The Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi debate will probably never die. The two players are inexorably linked, the product of two otherwordly talents with the misfortune (or, perhaps, incredible fortune) of existing over the same period of time. But while 2015 was clearly Lionel Messi’s year, 2016 belonged to Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star may not have won La Liga in 2016, but his form under new manager Zinedine Zidane after the new year helped Real Madrid end the season on a 12-match winning streak and a second-place finish, just one point behind Barcelona. Ronaldo may not have scored the most goals in La Liga, but he did finish second with 35.
And outside of that, Ronaldo won everything there was to win. In the Champions League final, he buried the final penalty kick as Real topped their cross-city rivals Atlético Madrid for the club’s 11th European title. He later parlayed that success to a recent win in the FIFA Club World Cup, where he scored two goals in extra time to win the final 4–2 over Kashima Antlers. He won the Ballon d’Or, taking the award for world’s best player back after a one-year stewardship by Messi.
But his crowning glory of 2016, the primary reason he’s on this list at all, came in a game where he had to come off injured after just 25 minutes. The Euro 2016 final wasn’t the prettiest of games, and after Ronaldo suffered knee ligament damage after a tackle from France’s Dimitri Payet of France, it was robbed of arguably its biggest star. But Ronaldo’s influence remained over the game, as the man once described by many as selfish and individualistic directed his teammates from the sideline with more excitability and urgency than even his own manager, all with a giant ice pack covering his knee.
And when it was all over, Ronaldo’s locker room speech to his teammates, coaches, and family radiated pure gratitude.
“This is the one that was missing,” he said that night in Paris.