Flashback to the end of 2015, Real Madrid have just been beaten 0-4 at home by arch-rivals Barcelona. Real Madrid along with their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo are in a slump. Having only scored 3 goals against teams from the top half of league table, Ronaldo was being heavily criticized by not only the media, but also his own fanbase. To make matters even worse, Barcelona topped the league table, and Messi was primed to win his fifth Ballon D’or. Was Ronaldo finally declining? Was Real Madrid on track for its second consecutive season without a trophy?
At the turn of the new year, both Real Madrid, and the Portuguese’s fortunes changed as Zinedine Zidane was appointed Manager. Real Madrid exploded in the second half of the year, winning the Champions League, and nearly stealing the league from Barcelona. Ronaldo played a pivotal role in leading Real Madrid to a historic eleventh Champions League victory, scoring 5 goals in 6 knockout stage matches. Not even two months later, Ronaldo played just as big of a role for Portugal, as they won their first ever major European trophy. These achievements ultimately culminated in a fourth Ballon D’or for Ronaldo - his third in 4 seasons. In his incredible year, 5 important moments ultimately led to Ronaldo being named the best player in the world once again.
5. Silencing the Camp Nou
After smashing Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu 4-0 earlier in the season, and riding a 39 game unbeaten streak, Barcelona came into the Clasico at the Camp Nou as the heavy favorite. Although Barcelona created multiple chances in the first half, they could not break through. Early in the second half, however, the Blaugrana took the lead on a header from Pique. Rather than crumble like they did in the first match, Real Madrid, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, suddenly awoke from their slumber. A goal from Benzema just a few minutes later meant game on, and what followed in the last half hour was textbook counter-attacking football.
Shortly after Gareth Bale had a goal wrongly disallowed, Ronaldo was unlucky to hit the post with 10 minutes remaining. It was looking as though Los Blancos would never find the winner they seeked. But up steps the dark invader, Cristiano Ronaldo. A lobbed cross from Bale was brilliantly chested down by the Portuguese, and threaded through the legs of a helpless Bravo to give Real Madrid a dramatic victory. The win gave Real Madrid a fighting chance, and sent Barcelona into a tailspin.
4. Hat-trick at the Calderon
Cristiano Ronaldo has been criticized quite often recently for being unable to impact matches against Atletico Madrid. He emphatically put those critiques to bed on November 19th. In 2016, no defense had been more difficult to breach than Atletico Madrid’s, especially inside the Vicente Calderon.
A deflected free kick gave Ronaldo an opening goal that would already prove to be insurmountable. But Real Madrid and Cristiano still had unfinished business. Ronaldo drew a penalty in the second half and then swiftly converted to give the visitors a 2-0 lead. A brilliant counter-attack 5 minutes later culminated in a Bale cross that CR7 calmly tapped home to complete his hat-trick. Scoring 3 goals against a defense that had been nearly impenetrable was arguably Ronaldo’s best performance of the year, and a massive setback for Los Colchoneros in their La Liga title hunt.
3. Ronaldo saves Madrid Against Wolfsburg
Beautiful. Beautiful. Something close to genius. He’s turned the tie around all by himself!
Those were the words of Peter Djury as he sat astounded at what Ronaldo had just done. After a dreadful first leg in Germany saw Real Madrid fall behind to a 2-0 deficit, Los Blancos’ Champions League hopes looked all but gone. Once again, they needed a hero, and once again he delivered.
After just 17 minutes, Ronaldo’s brilliance single-handedly erased the deficit. However, the winner took much longer to come. Real Madrid were dominant, but couldn’t quite find the elusive third goal. Sergio Ramos had a header unluckily bounce off the post and right into the hand of the goalkeeper at the goal line. Madridistas became more and more nervous as time went on - they needed just one more moment of magic. In the seventy-seventh minute, that moment could only come from one man. With a little bit of fortune, a Ronaldo free kick went through the wall and into the bottom corner. The Santiago Bernabeu roared in approval as the team swarmed Ronaldo at the corner flag. His hat-trick sent Real Madrid into the semi-final and kept the team’s dream for an eleventh champions league title alive.
2. The Decisive Penalty
After Sergio Ramos’ famous header broke Atletico’s heart in 2014, Diego Simeone’s men were given a chance for revenge two years later. Following an early goal from Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid surprisingly decided to sit back and defend. Many were surprised to see that Atletico was so dangerous in possession due to their reputation for defense. After a missed penalty, eventually Simeone’s men scored following a brilliant attacking move with only 11 minutes to go in regular time. As extra time began, it was obvious that both teams had nothing left in the tank. Unlike in Lisbon two years prior, this year’s final would be decided by penalties. Following 7 excellent penalties, Juanfran was the first to blink. The decisive moment once again fell on Ronaldo’s shoulders.
Cristiano had been poor in the 120 minutes leading up to his spot-kick, however, everything would be forgiven if he could just convert this penalty.
Ronaldo made no mistake, and sent the Real Madrid faithful into a frenzy. Just like he did against Barcelona and Wolfsburg earlier in the season, Ronaldo shone brightest at the most important moment, thus winning Real Madrid their eleventh Champions League trophy.
1. The Boyhood Dream becomes Reality
Strangely enough, the moment that won Ronaldo the Ballon D’or happened while he was not even on the pitch. It had been Ronaldo’s dream ever since he was a boy to bring a major international trophy to his home country of Portugal. Having lost the European final to Greece in 2004, a much older, and battle-tested Ronaldo was eager to redeem himself against France. Unfortunately a hard tackle by Dimitri Payet brought down Ronaldo within the first 25 minutes, and after a few valiant attempts to continue, Portugal’s talisman had to be removed. Fighting for their fallen captain, Portugal held an explosive French attack in check. After 109 minutes, Portugal found the winner. Eder’s screamer brought tears to Ronaldo’s eyes, and everyone could see that none were happier than he. Once the goal celebration was over, a jubilant Cristiano now stood over the shoulder of Portuguese manager Fernando Santos spurring on his teammates for the remaining minutes. As the final whistle sounded, Ronaldo shared an emotional hug with a team official before collapsing to the ground.
So if Ronaldo hardly played in the biggest match of his career, then why is it the moment that won him the Ballon D’or? For starters, without Ronaldo, Portugal would not have even made it out of the group stage. Two outstanding goals against Hungary sent Portugal through to the knockout rounds.
While Ronaldo didn’t score in the Round of 16 or Quarterfinals, he played a crucial role in setting up the late goal against Croatia to send Portugal to the Semifinals. One match away from the final, Ronaldo was pitted against his fellow attacking partner, Gareth Bale. With the score deadlocked at zero, Ronaldo planted a thunderous header past Wayne Hennessey and catapulted Portugal into the tournament final.
Ronaldo’s importance to Portugal’s run was immense, and even when he was unable to play, his emotion and leadership motivated his teammates to fight until the final whistle. His boyhood dream had been achieved, and the elusive international trophy was finally his. In a year where both Messi and Ronaldo were exceptional, winning Euro 2016 proved to be the deciding factor in determining this season’s winner of the Ballon D’or.
Every criticism that existed for Ronaldo was put to bed in 2016. “He doesn’t score in big matches”, “He can’t score against Atletico Madrid”, and “He has never won an international trophy”, were all proven wrong. Cristiano impacted countless matches, and without him, both Real Madrid and Portugal likely would have finished 2016 without a single trophy.
The end of 2015 saw everyone counting out Ronaldo, but he proved every single critic wrong with a stunning follow-up year. Every time Real Madrid or Portugal needed a big moment, Ronaldo delivered.
A thoroughly deserved Ballon D’or in what was unquestionably Ronaldo’s most successful calendar year to date. Ronaldo overcame doubters, elite teams, and a serious knee injury to create an unforgettable year for both Madridistas and Portuguese faithful alike.