On Thursday night, when Juventus needed him most, Cristiano Ronaldo was there. The Bianconeri were staring down the barrel of defeat in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final with AC Milan, until they got a penalty in stoppage-time. There were 91 minutes on the clock; it was a moment filled with pressure and scrutiny.
Fortunately for Juve, though, their talisman thrives on those situations. Ronaldo shook it off and found the back of the net before embracing the adulation that came his way. It was just another day at the office for the 35-year-old Portuguese superstar. Even in his twilight years, he’s as prolific as ever. He has now scored 35 goals in 35 games for club and country.
There can be little doubting Ronaldo’s claim to be among the greatest footballers on the planet. His consistency, desire and drive to be seen as such is pretty much unrivalled. It wouldn’t be too far wrong to suggest that he put his own personal legacy on a similar level of priority to team success in Italy, Spain with Real Madrid, England with Manchester United and internationally with Portugal.
While there is nothing wrong with that, there is a suggestion that his sense of individualism is damaging to football as a whole, and therefore puts a strain on his overall legacy.
Like almost everything in modern society it seems, football has become increasingly tribal. Support for a team is among its core values, but the unique rivalry between Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, which has dropped in intensity ever since the former left La Liga, where the pair of them encapsulated one of the greatest club battles on the planet, has changed the face of fandom. Both Ronaldo and Messi have their own loyal followers, which can transcend club loyalties, meaning objectivity is almost impossible when discussing and comparing them. Despite calls from moderates and neutrals to enjoy both while they last, it still feels like a binary choice between the pair. At least that way, their popularity will be safe forever; with Messi winning the Ballon d’Or race 6-5, there is nothing anyone can say to truly demean either.
Honesty is the best policy, though, and Ronaldo’s incredible career management and ability to get every last drop from his talent may ultimately count against him in some ways. His critics will point to certain facts to diminish him, and while there are myths that can be exposed, there has long been something that hasn’t quite sat right. It is beginning to be backed up by statistics, too.
Evolving from a flying winger to a poaching striker has worked wonders, and criticising his selfish streak seems churlish, but it comes with a caveat. Clips of him refusing to celebrate teammates’ goals or even getting angry if they stole in to take one off him painted a picture, but his demands for the limelight at Real Madrid were necessary. He inspired them to two La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues.
At Juventus, perhaps because his powers aren’t what they once were, problems are developing. Over the past two years, the Old Lady’s goal reliance has dramatically streamlined; nobody other than Ronaldo has recorded double figures since he signed, and this season, while he sits on 21 goals, the second top scorer has just five. Back at the Santiago Bernabéu, Karim Benzema is like a man reborn and is on course to record a 20-goal league campaign for the second successive year. He only did it once his last four years alongside Ronaldo.
These aren’t factors that can be held against him, but it calls into question his approach to his career and ultimately how he’ll be remembered. He has admitted consensus may stop him being viewed as a true great, but it may be different if he didn’t appear to put his own pursuit of that ahead of wider success. After years of being the bridesmaids in Europe, part of the reason Juve moved for Ronaldo, the Champions League’s greatest ever goalscorer, was to lift that trophy. But with an ageing squad and a manager whose style of play requires energy and high intensity, they seem to be slipping away from their aims. Inter are even challenging them in Serie A, a competition they have won with relative ease for eight years.
As a specimen, it is hard to find a better embodiment of individual perfection in sport than Ronaldo. He is a physical phenomenon and has put the effort in to build on his natural ability. Nobody can say he doesn’t deserve everything he has achieved in football, and he may not be slowing down yet, but a man so driven by cold, hard statistics and milestones, perhaps at the expense of joy and purity, must have questions to answer when he stops.
Football is a team game, and the collective must come first. Individual acclaim will only count for so much in the record books, because focusing inwards can only take you so far. The fact that there seems to be a less pressurised environment at Real Madrid now, and a more regimented one at Juventus, speaks volumes about his presence. Ronaldo can inspire and lead brilliantly, but his own willpower can cause issues. When the achievements are consigned to history and the narrative ends, what will become of his true legacy?
Harry De Cosemo is on Twitter