Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2010s: Goals, Trophies and Divorce from Madrid

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 31, 2019

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid with UEFA Champions League trophy, Coupe des clubs Champions Europeens during the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool on May 26, 2018 at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

If Juventus win another league title in 2020, they will have earned it. Inter Milan are going toe-to-toe with the Serie A grandmasters. In Juve's final league game before the Christmas break, the Turin giants were drawing 1-1 away against Sampdoria when Cristiano Ronaldo got on the end of a looping cross to score the game's winning goal before the break. That's what he does—he decides games.

The goal was something to behold. First, he leapt into the air like a salmon swimming upstream. Then he somehow suspended himself midair and adjusted his body position so he could strike the ball flush with his head. The execution was captivating, especially for a man who will be 35 years old in February.

"What that goal shows is obviously skill, but also his extraordinary athleticism," says Jimmy Burns, author of Cristiano and Leo: The Race to Become the Greatest Football Player of All Time. "If you rewatch the goal, it's an incredible physical feat. He's literally about five feet off the ground when he's making contact with the ball, but he's also throwing himself in an almost horizontal trajectory and ends up crashing on to the ground. It's amazing he didn't end up injuring himself.

"It's such an extraordinary leap of height and beauty in flight—not to speak of utter ruthlessness in delivery. It was a classical goal. What was missing from the last Clasico [December 18]—which was played on the same night—was evidently Cristiano Ronaldo. Not just in terms of Real Madrid, but in terms of bringing alive this legendary footballing encounter, which left most of us yawning."

TOPSHOT - Juventus' Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (C) scores a header during the Italian Serie A football match Sampdoria vs Juventus on December 18, 2019 at the Luigi-Ferraris stadium in Genoa. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP) (Photo by MARCO BER

Ronaldo's exploits over the last decade are linked inextricably with Real Madrid's glories. It was Ronaldo's relentless pursuit of goals that drove the Spanish club to four UEFA Champions League titles in five seasons. His strike rate was phenomenal: 17 goals in 11 games en route to their first tournament win in 12 years in 2014; 16 goals in the 2015-2016 campaign; 15 in 2017-2018.

In April 2017, for example, Real Madrid ran into Bayern Munich in the quarter-final. Ronaldo lashed in five goals over the two legs to separate the teams. In the semi-final against Real Madrid's city rivals, Atletico Madrid, a team built by Diego Simeone not to concede goals, Ronaldo ended the tie in the first leg with a hat-trick. In the final against Juventus, he scored twice. He's nearly unstoppable.

"Obviously [Ronaldo] has natural attributes, natural talent," says John Carlin, author and showrunner of the Amazon Prime series This is Football. "He has a gift for the game, but he's driven by probably some personal demons, which is the case with anyone who's massively successful in a field of endeavour. There's some sense of inadequacy or unhappiness at his core, which drives him to be madly competitive.  

"He's had to compensate for Leo Messi, too, who is clearly a natural-born genius, which Cristiano must recognise somewhere within his being, and the way for him to compete with Messi is to work on his fitness and an egocentric desire. There's no player I've seen who's so unashamedly irritated when another player on his own team scores a goal when he might have scored it.

"I've no doubt that Cristiano as a person is good and kind, but on the pitch, he has a personality that rubs an awful lot of people up the wrong way. If he didn't have that slightly annoying vainglory, he wouldn't have been as successful a player or as prolific a goalscorer. The two go hand in hand. If he didn't have that obnoxious personality, he wouldn't have been as successful."

The restlessness at the pit of Ronaldo's being is something that Diego Torres, a journalist with El Pais, also picks up on: "Cristiano has a desperate need to be loved, to be adored by the public, his family, his friends.

"What occurs to him happens to a lot of other sports stars, like the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps; greats who don't compete for pleasure but out of necessity—out of desperation to be recognised, for status. Cristiano doesn't compete for titles or goals or records, although it explains his effectiveness as a goalscorer. He competes to feed his soul."

The goals that Ronaldo has racked up—including 450 during a nine-year spell with Real Madrid and 99 with Portugal's national team—owe much to his innate intelligence in the box.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal kisses the trophy following the UEFA Euro 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

"He has the conditions vital to score goals," says Torres. "He's fast. He's very powerful. He can unsettle defences. He moves smartly. He never stays in the same spot—this permanent movement he shares with other great goalscorers: Jamie Vardy, David Villa, Iago Aspas. When he arrives in the box, it's like he's walking barefoot on hot coals. There's a current of electricity running through him." 

By some measurements, Ronaldo is greatly loved. His following on social media exceeds everyone else on the planet, but his vanity is trying for many football followers. 

However, the great football divorce of the decade happened in the summer of 2018 when Real Madrid sold their star player to Juventus, only weeks after Ronaldo had propelled Real Madrid to a third UEFA Champions League triumph in a row. It was a risky throw of the dice by Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez, who had never been enamoured with Ronaldo.

"The party who lost out most when Cristiano left Real Madrid was Real Madrid," says Torres. "The president paid a political price. The 'socios' (members) couldn't understand why Cristiano had to leave, nor did they buy any of the propaganda that was disseminated to try and cover it up because the club hasn't won a single title since he left. 

"The club's goalscoring rate has fallen off the charts, which is absolutely explainable by the departure of Cristiano, the loss of the team's primary goalscorer. To go out and pay €60 million for Luka Jovic to get goals in his place has been the most catastrophic [mistake] in Real Madrid's history of transfers. Damage has been done to Real Madrid financially as well because of the loss of Cristiano as a figure for publicity and branding."

Juventus' Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts following their defeat the Supercoppa Italiana final football match between Juventus and Lazio at the King Saud University Stadium in the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 22, 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nure

Ronaldo, too, seems to have lost out by leaving the most successful football club in the world. "Cristiano appears to be past his best," says Carlin. "The question is whether that is a correct interpretation or whether it's a function of him having left a team where he was happy, where people were tailored to feeding him. 

"It's tempting to think that Cristiano is not quite the force that he was. If he had stayed at Real Madrid, would he have remained that force? I suspect he would have scored more goals at Real Madrid because of the team he had assisting him, and he had Karim Benzema at his side as the great foil for him. I would suspect it was a bad decision for both sides—Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo."

Ronaldo may yet lead Juventus to a UEFA Champions League crown in the new decade and perhaps Portugal to another international triumph—he has led the Selecao over the last decade to their first major trophy wins, the 2016 UEFA European Championship and the 2019 UEFA Nations League.

The end is somewhere on the horizon, however, unless he emulates, say, the great Tom Brady by defying the aging process and killing it into his forties. It would be a brave man to bet against him.


Remembering Leo Messi's Magical Decade at Barcelona.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz