Cristiano Ronaldo in his last World Cup
Cristiano Ronaldo is 37 years old and will be 38 seven weeks after the 2022 World Cup is over. Universally considered one of the greatest players of all time, he will likely don his national team jersey for the last time in Qatar this winter.
Fortunately for Ronaldo, he enters the tournament with the best national team supporting cast he has ever had. Looked at man-for-man the Portuguese team is one of the strongest in the tournament. Few things have eluded CR7 in his illustrious career, the World Cup is the only glaring one.
Cristiano Ronaldo has won the FIFA Best Player award three times and the Ballon d’Or five times and has had the fortune and misfortune of playing in the same era as Lionel Messi, the two-time winner of the former award and seven-time winner of the latter award. Aside from winning the 2016 Euro and the 2018 Nations League with his national team, the UEFA Champions League five times, and domestic league and cup titles with three different teams in three of Europe’s top leagues, CR7 has scored 700 club goals and 117 national team goals—tops, all time, in both categories.
It is ironic that as Ronaldo is reaching the end of his famed career, he should be sitting on the bench at Manchester United more often than not, a victim of age (he is not at his peak anymore) and salary (he is still earning as if he were at his peak and thus unable to find another team which would start him). If we were speaking of another star, we might say that CR7 is in peril of losing his physical and technical forms just ahead of the cup, but that would fundamentally misunderstand what has made this player who he is.
Born in Funchal, in the Island of Madeira, Portugal, Ronaldo was the youngest of four children born to a cook mother and a municipal gardener father. His mother has said that she wanted to abort her fourth child given his minuscule chances for a decent life, due to the family’s severe poverty and her often-absent husband’s alcoholism, but her doctor refused to perform the procedure. Ronaldo was a scrawny kid with tachycardia who required heart surgery to repair his cardiac pathways before he could pursue his athletic passion. But he would become spectacularly self-built thereafter.
When he began playing competitively against bigger players, he needed to bulk up simply to prevent being run over by the merest of challenges—yet from those days sprung an other-worldly physical specimen, capable of such athleticism (raw speed, reaction time, jumping ability, power and accuracy of his shots, muscularity) that medical and scientific professionals have studied him for years with awe. At his peak, CR7 could outrun professional sprinters while dribbling a ball. Cristiano Ronaldo’s commitment, dedication, personal training and lifestyle routines, and mental toughness, have made him the poster boy for how to be a professional athlete and become his personal identity.
Ronaldo’s technical skills were evident early, and despite his small physique he quickly moved from one age group team to the next. Prior to his Primeira Liga debut in late 2002 for Sporting, CR7 had spent his 2001-2002 season playing for his club’s under-16, under-17, under-18, and B-team, consistently being promoted upward, all within a single season. About a week after his debut game, he scored two goals in his next outing.
He would be a Manchester United player by 2003 and physically transform during his tenure which also included becoming a Premier League and UEFA Champions League winner and Ballon d’Or and FIFA Best recipient by 2008. By 2009 he had become a Real Madrid player. He spent nine years in Spain building his otherworldly legacy, scoring 451 goals in 438 games and winning all of his other major team and individual honors. He then moved to Italy and Juventus in 2018, played three years there—winning every domestic title available—and scoring 81 goals in 98 games before returning to Manchester United in 2021 where he has appeared 37 times and scored 19 goals.
CR7 comes off the bench more often than not at Manchester United this season, not an unfair circumstance given the club’s priorities and the team’s needs, but certainly not the situation the Portuguese striker could have envisioned at the eve of his most important career objective. But this is Madeira-tough-Ronnie, the ManU-prodigy and Real-superman CR7 we are talking about, and come Qatar in November few players will be as ready to take the pitch as Ronaldo.
Ronaldo does not need to win the World Cup to be considered one of the all-time great soccer players, but if he were to win the World Cup with Portugal, not an impossible dream, he would complete his footballing career owning an unassailable seat in the very highest level of that Pantheon of Soccer Greats. But come what may, we who have watched him play his entire career will always remember and cherish what he overcame, the artistry he brought to our sport for the better part of two decades.
Photo: Cristiano Ronaldo, Shutterstock ID: 1121013434, by Marco Iacobucci Epp