It is somewhat remarkable that there still remains a grand possibility that Cristiano Ronaldo may not be competing at next summer’s World Cup. On Tuesday night, he leads his Portuguese team to Stockholm to do battle with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, defending the slender 1-0 lead given to them last week in Lisbon by, of course, who else but Ronaldo?
His diving header after cutting across Jonas Olsson was his 28th competitive goal of this season and his 63rd since the turn of the calender year. It is an astonishing goal-scoring record that renders it preposterous that the world stage could be robbed of his brilliance next summer. His attendance however would mean the absence of the mercurial Ibrahimovic who has chalked up a modest 42 since the beginning of 2013. An easy dilemma this is not.
Both captain their national teams and both are wonderful players boasting prolific scoring records, but to many that is where the similarities end. The Swede is a mixture of audacious athleticism, stunning technique and predatory instinct, allowing him to remain on the periphery of matches for vast periods before striking a majestic dagger into vulnerable defences.
Observers in England, swayed by many one-off matches where he has struggled to leave his mark, are quick to shrug him off as the stereotypical flair-but-no-substance continental footballer.
“He’d definitely struggle on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke, he’s good but when he has it up him he’s nowhere”, tiresome assessments that are drowned out by 280 career goals, league titles in Italy (six of them), Holland, Spain and France. Plus, most famously, by that volley against England in the friendly just over a year ago.
“Ibrahimovic is my player, he is my captain and he is my No1,” said Sweden’s coach Erik Hamren after voting for his man in the Ballon D’Or. In the race for that award however, Ronaldo may have the more viable claim for exaltation. It may have been a trophy-less year for Real Madrid but Ronaldo has continued to evolve into a relentless goal-scoring machine.
His career tally stands at a mammoth 348 and is the quickest player ever to reach 100 goals for Madrid, his own blend of physical power, electric pace and unique technical brilliance that occasionally heave back the boundaries of possibility make him unrelenting. If he misses with his first four chances he’ll ram home the fifth, refusing to go away until he wins or at least scores trying to do it.
It is FIFA’s Ballon D’Or, an award that Ronaldo last won in 2008, that is still motivating Ronaldo after having to watch Lionel Messi, the Argentine with whom he shares a footballing zenith, claim the honour over the past four years.
Though with his Barcelona rival hampered by injuries and by his own remarkable standards, a subdued year on an individual front, this may represent Ronaldo’s best chance of claiming the award for the second time. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has done his best to voice whose camp he is in, making a comical reference to Ronaldo’s fondness for vanity, answered by the Portuguese in the only way he knows, with ten goals in his last five games.
FIFA’s prime individual honour may bypass them both with Franck Ribery also making a valid argument after being Bayern Munich’s perpetual winger in their march to the treble in Germany. “I do not know if I will win, however I think I deserve it,” he said. “Before I was a good player, now I think I’m the best.”
Despite his effusive self-belief and his wife’s future planning, “she has already prepared the space above the fireplace in the living room” he says, it may be hard to believe that the scoring feats of Ronaldo, or even Messi on 45 since the new year, will be overlooked in favour of Ribery’s sparkling, yet not stand-out, role in Bayern’s success.
Fellow nominees Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Manuel Neuer all played vital parts in their journey under Jupp Heynckes, highlighting the importance of the Bavarian’s team dynamic in contrast to the individual quests made by Messi and Ronaldo.
The proliferation of Luis Suarez, Robin Van Persie, Edinson Cavani and Rademel Falcao also see them nominated alongside the usual suspects of Andrea Pirlo, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, though it looks increasingly likely, as the remnant flames of the tension between Ronaldo and Blatter continue to flicker, that the vote will be between Messi, Ronaldo and Ribery despite Hamren’s best efforts to show his support for Ibrahimovic.
The Swede can achieve his own personal victory on Tuesday night though not even missing out on the World Cup, though it would be a desperate shame, can remove Ronaldo from the pinnacle of his game. Zurich in January should mark the time he receives FIFA’s glass ball to recognise that.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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