“This season has been the best of my career, I have won two major titles with my club and country so it was something unique… Individual awards are always won without expectations, they’re not everything. I’m not obsessed about winning the Ballon d’Or.”
These were Cristiano Ronaldo’s words in the summer, shortly after Portugal had won their first major international tournament at Euro 2016. It is easy to believe that a man who has a self-funded museum in his honour in his home town of Funchal was merely providing the PR-friendly soundbite required of the modern footballer, but it is a refrain that runs as a common thread through the fabric of Ronaldo’s career. When the Museu CR7 opened in 2013, he used the exact same words, while highlighting the collective influence of his teammates on his personal success.
Following Monday’s announcement that he has again won the Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo now has four awards to adorn his museum. He won his first in 2008 when at Manchester United and picked up the prize again in 2013 and 2014.
Ronaldo does not deal in false modesty. He is supremely confident in his abilities and has made little attempt to draw a demure veil over his desire to be remembered as one of the best, if not the best, player of all time.
But such a pedestal is completely subjective; football evolves, as do training methods, equipment and fitness levels. Stanley Matthews was 41 when he won the inaugural Ballon d’Or in 1956, playing on ploughed pitches with a medicine ball that would shatter the ankle of a modern player like sugar glass.
Was Matthews “better” than Ronaldo? Anybody from the post-war generation would say yes, absolutely. But was he better even than his counterpart Alfredo di Stefano, runner-up in 1956 and winner in 1957 and 1959, to whom Ronaldo is the anointed heir?
Similarly, anyone who was lucky enough to witness George Best at the peak of his powers would scoff at the notion that Ronaldo or Lionel Messi are fit to lace the mercurial Belfast boy’s boots. The same applies to players of the stature of Pele and Diego Maradona (who were never eligible for what was until 1995 a solely European award), as well as Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco van Basten.
But 50 years from now, Ronaldo and Messi will be remembered in the same breath as those players. In the meantime, the two are very much vying for the title of best of their generation. The Portugal and Argentina captains have shared the Ballon d’Or and the runners-up position between them for the past eight years, Messi winning five and Ronaldo three. The least the Portuguese will settle for in his career is bettering Messi’s mark.
Now the deficit on the Barcelona forward is one, and in the meantime Ronaldo has added one more Ballon d’Or to his collection than Platini, Cruyff and Van Basten achieved.
Had Ronaldo and Messi not coincided, a standard argument goes, they would have won several more Ballons d’Or. But the opposite is probably true. Only two players, the Brazilian Ronaldo and Van Basten, won more than once in the 20 years before 2008.
What Ronaldo and Messi have done is set the bar for future generations of players, and it is one that will quite possibly never be cleared. For that, the two should be celebrated and, deservedly, honoured in turn.
Ronaldo’s latest personal accolade is confirmation of his status among the game’s greats, but he would be unlikely to swap the European Championship for the Ballon d’Or, wherever the public’s perception of his priorities lies.
Speaking a year ago, just before Messi lifted the 2015 Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo was typically forthright about his place in the contemporary picture.
“In my mind, I’m always the best. I don’t care what people think, what they say. In my mind, not just this year but always, I’m always the best… It’s opinions, I respect the opinions. Maybe in your opinion Messi is better than me, but in my mind I am better than him. So it’s simple. I don’t need to say ‘I’m in the history of football, I’m a legend.’ The numbers say everything.”
Now, the numbers say that Ronaldo is one Ballon d’Or away from Messi’s total. With Real on track in La Liga and at short odds to become the first side since Milan to retain the European Cup/Champions League, he could be 12 months away from parity.
And that will only spur the Portuguese on more, at the individual and collective level.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.