On Monday night, Cristiano Ronaldo will almost certainly take the stage in Zurich to collect the Ballon d’Or and be officially anointed as the world’s best player.
It seems incredible this will only be the second time he has won the award. He first collected it in 2008.
In the intervening four years, he has lost his private battle with Lionel Messi for the award, as the Argentinian has won it in each of these years.
Ronaldo has had to settle for runner-up in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and was pushed out of the top three in 2010 by Andres Iniesta and Xavi after Spain had won that year’s World Cup.
During these barren years, Ronaldo’s frustration at not winning the award has visibly grown, for he could not have done much more to deserve it. However, Messi’s own genius at the heart of a universally popular Barcelona side always garnered him more votes.
While Ronaldo has again won nothing this year and been forced to watch Messi and his Barcelona teammates lift yet another La Liga title, he has played with such overwhelming and sustained brilliance that he deserves to finally end Messi’s four-year winning streak.
In the calendar year of 2013, Ronaldo scored 69 goals in 60 appearances for club and country.
We have become almost blasé about these statistics when talking about Ronaldo, but consider them for just a moment: He scored at an average of more than a goal a game.
By way of comparison, Messi’s statistics for the calendar year of 2013 seem almost human: 45 goals in 46 appearances.
The case for Ronaldo to win this Ballon d’Or became irresistible after he almost single-handedly dragged Portugal to this year’s World Cup finals by scoring all four of their goals in a 4-2 aggregate play-off victory over Sweden.
So, how has Ronaldo evolved between his first Ballon d’Or in 2008 and what is bound to be his second in 2013?
In 2008, Ronaldo was still at Manchester United, where he had developed from a classic winger stationed on the flanks to a freer and more fluid role up front.
After moving to Madrid in the summer of 2009, Ronaldo has continued in this role—a mix between a winger and a forward.
At the Bernabeu, he has perfected this role, using his pace and skill on the flanks, but also maintaining a presence in the forward line.
We try to find a position that is most comfortable for Cristiano, and there is always the debate. Is he a forward? I do not think that he is. I think he is one-on-one against a rival.
Is he a winger? No, because he is also a goal scorer and when you are a winger, how many goals do you score in a season, half a dozen? I think that he is the mixture of two things.
This role helped Ronaldo evolve into an increasingly effective player, with the obvious result being the amount of goals he scored.
He has now scored a barely believable 230 goals in 221 appearances for Real Madrid.
He has become the fastest player to 50,100, 150 and 200 goals at Real Madrid and is now fifth among the club’s all-time goalscorers.
But for all these goals, Ronaldo’s haul of trophies has not evolved as well. Rather, it has become stagnant.
It is a great shame that Ronaldo actually has very little to show for his immense talent and this personal avalanche of goals. In his fifth season at Real Madrid, he has only won one La Liga title and one Copa del Rey.
So far, he has not featured in a Champions League Final for Real Madrid either.
At Manchester United, however, Ronaldo didn’t score nearly as many goals, but was rewarded with a lot more trophies: three Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, one FIFA Club World Cup and two trips to the Champions League Final, winning the first one against Chelsea in Moscow in 2008.
While he has certainly evolved into a better player at Real Madrid, it is worth considering at what cost?
Would he have been better off staying at Old Trafford, where age and experience would have seen him develop into the same player. While he would probably have scored fewer goals, would he have won more medals and Ballon d’Ors?
Even without Ronaldo, Manchester United have since won more than Real Madrid with him in the last four years, including two Premier League titles and a League Cup. They also appeared in the 2011 Champions League Final.
Imagine how much more both Ronaldo and United would have won if he had remained at Old Trafford.
It is too early to judge, for Ronaldo is still only 28 years old, but he may well have wasted his best years at Real Madrid.
Messi has won more Ballon d’Ors simply because his goals have actually meant something and contributed to his team’s success over the last four years, which has included two Champions League titles, four La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys and two FIFA Club World Cups.
These last five years have seen Ronaldo evolve and improve at an incredible rate as a player, but as he collects the Ballon d’Or for 2013, he could be forgiven for thinking his rare talent should have so far brought him a lot more trophies.