There are some who would label, right now and without hesitation, Cristiano Ronaldo as the greatest Real Madrid player of all time. Others would go further, calling them the greatest player ever, anywhere.
What's for sure is that, whatever his standing in the eyes of the average fan, everyone will agree and acknowledge that he's one of the players who have changed the landscape of the game forever: what is success, what is a great goalscoring career, what is attainable by force of will and determination to reach the peak possible level with one's athletic career.
The Portuguese forward remains a pivotal part of the side at the Santiago Bernabeu, but at age 32 he's inevitably drawing closer to the point where he'll no longer be involved, one way or another.
So a question emerges: As one of the club's most recognisable and important players, greats, legends, should his No. 7 shirt be put aside once and for all when he departs the scene?
There's an important point to consider perhaps before anything else: In La Liga, it's not officially allowed to retire a jersey and replace it with another number, so giving up the No. 7 would be tantamount to saying Ronaldo's importance is more than having the full allocation of players in the squad going forward.
Spanish clubs have a primary list of 25 first-team players, shirt numbers accordingly No. 1 to 25, and those who have higher numbers are from the youth sides—Moha Ramos, for example, has been the sub keeper this term bearing No. 35, while Alvaro Tejero's sole appearance this term came in the No. 27 shirt.
Real cannot ditch the No. 7 and incorporate 26: it's all the numbers, or fewer players. It's not just about legislation though, of course.
Real Madrid are one of the world's biggest clubs, and naturally, they have had an entire army of phenomenally gifted players down the years. Though not all have played in the era of the squad number, many have had numbers with which they are most famously associated. After the introduction of names along with numbers on club kits, the likes of Raul (No. 7) and Fernando Hierro (No. 4) spring to mind as greats who are heavily associated with a particular shirt.
None have had a number retired in their honour.
The case of Raul, in particular, is perhaps worth looking at.
A true legend of the team and of Spanish football, the forward came through the youth ranks at Real Madrid and spent 16 seasons in the first team, winning 16 trophies along the way, before departing as the greatest-ever goalscorer in club history.
Raul's shirt was not retired; it was, in fact, passed directly to Ronaldo, who previously bore the No. 9.
A great player lends weight to a great number, and in this instance, Real Madrid dictated that the number should only be kept in the line of world-class possession rather than ended entirely. All things considered, it has worked rather well as a strategy—Ronaldo is now the club's greatest-ever goalscorer, demoting his predecessor of the shirt and that particular title down to second place.
But to continue that tradition would be difficult indeed.
It had been hoped, and still is by some fans, that Gareth Bale would be the natural successor in role and responsibility to Cristiano, but injuries and inconsistency in availability have hampered that approach. How to pick a third player who could define a generation at Real Madrid? How to ensure the 7 shirt stays in the hands of a player who can transcend club and international on-pitch greatness and be an iconic face of the club itself?
It is often suggested, not just at Madrid but as a footballing staple, that no player is bigger than the club.
There are plenty of fans who might balk at the idea of no player ever again being able to wear such a famous jersey. Yes, Ronaldo is a phenomenal player and one of the greatest of the current age, but before him did come Raul, did come Juanito.
Each have graced the shirt and formed part of club history in their own way, rather than being a sole figurehead for the club's memories. Perhaps that's key: incoming stars know they are joining and adding to an already established legion of greatness, rather than being an individual standout, no matter what their level of ability.
La Liga journalist Alexandra Jonson gives another point of view about why retiring shirts should be held rather more sacred.
"I'm against it, especially retiring shirts between one and 11; if we started to retire football shirts we'd end up with only high numbers for the players left to play with.
"On the other hand, there are circumstances where I would be for retiring a shirt: for example when Sevilla wanted to retire the No. 16 shirt for Antonio Puerta after his death, that was a very beautiful gesture in my eyes, and in cases like that I'm all for it.
"Sadly the Spanish football federation was not and did not allow it. The same was the case with Dani Jarque and the 21 shirt at Espanyol, that's also a case where I'd see it fit and be very special for the club to retire the shirt. What Espanyol did instead was to let only homegrown players (like Jarque also was) to wear the shirt.
"Both Espanyol and Sevilla have also made these two numbers very symbolic at their clubs."
Players already have to be of a special level to play for Real Madrid, but perhaps the numbers can have more meaning than pure ability, too.
Take Cristiano's charitable efforts, for instance; perhaps that's an angle for the club to look at in conjunction with on-pitch efforts, or other wider-impact characteristics that the club feel align with their social values.
It doesn't have to be as straightforward as retiring, or not retiring, a shirt number.
Then again, are there other accolades within a glittering career which can give the depth and breadth of recognition which such a gesture would?
Award ceremonies? Cristiano Ronaldo dominates them. Press conferences? A week-long injury absence of his is worth at least two. Statues? Pretty sure that's covered already, too, along with a museum and an airport in his name.
Around the world, there are generational talents who have had numbers retired for them, and those who meant so much to the club that it's a mark of respect of their endeavours rather than ability.
Cristiano arguably fits both criteria at Real Madrid.
Roberto Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, Bobby Moore, Ferenc Puskas, Javier Zanetti, Franco Baresi. Ronaldo's name would fit right in among those, and above most or all.
Spanish football analyst Carlo Valladares thinks Ronaldo has the goals and the credentials to stack up against the pitfalls of retiring the number.
"Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s all-time top goalscorer, so he certainly has the numbers to justify such an honour.
"And although many Madrid fans of older generations may put him beneath Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano, I think Ronaldo is Madrid’s best player ever in an era where tactical structure and organisation is on another level compared to times past.
"Sure, refereeing is more strict, but it’s harder to find space in today’s game and Ronaldo has averaged almost a goal a game during his time in Spain’s capital. He’s the best ever along with Lionel Messi."
And perhaps that's worthy of note: if Madrid—fans, board, club in general alike—all believe that Ronaldo has reached peak performance level, peak best ever and set new parameters for future generations to be judged against...is it not exactly what would be required to acknowledge such a feat?
That his shirt number was retired, even when it hasn't been before for other players and would deny the team a 25th name on the senior squad in future campaigns?
A bastion of greatness
There's little doubt that one way or another, Real Madrid will honour the legacy which Cristiano leaves behind.
They were roundly criticised as a club with the way Iker Casillas, another legend, departed the Bernabeu—particularly in comparison to Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona—and aside from anything else, the media-savvy side of Cristiano or his management wouldn't allow that opportunity for recognition to be passed up.
But Real Madrid need to think beyond the short term here.
They are an elite club, not just in terms of a football side but as an organisation represented by many nationalities, watched weekly by millions of those who don't even support the club, and as such their actions must be appropriately judged.
Can they afford to essentially say, "never again will we see a player of Cristiano's level of talent?" That they'll never produce, scout, sign or develop a player who will be designated the world's best four or five times over in his career?
Not if they still want to attract the world's best in future summers and promise them that they can reach the stars with Los Blancos. Not if they want to find the next Raul within their academy and have someone be the face of the club for a decade or more and be seen on equal standing with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Real Madrid fan and social account @UltraSuristic_ acknowledges the poignancy of the potential tribute but also sees more merit in the idea that the club must stay regarded above all else.
"This idea of retiring shirt numbers for legends has been floated before and I'm fond of this tribute. I was fortunate enough to have seen careers of Raul and Hierro from start to finish, and it didn't happen with them either.
"So no, I think this question will never apply to club like Real Madrid. Cristiano is arguably the best to have ever played for Madrid. But the continuing legend of this club will always surpass any legendary player. They are galaxies in its universe.
"No player will ever be greater than the club itself."
The way the game is nowadays, the way the media is, an exceptional 27-year-old who hits 50 goals in a single season at the Bernabeu is obviously and pointlessly going to be compared to Cristiano, and the manager or president will be asked—yes, even half a dozen or more years before any impending retirement—if he could have his shirt number retired, too.
It's a pointless future distraction when there are other ways of heralding Ronaldo's greatness.
A temporary absence of a No. 7 would fit the bill.
Whenever it is that Madrid wave adios—or adeus—to their Portuguese forward, they can feasibly declare that the number will be withheld until a player with the qualities demanded of the historic number shows themselves.
It need only be a season with one fewer name in the ranks, and it's not as though all 25 spots are filled by first-teamers anyway. This season, Madrid have no No. 16 or 25, though admittedly they could do with an extra forward in 2017/18.
Ronaldo's position at the club would be made clear: a giant, a legend, an irreplaceable commodity...but the next challenge is always ahead and the club is always ongoing, after every iconic player or manager. Sooner or later, a new record signing or a new leader in the team will show their face, and No. 7 is widely represented positionally: central midfielders, wingers, attacking midfielders, strikers.
They'll have their choice, they always do.
Ronaldo is their greatest, and he deserves to be recognised as such. But in his time, so too did Di Stefano. So too did Raul. There's no need for a complete retiring of the number based on Cristiano's abilities and contribution to Real Madrid's success.
They have paid an awful lot for his talents, including a world-record transfer and astronomical wages. They've also been repaid many times over, in goals, titles and merchandise.
The number on the back and the badge on the front go together: Real Madrid, No. 7.
Only the elite, the bannermen, the unquestionably best, get to wear it.
But the club will remain after every name departs, and that will also be the case with Cristiano Ronaldo. Honour him enormously, in unforgettable and unsurpassed style, for he has earned it richly. Just don't retire his number.
Quotes obtained firsthand