You may have heard: 2016 was "the worst year ever." It was also, indisputably, the Year of Ronaldo. As beloved celebrities and musicians died prematurely, and electorates the world over made deeply questionable choices, Ronaldo was brilliant. He was the player he always thought he could be.
If you've followed Ronaldo's career at all, you're probably chuckling to yourself right now, because of course his best year would go down in pop culture lore as the worst. Such is his place in the universe. There's always someone or something, a final detail, between the Real Madrid star and the kind of perfection to which he aspires. To watch Ronaldo is to see a man who, despite all his accomplishments, never seems to quite get there. Why else would he keep trying so hard?
For Ronaldo, it has never been enough to just be good. The emotion he plays with—the flopping, the stepovers, the pouting—has a way of camouflaging his work ethic, which, among his peers, is legendary. He's the terrible opponent about whom our parents warned us, whether in a high school stadium or at a music recital: the one who is more talented (or, if your mom is like mine, "just as talented"), but who also will out-grind you. Ronaldo has spent his career training harder than his opponents, staying late for a final drill, practicing free kicks as the lights go out. The model good looks are a gift; the athleticism is a blessing; the rest of it was earned with sweat.
This year, it all came together like never before. Here are the facts:
● With Real Madrid, he won the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup.
● With the Portuguese national team, he won the European Championship.
● As an individual, he was awarded the Ballon d'Or, the UEFA Best Player in Europe, and trophy case full of less prestigious awards.
If that's not enough, Real Madrid is going through its best on-field period—ever. Since Zinedine Zidane took over in January, the club has won more trophies than it has lost games. The team responded to its last loss, a 2-0 defeat to Wolfsburg in April, by simply not losing again. Real Madrid, the winningest team in European history, in the midst of its longest unbeaten streak.
For me, however, Ronaldo's European Championship is the achievement that sticks out. Not simply because it was a first for him, but because of how he did it.
Prior to the tournament, I went to Iceland to report on their national team's preparations. Iceland was in the same group as Portugal, along with Austria and Hungary. During a press conference, Lars Lagerbäck, one of Iceland's two head coaches, told the gathered press that Portugal was not only the best team in the group but also capable of winning the tournament. There was no arguing with the first point, but capable of winning the tournament? I figured Lagerbäck was just trying to manage expectations.
On paper, Portugal seemed decent at best. Ronaldo would be assisted by Nani, Pepe, Joao Moutinho—not exactly The Incredibles—along with a few players you probably still wouldn't recognize. It looked like Ronaldo would have to carry Portugal, but I didn't think he could carry his team too far. They would eventually encounter Germany or France or Spain or England, all of whom looked stronger.
And despite winning everything at club level, Ronaldo has never been the best teammate, which in my mind stands out when you compare him to Messi. In 2016, the two scored goals at similar rates. But Messi had 32 assists in all competitions to Ronaldo's 17.
But I was wrong. Or maybe Ronaldo was thinking the same thing. Because during the Euros, he didn't really carry his team so much as breathe life into it. He was no longer the cocky brat who almost won Euro 2004 and cried when he didn't. He wasn't even the Real Madrid player who pouted when a teammate scored instead of him. He was a leader. When, in the tournament final, he injured his knee and couldn't continue, rather than sit in the training room feeling sorry for himself, he came back out to the field, stood beside Portugal's coach Fernando Santos, and cheered his teammates to victory.
Professional athletes live in a weird bubble, which, among other things, preserves them in a state of boyish immaturity: they don't deal with real-person problems, their paychecks seem like absurd allowances, they play a game for a living, etc. Ronaldo turned 31 in February, and it wasn't until Euro 2016 that he felt to me like a fully mature player, a completely responsible teammate.
And in typical Ronaldo fashion, he didn't seem satisfied. Still doesn't. I watch him on and off the field, and he remains a person who seems obsessed with impressing us. It goes beyond soccer. He wants us to love him, not just by being the best soccer player, but by being the best person.
There's a sadness to it, and maybe a touch of Alex Rodriguez's psyche, because you can't make people like you no matter how hard you try or how good at soccer you may be. But it's something I think we can all relate to, in our age of social media, where we Tweet and share and like, often in hopes of impressing people we don't really care about or, at worst, don't know. It's ridiculous, when you stop to think about it, to chase affirmation from strangers. And Ronaldo, like many of us, never stops. In this sense, he's the athlete of our generation.
He tries by keeping his hair perfectly coiffed; his skin gloriously bronzed; his body, so far as I can tell, immaculately waxed. He tries by flexing in his underwear for photos that appear on billboards that, when seen from a passing car, cause the most restrained of us to gasp. He tries by very publicly doting on his young son, cultivating the image of a family man, despite never having married. He tries by donating his money, often to children's charities and victims of natural disaster—sometimes, to his credit, without much fanfare but often quite conspicuously. He tries by driving fast cars, by dating beautiful women, by being the stereotype the stereotypical guy wants to be.
Much as his quest to be the greatest soccer player of all time is undone by the existence of Lionel Messi—and let's face it, if Messi didn't exist, Ronaldo would have a strong case—his quest to be the perfect man is undone by little details, the hints that he's out of touch: the weird statue and the museum he built for himself, or, more mysteriously, the fact that he's never disclosed the identity of his son's mother. This year, the tarnishing detail came in the form of allegations of massive tax fraud. (Apparently, being the best citizen isn't part of Ronaldo's quest.)
It's almost like some cosmic force refuses to let Ronaldo have it all, like the universe has a dark sense of humor, and laughs at his attempts to bend everything to his will. So he redoubles his effort, tries again, but his perfection remains just out of reach, the public adoration not quite as splendid as it could have been.
Ronaldo's best year was the one the one we all hated. Could it be any other way?
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