I don't think anyone can argue that he deserves the title for 2008. But can you place him alongside the true all-time greats just yet? The mere fact that any debate about the current "Greatest Player in the World" inevitably involves LeoMessi and Kaká would suggest that he isn't quite there yet. I realize it's purely subjective, but the last time the planet had an undisputed No. 1 was Ronaldinho a few years ago. And before him, Zinedine Zidane. Before that it was Ronaldo (the original one) and, prior to that, Diego Maradona.
Being "No. 1" isn't just about being the best player in the world. It's about capturing hearts and minds, oozing charisma and having the unquestioned respect of peers and supporters alike. At least that's how I see it. But how close is the Portuguese winger to joining the all-time greats? Here's a little debate I had with myself.
OK, nobody is disputing the kind of year he had in 2007-08. He scored 42 goals in all competitions, which is an absurd amount and he was quick out of the gate this season as well (once he returned from his injury), with nine goals in his first 17 outings. And, yes, I am fully aware that he is a winger, which makes the total that much more remarkable.
Fine. But let's not talk Zidane and Ronaldinho just yet, shall we? For a start, while those numbers are impressive, a bit of context is required. How has he done against the big clubs? In the last 3½ years, he has faced Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool 21 times in all competitions, scoring a total of four goals. He has fared marginally better against the European big shots (Villarreal, Roma, AC Milan and Barcelona) -- four in 12 -- though two of those goals came in 7-1 drubbing of Roma, a match in which even Alan Smith scored.
Does he deliver in big games for his country? His tally from the '06 World Cup and Euro '08 is two goals in nine matches. And one of those was a penalty.
So let's not get too carried away. When he plays for Manchester United, Ronaldo is a talented player on a very talented club side with an unselfish supporting cast that makes him look very good, especially against second-rate opposition. And when he pulls on a Portugal shirt, he's the best player on a side which looks to him for leadership and to carry them through tough times.
Does he do that? He played well in the semifinal against France in the '06 World Cup, but ruined the night with his theatrical hunt for a penalty kick. But against an ordinary Germany in the quarterfinals of Euro '08, he was thoroughly mediocre.
But there's something else that's missing, something intangible. Ronaldo has the look, the physique and the skill to be the greatest. Yet, somehow, it doesn't all add up. To be the greatest, people have to like you, at least to some degree. The "other" Ronaldo had a toothy grin that could melt icebergs. Ronaldinho has a permanent smile on his face. Even Zidane, in his own tough-guy way, oozed charisma from every pore.
But Cristiano Ronaldo? He lashes out at opponents (just ask Brazilian defender Thiago Silva), he gets himself foolishly sent off (witness last weekend at Manchester City ), he tells tall tales in a ham-fisted attempt to get himself a move to Real Madrid. (In itself, engineering a move is not a crime. It's just that you can do it in a discreet, classy way -- like Zidane or the other Ronaldo did -- or you can do it in a crass, transparently greedy way. He chose the latter.)
Even when compared to his peers, he comes up short in the personality stakes. Messi looks and acts humble (even when he's being devious), Kaká is a born-again Christian who is a mother's dream. Cristiano Ronaldo? Well, you don't really know who or what he is: too goofy to be the bad boy, too annoying to be the role model.
You don't need to be Muhammad Ali to be "The Greatest." But you do need something more than oodles of talent, a breakout season and a few trophies. You need that intangible quality we call "star power." He ain't there yet and he may never be.
OK, so one record-breaking season doesn't quite do it for you. Fine. Do trophies matter? He has already won every single tournament that Manchester United has entered at least once (and the Premier League twice). Oh, he's just 23.
At least we all can admit he's talented. In fact, he's not just talented, he's got an out-of-this-world package of skills. He's also arguably a better athlete than all the guys we mentioned above and, lest we forget, this is an athletic pursuit. He's faster than all of them, except, perhaps, the other Ronaldo in his prime. He's physically stronger than all of them, except, maybe, again the other Ronaldo (though, I'll concede, in a street fight between him and Zidane, I'm with Zizou all the way).
More importantly, he's a better header of the ball than all of them. In fact, he's one of the biggest aerial threats in the Premier League, which is exceedingly rare among wingers. Oh, and by the way, while his maker may be responsible for his height and leaping ability, he's responsible for his heading ability, spending entire afternoons practicing it as a kid, when most guys in his situation would have figured they could get by with their array of tricks, dummies and feints.
You don't like the fact that he reacts badly when he gets fouled? So what if he shows some balls now and then -- not everyone can be squeaky-clean like Kaká. And, besides, that doesn't stop us from putting Zidane among the all-time greats. What's worse, putting in a bad tackle in a friendly against Brazil or head-butting an opponent in a World Cup final, thereby probably costing your country the game?
You complain he lacks "star power" because he doesn't have the kind of personality that Zidane (boy, wasn't he a barrel of fun?) or Ronaldinho (what personality was that, beyond looking like Jar Jar Binks' soccer-playing cousin?). Well, how much of a personality does the biggest star in sports today -- David Beckham -- have?
You say he's not a clutch player? Well, who turned around the Champions League final for United in Moscow last May? And, as for his performances with Portugal, in the last three major competitions (the only three he has been in), his country has reached the final, semifinals and quarterfinals. It's the best sequence in the history of the Portuguese game. And -- what a coincidence! -- it just happens to occur after he broke into the side.
But let's save the best for last. The guy is still just 23. Let's not compare apples and oranges. When Zidane was 23, he was still in semi-obscurity at Bordeaux, with just one major trophy -- the not-so-coveted InterToto Cup -- to his name. And when Ronaldinho was his age, he was still figuring out how to get out of Paris St. Germain (he would, eventually, go to Barcelona, but only after Barça failed to land Beckham). Yes, he had won the '02 World Cup with Brazil, but frankly, Dick Cheney could have played up front for that team and it wouldn't have mattered.
The fact is that his achievements at such a young age outstrip the competition by a wide margin. And the older he gets, the better he'll harness his huge gifts. Last season was a career year. But there is no reason to think he can't do it again. Which is why he already belongs among the all-time greats.