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Lucas Navarrete | January 13, 2014

World's Greatest

Cristiano Ronaldo's Road to his 2nd Ballon d'Or

After a five-year pursuit, Cristiano Ronaldo has finally won his second Ballon D’Or. The 28-year-old becomes the first Real Madrid player to receive the award since Alfredo Di Stéfano in 1959 and is, once again, the world’s greatest player.

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Luis Figo, Fabio Cannavaro and Ronaldo Nazário won the Ballon D’Or as Real Madrid players, but those three awards were given because of their seasons with FC Barcelona, Juventus -and Italy- and Inter Milan. This time, Cristiano Ronaldo has kept the Alfredo Di Stéfano comparison alive by winning the prestigious golden ball, 54 years after the Blonde Arrow managed it.

After an indifferent start to life at Madrid, the fans have embraced their greatest player
Denis Doyle / Getty Images

Real Madrid fans are always demanding. That’s just part of the fabric of the club. And even though they have not been raising many trophies recently, this Ballon D’Or will surely be something they celebrate as a monumental achievement.

Ronaldo scored 69 goals in 2013, more than runner-up Lionel Messi (45) and third-placed Franck Ribéry (23) combined.

Ronaldo has also earned something else: the love of The Santiago Bernabéu. Two or three seasons ago, some Real Madrid fans criticized his lack of defensive intensity and his tendency to finish plays by himself without involving his teammates. But after he put on a stellar performance in Real’s 4-3 win against Real Sociedad on January 6th, the mood changed. That, and his contract extension he signed last September, helped make him Real Madrid’s cornerstone.

The fans even made a big banner, displayed during Real’s European clash against Copenhaguen, in support of Ronaldo’s bid for the 2013 Ballon d’Or. It’s unusual to have that kind of love from the Santiago Bernabéu, and that gesture prompted the player himself to pen a thank you on Facebook. Ronaldo is no longer just the big-money mercenary signed from the Premier League – he's a real part of the club, an icon of Madrid.

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United's investment in Ronaldo paid off -- in spades
Alex Livesey / Getty Images

His personal story shows his desire to succeed. Raised in Funchal, Madeira, a small Portuguese island, Cristiano Ronaldo left his hometown at a young age to join Sporting Lisbon’s academy. There, as he has admitted many times, Ronaldo had a rough time trying to adapt to life without his family. But he improved as a player until he finally got his big break.

Manchester United played a friendly against Sporting back in 2003. As soon as the game ended, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes recommended signing Ronaldo to then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The ‘Red Devils’ paid €17.5 million to get the Portuguese wonderkid.

The investment paid off. United won the Premier League, Carling Cup, FA Cup, Community Shield and Champions League during his six-year tenure at Old Trafford. Ronaldo also won a Golden Boot and his first Ballon D’Or in 2008.

During that season, Ronaldo scored 46 goals, including 31 in the Premier League and 8 in the Champions League, the latter forming a key component in United’s quest to secure their third European title. By comparison, 2013 was a much better individual year for the Portuguese.

Real Madrid paid €96 million to sign Ronaldo from Manchester United in 2009. In 221 matches with los blancos, Ronaldo has already scored 230 goals, a match-to-goal ratio of 1.04.

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Some analysts expected Ronaldo to struggle against Spain’s tighter defensive coverage. Being known as a counterattacking player who made the most out of the Premier League’s higher tempo and open space, Cristiano Ronaldo has evolved into a much more complete forward, emerging as the club's primary finisher without being Real Madrid’s target man.

Former Real Madrid manager José Mourinho found the ideal position for Ronaldo to shine. While Sir Alex Ferguson and Manuel Pellegrini played him as a center striker or even a right-winger, The Special One decided to get the best out of his powerful right leg and positioned Ronaldo on the left. That allowed Ronaldo to attack the box with diagonal runs and also finish plays through the center. After scoring 33 goals in his first season with Real Madrid – under Manuel Pellegrini -- Ronaldo exploded for 53 goals in the 2010-2011 season, winning his second Golden Boot. And, of course, he scored Real Madrid’s game-winner on the Copa del Rey Final against FC Barcelona, a goal that showed that Guardiola’s team could indeed be beaten. That moment paved the way for 2011-2012’s Liga BBVA title.

The team was ready to fight for the 2011-2012 Champions League, but a penalty shoot-out against Bayern Munich in the semifinals took them out after Ronaldo had put Madrid ahead in the second leg of the tie. Ronaldo ultimately led Real Madrid to another La Liga title, scoring 46 goals in the process. It all seemed then as if the Portuguese player could win another Ballon D’Or, but Lionel Messi’s 50 Liga goals and a Copa del Rey title apparently were too many accolades to fight against, another sign that individual records are actually more important to the voters than team success.

But that is exactly why he has won the 2013 Ballon D’Or. Although Real Madrid failed to win a single trophy during Mourinho’s controversial last season with the club, Ronaldo excelled while his arch-rival Messi completed a fairly average year in comparison. FC Barcelona won the Liga BBVA, just like Real Madrid did back in 2012, but Messi’s physical problems throughout April and May and also an unlucky two-month injury last November mean that Zlatan Ibrahimovic (47 goals), Luis Suárez (42) and Edinson Cavani (41) are actually competing against him in raw statistics. Christiano Ronaldo (69), meanwhile, is definitely not.

This was also a special year for him in terms of milestones. Ronaldo reached 400 career goals in 2013, doing so with just 621 matches under his belt. That amazing record speaks for itself, but if he were to maintain the scoring average he's managed over the last three years – more than 60 goals per season -- he would reach the 600 goal mark before his current contract with Real Madrid expires in 2018.

The likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Eusebio were 29 years old when they scored their 400th. Romario was 33, Hugo Sánchez was 32 and Raúl González was 34 when he reached that mark. Ronaldo's scoring progression should also be noted as a proof that his ceiling as a player has not been reached yet. And more than 90 of his 400 goals were scored between minutes 75 and 90. That’s the definition of a clutch player.

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Even after recording such outstanding numbers, Ronaldo’s second Ballon D’Or could be still be remembered for controversy. Josepp Blatter and FIFA put the integrity of the award in question when they decided to postpone the voting process by 15 days. First, Blatter gave comedy a try, making fun of Ronaldo’s attitude, saying that he was like a "commander on the field of play" while trying to perform funny moves. But he didn’t stop there – he went on to say that Messi is his favorite player. It didn’t take Ronaldo and Real Madrid long to react. While the player responded via Twitter, wishing "Mr. Blatter good health and a long life" to "continue to witness the successes of his favorite teams and players", Real Madrid’s President Florentino Pérez wrote a letter to ask for a retraction. Ronaldo, meanwhile, incorporated the "commander" quip into his goal celebrations.

After his hat trick during Portugal’s key 2-3 win at Sweden, Blatter and FIFA announced their decision to delay the vote. Some critics claimed FIFA were trying to ensure the award was going to be given to Ronaldo in order to avoid extra criticism from the player, the Portugal and the whole Real Madrid fan base. Rumors about Ronaldo not wanting to go to the ceremony started spreading around, but Ronaldo himself confirmed few weeks ago that he was going to attend.

Still, Blatter gave critics some reasons to question Ronaldo’s award. Franck Ribéry, for example, was not pleased by FIFA’s decision. "It was a shame to postpone the ballot. This is the first time they’ve done it. It’s a clear disadvantage." His national coach, Didier Deschamps, had some words about is as well. "It is really, really strange. I don’t want to use stronger words than those, but I simply cannot understand why they changed the rules in the middle of a race." FIFA and Blatter explained that some votes could not be collected, and therefore they wanted to postpone the process until they had more votes. This decision did not have an effect on the outcome of the voting, according to FIFA, but it might change people’s perception of Ronaldo’s success.

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There’s no question that a large segment of football fans dislike Ronaldo for various reasons. His attitude off the pitch, often seen as arrogant, has not helped his case in some previous Ballon D’Or votes. Two years ago, he said: "I’m rich, handsome and a great football player. That is why some people do not like me". And while the tone of the quote is certainly inappropriate, the fans need to consider that he stated it with a bloody ankle after a terrible tackle by Dinamo Zagreb’s defender Leko, who didn’t even get booked for the challenge.

"He wants to be the best. That’s his goal, to be the best."
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images

FC Barcelona defender Dani Alves has also commented negatively about Cristiano Ronaldo’s attitude, and while nobody would expect a Barcelona defender to be unbiased about a player that has single-handedly beaten them in several matches, fans around the world tend to agree with the Brazilian defender: "To be the best player in the world, you cannot just play well, you must also be liked by other people, and I understand that his attitude ends up hurting, a little, the great player that he really is".

But Ronaldo thinks differently: "Why lie? I am not going to be a hypocrite and say the opposite of what I think like some others do." The debate will, no doubt, continue, but in the end, some Real Madrid fans admire Ronaldo’s honesty while some others believe he should be humbler and a better role model.

Ronaldo’s work ethic doesn’t match the public perception. Former Manchester United teammate Gerard Piqué has said that Cristiano Ronaldo is "a hard worker who always wants more and more. A real machine and very ambitious." Rio Ferdinand thinks Cristiano’s biggest strength is his courage. "You have to be brave to keep taking the ball when people are kicking you." Ronaldo himself spoke about his hard work and dedication. "Ten is the maximum, nobody can do ten, we can improve all the time. Every season is a new challenge to me and I always set out to improve in terms of games, goals, assists. The last six or seven years, I am always better than the previous year. It is part of me to make improvements and I try to dedicate myself all the time."

"He wants to be the best. That’s his goal, to be the best," says Phil Neville. And apparently, he’s getting there. According to Squawka, Ronaldo’s shot accuracy is 63 percent. Ronaldo shoots more or less on sight, so to have that kind of accuracy is simply astonishing. Seven hat tricks notched over the course of the year is yet another impressive mark that he’s managed to accomplish.

Under Carlo Ancelotti, Ronaldo is keeping pace with his own records. Even though he’s not playing as well as he was during the last couple of seasons, Ronaldo has scored 33 goals since the 2013/2014 season started. A brace against Juventus and a hat trick scored at the Türk Telekom Arena when Real Madrid faced Galatasaray last September have also placed him as the Champions League’s leading scorer with nine goals in six matches. And he has accomplished these figures without playing at his best. If Ancelotti’s system pans out and the team gains some cohesion and fluidity, Cristiano Ronaldo’s game will surely improve, and so will his stats.

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Despite all these accomplishments, Ronaldo still has unachieved targets. "I have one Champions League, and I want another one. And big legends of football like Sir Bobby Charlton, Zidane or Maradona, Pelé… My dream is to win a World Cup." He should be able to win his second Champions League before his contract expires. Madrid was able to break the notorious Round of 16 curse in each of the last three seasons, and although it is always hard to raise a Champions League title, it would be a disappointment for the club not to raise the European Cup over the next four years.

His other goal might be unattainable. The Portuguese national team need a lot of help to be a FIFA World Cup contender. Ronaldo will be able to play two more, maybe three if he’s lucky with injuries, but other teams like Spain, Brazil or Germany will be hard to beat for a side that still relies on players like Nani and Hélder Postiga to lighten Cristiano Ronaldo’s offensive burden.

But no matter whether or not Ronaldo manages to lift the team honours he craves, this award will mean a lot to him. He's been in the shadow of a great since arriving in Spain – and with the 2013 Ballon d'Or he's finally stepping into the sunlight. It's a well-timed and much-deserved recognition to a football player who is always aiming for excellence.

Author: Lucas Navarrete | Designer: Graham MacAree | Background photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images

About the Author

Editor in chief for SB Nation's Real Madrid blog "Managing Madrid" living in Valencia. Covered the 2014 Copa del Rey Final and the 2014 Champions League Final from the press box, as well as most home games played by Real Madrid.