Fifa Ballon d'Or: Cristiano Ronaldo’s remarkable 2013
By Andy BrassellEuropean football expert
It has been Cristiano Ronaldo's year, and while a Ballon d'Or would be the icing on the cake, he does not need the Fifa's top player award to prove it.
As Zinedine Zidane in 1998, Luis Figo in 2000 or
Fabio Cannavaro in 2006
prove, the Ballon d'Or tends to go to a star performer at the heart of an era-defining triumph. It takes a very persuasive candidate to win the award without being part of a team trophy triumph in the corresponding calendar year, but Cristiano Ronaldo has been just that in 2013.
He looks set to end the Argentine's sequence of victories on Monday night, though, despite the third candidate Franck Ribery's titanic year for Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo's 66 goals in 56 games in 2013 - including all competitions, for club and country - are eye-popping enough, even if plenty will point to the fact that they stand out more for the fact Messi missed most of the final two months of the year through injury.
Without a major international championship for European teams, Ronaldo even managed to create his own defining moment of the year, like Zidane's brace in the 1998 World Cup final or even Cannavaro's heavy early challenge on Thierry Henry in 2006, epitomising his uncompromising mastery in the tournament.
Ronaldo v Messi v Ribery
*Statistics from all club competitions and World Cup qualifiers in 2013
Shots on target
Shots off target
Dribbles & runs
It wasn't a final, but Portugal were looking like not reaching the World Cup finals at all when
Ronaldo intervened in the November play-off with Sweden.
Having scored the only goal of the first leg in Lisbon, the captain delivered Paulo Bento's side from their flirtation with disaster in the Stockholm return, completing a sensational hat-trick to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win.
It was a stunning display, perfectly showcasing everything that makes Ronaldo so unstoppable - his finishing power, his physical prowess, his unquenchable desire and his refusal to abdicate responsibility in the most trying of situations. His fellow Sporting Lisbon academy graduate Miguel Veloso hit the nail on the head when he told reporters after the game: "Ronaldo is a machine."
If that was the pinnacle, a less celebrated element of Ronaldo's make-up is apparent when we look further into his contribution in 2013. His 15 assists (the same as Messi, with fellow candidate Ribery just ahead with 18) show that Ronaldo is far from being the self-serving individualist that some claim.
The work-rate that has turned him from the skinny teenager
who joined Manchester United
in 2003 to the colossus that prowls the Bernabeu today is put to collective, as well as individual, use. He wins more challenges than the other two Ballon d'Or finalists (55%, compared to Messi's 53% and Ribery's 46%) and his competitiveness shows as he commits more fouls than either (57 in 2013, next to Ribery's 54 and Messi's 15).
For those of us lucky to have watched Ronaldo work at close quarters, it's not especially surprising. In every training session he throws himself into it as if it could be his last.
Just ask Gareth Bale.
It must be nightmarish for a manager - seeing your star player refuse to go easy and protect himself from injury - but that's just how he is.
Ronaldo's whole story is one of unparalleled self-belief and personal commitment. Ever since he arrived at Old Trafford and declared his desire to become the best player in the world, he has left no stone unturned in his desire to be so. Under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson (who he calls "my second dad"), he built his physique, mastered dead-ball situations, improved his heading beyond recognition, augmenting his game year-on-year.
Euro 2012 archive: Ronaldo sends Portugal through
If one had to compare him to another high-sports sportsman, it might be England cricketer Kevin Pietersen. Both are mocked for their alleged vanity, but both are also obsessive in their efforts to constantly self-improve.
While his countrymen have always been vocal about his claims to be the world's best, he has not always been universally popular, and has put up with being baited by the chant of 'Messi' from opposing supporters for a few years now. His belief in himself has never wavered, though, and the ribbing seems to bother him very little now.
Ronaldo seems a lot more relaxed about the Ballon d'Or this year. "I don't know if it's fair if me, Ribery or Messi wins," he told reporters after scoring twice in
Real's win over Celta Vigo
earlier this month. "If I win then great and if not, life goes on and I'll continue just the same."
The cynical might say he has already been tipped the wink that his name might emerge from the golden envelope, but it's also indicative of a growing maturity.
Ballon d'Or winners
He is clearly settled, having signed an extension to his Real Madrid deal in September tying him down to 2018, and he looks the part as national team captain too.
Luiz Felipe Scolari always knew Ronaldo had it in him, telling me at Euro 2008 how Portugal's star would also become their leader, identifying him as a future skipper at a time when few would have shared the same view.
Defender Luis Neto, who plays for Russian club Zenit St Petersburg, offered an insight into his leadership on international duty in an interview with Portuguese website Mais Futebol this week. "He always likes a good conversation before bed and to listen to how all his team-mates are," said Neto.
"He's very demanding, a great professional and he's always alert to every little detail. He speaks and we take it all in, because we believe in him."
Ronaldo still has a well-developed sense of his own worth, of course, as the December opening of a museum celebrating his career achievements on his home island of Madeira proved. At the inauguration, journalists could not resist asking where he would fit another Ballon d'Or, a 10th European Cup for Real Madrid or even a trophy for Portugal.
"I'll make room for them," he smiled.
If he can replicate his 2013 form this year, he may well have to.
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