As Cristiano Ronaldo's career evolves, how much longer can he be 'The Best?'

0:52 | Planet Futbol
How impressive is Real Madrid's unbeaten streak?
Monday January 9th, 2017

Cristiano Ronaldo scored two more goals Saturday, as Real Madrid stayed atop of La Liga after beating Granada 5-0. The result extended its unbeaten run to a record 39 games. It was Ronaldo’s first match since winning the Ballon D’Or last month, and before the game he posed in front of a pitch-side table with his four Ballon trophies on it. He wore limited-edition boots called CR7 Vitorias with a gold sole-plate to commemorate the achievement.

The individual awards keep coming. Monday, Ronaldo was crowned "The Best" by FIFA, an inaugural player-of-the-year prize after the governing body’s split from Ballon D’Or ownership with France Football. Coaches despair of these individual prizes, as modern-day players become fixated with winning them over league, European or international trophies.

Ronaldo has encouraged this trend: individual recognition motivates him, even if he does always acknowledge the role of his teammates along the way. This might be a response to playing in the same era as Lionel Messi, or simply a function of an obsessive pushing himself to the maximum. For the Portuguese star, team titles have led to the individual ones. In 2016, Real Madrid won the Champions League and the Club World Cup, and Portugal a first European championship. Unlike many players, there is no chance of Ronaldo ending his career and wondering if he could have done more. He is still pushing himself and those around him.

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This year could be the last in the usual Ronaldo-Messi rivalry for the top prize. For the ninth year running, they finished first and second on the Ballon D’Or podium. But Messi is now 29 and Ronaldo turns 32 in a few weeks. Last year Neymar was third. This year it was Antoine Griezmann. These young tyros can hope to improve those positions, not like Franck Ribery and Manuel Neuer, previous podium players whose appearances were one-offs.

So for how long will Ronaldo remain The Best? After he signed a new contract last fall, which runs until 2021, he said he had another 10 years left on his career.

"I'm going to be here for another five years, but let it be known this will not be my last contract,” he said. “I would like to end my career at this club.”

If he does so, it will be in a different position and with a renewed status to previous years. First, his position: Ronaldo has moved into a more central striking position under Zinedine Zidane. He has lost some of the pace to get him past defenders, and, more importantly, he doesn't have the energy or desire to track opposing fullbacks.

At a press conference before the Granada match, coach Zinedine Zidane was asked whether Ronaldo is now a center forward in his squad.

“Cristiano can play in any position,” he replied. “It’s true that lately he has played more as a No. 9 than before. But he can easily play in his old position. We change things, there is nothing fixed. It would be difficult to score more goals than he has been doing, but we hope he keeps going like this.”

The move to a No. 9 has come as no surprise in his homeland.

“He is such an exceptional finisher that we always believed he would develop into a classic No. 9, where he does not have to run so much,” explained Sergio Krithinas, editor of Portuguese newspaper Record. “It’s obvious he has changed the way he plays. We no longer see him running like crazy on a counterattack.”

Then there is his status: Ronaldo is no longer undroppable. Zidane, backed by a record-breaking 39-game unbeaten run and three trophies in 12 months in charge, has overseen this stage of his career with the minimum of fuss. But it is one of his most significant achievements.

Ronaldo has played in 20 of Madrid's first 29 matches and has been substituted off in four of them. He has played 68% of the season so far. Compare to the last season, when he played 91% (and was subbed off twice) and the previous campaign, 87% (subbed off four times).

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“Cristiano is a very intelligent player,” said Zidane, who has rested Ronaldo for five games when fit this season. “I want to have him for the whole season. We have 20 games in the next 60 days. Sometimes he, too, has to rest. That is the way I see it, and he sees it the same. There is no problem. He always wants to play, but we speak about it and know what is best. We try and play with all the players we have, to aim to win everything in front of us.”

This is a new, mature Ronaldo who accepts that with his injury record (faultless until 2014 but since then there have been knocks here and there), not playing every game is key to a longer career. This seemed unthinkable only a year ago, but Ronaldo, still relentless in his ambition, gets it. He has evolved his game. He has adapted his status in the hierarchy. Will it be enough to be The Best again? How will he cope as a podium contender in face of younger challengers like Neymar, Griezmann, Gareth Bale or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? Or even, if they overtake him? And will he really see out his days at the Santiago Bernabeu, even if playing time, eventually, is reduced more?

“In my job I try to be the best, and I work for that,” Ronaldo recently told Egyptian TV. “My motivation is to play football, to be the best, and this is what I try to do.”

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That cannot last forever. His agent Jorge Mendes claimed that a Chinese club had offered Madrid €300 million to buy Ronaldo but that it was rejected. There have also been links, far less lucrative, to MLS as well. This is premature: Ronaldo will not consider leaving Madrid while he is still in contention for these individual awards. Depending on the next few years, though, that might change.

Last November Ronaldo signed a ‘lifetime contract’ with Nike–after Michael Jordan and LeBron James, he’s only the third athlete to do so–and so a late-career move to a market outside of Europe would help his post-football career.

“When he stops playing, his legacy will come from what he’s done on the pitch and the clubs he’s played for,” Luis Correia, Ronaldo’s social media manager at Gestifute agency, told the International Football Arena conference in Berlin in 2014. “When he retires he will have a strong brand attached. The strategy is simple: promote this brand while he’s on top of his game so when he retires, his brand is established. David Beckham opened the way for this and Cristiano has more potential now.”

Ronaldo is the The Best for now. His game has changed. He accepts he is part of a rotation policy. He and his entourage are already planning for the future.

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