’s another thing to fulfil, and even exceed, your potential.
For Ronaldo, his mental attributes arguably exceed his technical attributes, allowing him to keep up with Messi, a player certainly more naturally talented than the Portuguese.
But as he has said before, the Juventus star is not concerned with how the Argentine gets on.
“I don’t compete against Messi. I compete against myself,” he told Men’s Health . “I like to focus on myself. I am more concerned with my own game than I am on rivals.”
That concern takes him to great lengths.
“We would sometimes return from a European game, it could be three in the morning, but Ronaldo would be the player who did not go straight home,” former Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti told the Daily Mirror .
“Instead, he would go to the training ground for the ice bath, to help with his recovery from the game.”
“Another time,” Ancelotti’s assistant, Paul Clement, told the Guardian , “we got back from Istanbul at 6am and the physio’s giving him a rub down.”
It’s dedication at its most extreme, but it allows Ronaldo to avoid injuries and, in turn, continue to perform at the highest level.
It’s prompted Giorgio Chiellini to suggest his team-mate could play until he’s 40 and explains why Ronaldo is now considering doing so.
“When I renewed my [Real Madrid] contract I said I’d still be playing when I’m 41 – it was meant half jokingly and half seriously,” he told Sky Sports . “If I feel good, without any injuries and I am still motivated, I’ll play until I’m 35, 41 or 45. I don’t know.”
Where he will be several years down the line is impossible to predict, but he remains at the level he has been for well over a decade – among the world’s best.
With 17 goals in 22 Serie A games, his form at Juventus has been astounding . Add the Champions League in there, the competition he is known for dominating, and the chances of him breaking Ferenc Hirzer’s 93-year-old club record of 35 goals scored in a singular season for the Old Lady are very high.
“Ronaldo has become a truly seasoned athlete,” said Antonio Gaspar , Ronaldo’s physiotherapist. “I’ve enjoyed watching how he’s evolved.
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“He’s still strong and fast and quick, he still has the technical ability to dazzle, but he plays smarter and has the experience and maturity to take better advantage of his assets.”
There will always be people who believe Messi is better than Ronaldo. There will also always be people who believe he is trumped by greats from the past – such as Pele or Diego Maradona.
But like tennis has Roger Federer, football has Cristiano Ronaldo; an evergreen specimen who ages like a fine wine.