Few believed anyone would reclaim the Ballon d'Or from Lionel Messi – but most didn't bargain on Cristiano Ronaldo's tenacity to win the prize.
Cristiano Ronaldo has banged his head against the brick wall for four years; now the wall has given way. Ronaldo was apparently doomed to be forever tortured and defined by Lionel Messi. By regaining the Ballon d'Or from Messi, and winning the award for the first time since 2008, he has produced the most decisive reminder – if one was needed – that he is one of football's all-time greats.
Ronaldo's victory is a triumph for strength. The physical part we know about. The cliché that he is a freak of nature has not diluted its essential truth. Ronaldo is a cross between Dixie Dean (the legendary Everton striker who is the most prolific goal-scorer in English football history) and Usain Bolt. He scores goals in numbers that, since Dean's era, have only really been seen on bright screens in musty bedrooms – he is 1.85m and scores such classical headers that it feels as if they should be shown in black-and-white. He can also cover 96m in 10 seconds while wearing football boots, as he did during a match against Atletico Madrid in 2012.
For all that, Ronaldo's physical strength is arguably dwarfed by his mental strength. He has overcome many obstacles to win the Ballon d'Or for the second time.
"First of all I have to say a great thanks to all of my teammates with the club and the national team," said Ronaldo. "Without all of their efforts this would not have been possible.
"Everybody that has been involved with me on a personal level I have to thank. My wife, my friends, my son. It is a tremendously emotional moment. All I can say is thank you to everybody that has been involved. I am very happy; it is very difficult to win this award."
The last part felt like the deadpan understatement of the night. It is not easy being Ronaldo. His whole career has been conducted against a backdrop of suspicion and sniping – even to the point where he was publicly ridiculed by Fifa chief Sepp Blatter. He is also perceived by many as selfish and self-obsessed to the point of having a messiah complex.
Ronaldo simply could not win
You could certainly understand if he had a Messi complex. He has to endure constant discussion of Messi's apparent superiority, as a footballer and even as a human being. At times it felt as if Ronaldo simply could not win. If he scored four, Messi would score five. If he cured the common cold, Messi would cure cancer.
Ronaldo's most impressive feat is not to usurp Messi; it is to believe he could do so in the first place. But Messi is one of only three apparently unbeatable opponents Ronaldo has had to contend with. He has taken on Messi, Barcelona and Spain, at times single-footedly. Part of that challenge broke even José Mourinho; Ronaldo continues to return for more. One nemesis down, two to go.
Nor has he escaped football's vicissitudes since moving to Madrid. He missed a penalty in a Champions League semifinal shootout against Bayern Munich; he did not even get to take one against Spain in the semifinal of Euro 2012. He could be excused for thinking fate had a vendetta against him.
His peak years, after decades in which football prioritised athleticism, even coincided with football improbably recognising small as beautiful once more.
It is in that context that we should understand Ronaldo's achievement. He is a miracle of incessant conviction. Any other footballer would have consciously or unconsciously surrendered to an apparently irresistible logic. Anyone else would have relaxed and regressed towards the mean.
Ronaldo ensured that more than 50 goals a season became the mean. In 2013, he progressed away from the mean, scoring 69 times for club and country. He has turned "Oh I say!" moments into "Oh" moments. Oh, Ronaldo's scored another hat-trick. Oh, Ronaldo's scored from 40m in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the European Cup. Oh, Ronaldo's scored his 50th of the season. He has made the miraculous mundane.
A freak of nurture
Then again, greatness has always been a fusion of the spectacular and the mundane. Ronaldo's brilliance is as much about his immaculate professionalism as his skill. He is a freak of nature but also a freak of nurture, fuelled by an almost demented ambition to achieve everything he possibly can.
He has already achieved so much that there is no logical reason why he should not be discussed among the greatest footballers ever. But when World Soccer magazine asked experts to pick their greatest XI last year, Ronaldo was nowhere near the side. He got seven votes: Maradona picked up 64, Pele 56, Johan Cruyff 58 and Messi 46. Ronaldo picked up fewer than, among others, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Garrincha, George Best and the other Ronaldo.
Perhaps his sheer efficiency does not appeal to romantics. Perhaps his remorseless consistency does not stir the soul. Perhaps people just do not like him. But to paint him as a robotic achiever does not do justice to his innovation and originality, never mind his genius.
Ronaldo is a footballer like no other. He has a good case for being the most three-dimensional of football's true greats: more than a third of his career goals have been scored with either his left foot or his head. Although he did not, as some have suggested, patent the wobbling, beach-ball free kick, he is now the most associated with a technique that he has almost perfected. He has certainly redefined the role and accepted parameters of the wide forward.
The primary reason for that is that he has scored goals in industrial quantities. Of course, Ronaldo is a flat-track bully. All the greats are. He has also become a rough-track bully, steadily shattering the perception that he does not produce in big games, to the point where Barcelona fear him more than he fears them.
That is not the only perception he has taken care of down the years. It seems hilarious with hindsight but Ronaldo was once regularly damned as having no end product. When he started at Manchester United, he was a fantasy footballer but not a Fantasy Footballer. He dizzied the mind with his stepovers and capacity to humiliate defenders, but the Fantasy Football currency of goals and assists eluded him.
In his first three season at Old Trafford he scored only 27 goals; in the final three 91. Then, at Real Madrid, he went even further. In four-and-a-half seasons he has scored 230 goals in 223 games. He learned to translate freakish ability into freakish efficiency.
But as his goalscoring gradient has gone in one direction at Madrid so the number of medals he has won has gone in the other. In one sense, Ronaldo had a disappointing 2013; all he won was the Ballon d'Or. Real Madrid won nothing.
It is perverse to talk of a mid-career slump, given that Ronaldo has scored all those goals and is again recognised as the world's best player, but in four-and-a-half years in Madrid he has claimed few of the big prizes: only one La Liga title, no Champions Leagues, one Ballon d'Or and no Player of the Year awards in Spain. (The Spanish league in effect had to invent a new award, the MVP, for him to win something, although Messi was the Best Player again.)
Some will feel personal awards are enough to sustain Ronaldo but that is a simplistic perception of a man whose obvious lust for personal glory exists only in the context of an even greater lust for team glory.
The moments after a goal are when a man is emotionally naked; the celebration never lies. Ronaldo's reaction when a teammate scores a vital goal is not that of a man in it for himself. When Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008 despite Ronaldo's penalty miss a few minutes earlier, he burst into tears that were one part relief, 10 parts joy.
That is not to say he is not selfish or that he doubts his worth: a self-congratulatory video posted on his Facebook page after the awards ceremony this week was another reminder. That has invariably been the case with great sportsmen, however. Ronaldo's selfishness is partially born of the logic that he is by far the best equipped to make his team win. If he prioritised how he was perceived, it would be to the team's detriment. It would be selfish not to be selfish.
Award is not enough
Many of Ronaldo's goals for Madrid have been scored in the knowledge that they are not going to help to win a trophy. His output has not diminished.
In sport, futile excellence is often the most impressive of all. Some will say it stems from a surfeit of personal pride, others from an endless well of professional pride. The truth is somewhere in between and no less admirable for it.
Even Ronaldo's defining achievement of 2013 (the World Cup qualifying match between Portugal and Sweden) – a performance for the ages to beat Zlatan Ibrahimović in international football's first one-a-side game – was not to win a trophy but simply to get his side to a World Cup.
Ronaldo could win the Ballon d'Or for the next five years but he will not retire happy unless he wins more with country or, more likely, club. The world player of the year award is not enough. Ronaldo is nearly 29 and may be approaching his last World Cup; by 2018 he will have played for 15 years, with few injury breaks and goodness knows how many miles on the clock.
There is also a new superpower, Bayern Munich, to sit alongside Spain and Barcelona. But Ronaldo will keep banging his head against the brick wall until the wall gives way, as it did in Zurich this week.
In Ronaldo's head, the Ballon d'Or is not his crowning glory. It is the start of the defining phase of his career. – © Guardian News & Media 2014