The Final Piece of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Jigsaw

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Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo poses with his five Ballon d'Or trophies ahead of the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid and Sevilla at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid on December 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU

The relentless pursuit of silverware goes on.

Having claimed five Champions League crowns, five Ballons d’Or, a European Championship with Portugal and a host of other trophies in a glorious playing career with Sporting, Manchester United and Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo now sets his sights on the game’s greatest prize. But it may just be a step too far.

Ronaldo is relentless. At the age of 10, he joined Madeira’s biggest club, Nacional, and he was soon considered the best young player on the Atlantic archipelago – even when he was up against older boys. By 11, he was part of Portugal’s finest academy at Sporting, on the mainland, and at 18 he signed for Manchester United.

“He was captain of the team,” former Nacional youth coach Pedro Talinhas told Goal. “And even though he was a junior in his first year, many times he played against boys that were three years older than him – and often he stood out even then. You could see that he was a kid who had immense abilities, immense potential.”

At Sporting, he was yet another talented player to emerge from the country’s finest youth system, yet there was something special about the winger even then.

“There were three excellent young players at that time,” Ronaldo’s former team-mate at the Lisbon outfit, Andre Cruz, told Goal. “There was Ricardo Quaresma, Hugo Viana, who signed for Newcastle, and Cristiano.

“All of them were very talented, but you could see that Ronaldo was different.

“He was restless back then. There was a seriousness to him that has turned him into the great champion he is today. He had the quality and the conditions, the potential was there. And his physique was superior, plus he hardly ever gets injured.

Now at the age of 33, Ronaldo has just won his fifth Champions League, the last four at Real Madrid following his 2008 success with Manchester United.

He’s just one win behind the competition’s most-successful player Paco Gento, who claimed six European Cups between 1956 and 1966.

“Cristiano is a true Real Madrid legend for everything he has achieved,” former Blancos goalkeeper Paco Buyo told Goal.

“He is a star in every sense. He has won it all with Real Madrid and he even won the Euros with his national team. That shows his level. He is extraordinary.”

For many younger fans of the Spanish side, he is considered the greatest in the club’s history and he is already the team’s all-time top scorer, with an astonishing 450 goals in just 438 games, a total that has seen him surpass Raul (323) and the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano (308).

“Alfredo was a phenomenon,” former Argentina goalkeeper Hugo Gatti – who played against and was also coached by Di Stefano – told Goal. “For me, the player who revolutionised European football was Alfredo Di Stefano. After Alfredo, you have Cristiano.

“Cristiano is a guy who never stopped learning. He has a winning nature, he’s a great goalscorer and he wants to win it all and improve all the time.”

In Portugal, meanwhile, Ronaldo’s name is mentioned alongside former greats such as Eusebio and Luis Figo, although neither of those two were able to help their national team to an international trophy as Cristiano did with the Selecao at Euro 2016. He is also the nation’s all-time top scorer with 81 goals.

“He has surpassed legends like Eusebio and Figo,” former United team-mate Rio Ferdinand told Goal. “He surpassed them a while ago.

“They were great players, but Figo knows he is not on the same page as Ronaldo. Because his numbers don’t lie, what he has won in the game, his status in the game, he is at the top table both past and present.”

With all his Champions League crowns, Ballons d’Or, domestic leagues and cups, Supercups, Club World Cups and the European Championship success of two years ago, Ronaldo is one of the game’s most decorated players.

And the World Cup is now in his sights as well. At 33, this is also likely to be his last chance of winning it.

“It is difficult because although Portugal have good players, it is not like Real Madrid where Ronaldo is surrounded by the best footballers in the world,” Cruz added. “It is the same with [Lionel] Messi for Argentina. At Barcelona, his team-mates are at a different level, but in international football, you have to work with what you have.”

Portugal, with a population of just over 10 million, is already over-achieving in comparison to much larger nations such as Spain, Brazil, Argentina and others. And to win the European Championships in 2016 was a spectacular achievement for the country in itself.

Just like the 2004 competition, which brought bitter defeat in the final to Greece for the hosts, Euro 2016 will be remembered for Ronaldo’s tears.

A young Cristiano cried after his national team lost that first tournament and he wept again in Paris as he was withdrawn through injury two years ago, only to return in triumph to lift the trophy after Eder’s extra-time winner.

Joao Marques de Freitas, who helped broker Ronaldo’s move to Sporting by convincing his mother to agree he travelled to Lisbon as a youngster, told Goal: “Cristiano is proud to be from Madeira and he is proud to play for Portugal. You can see his pride in wearing the shirt.

“In 2004, he cried because he had been so close to winning with his country. In 2016, Portugal cried with him when he went off injured, but there was a happy ending that time.

“A World Cup is the biggest dream, of course, and it would mean everything to him. But it is difficult.”

It will be. A semi-final appearance in 2006, with Ronaldo playing a pivotal part, is Portugal’s best return ever in the global competition.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner netted his first World Cup goal in that run as he converted a penalty in a 2-0 win over Iran in the group stages. Portugal progressed to the knockout stages with three victories, followed by an ill-tempered 1-0 win over Netherlands which saw both teams end with nine men.

The controversy continued in the quarter-finals when Wayne Rooney was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. Cristiano led the protests and was targeted by the English media for his role in Rooney’s red card. Images of the forward winking at the Portuguese bench further fanned the flames.

Unperturbed by all of that, Ronaldo stepped up to score the winning spot kick in the shootout as Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side advanced to the last four. There, in the game against France, Ronaldo was met with loud boos by the thousands of England fans who had bought tickets in the hope of seeing their team compete for a place in the final. In the end, his side lost out to a penalty scored by his future Real Madrid boss, Zinedine Zidane.

“That was a tough time for Cristiano,” De Freitas said. “He had to go back to Manchester and a lot of people were against him.

“But it shows the strength of character he has that he came through and went on to become even more popular with the fans there than he was before.”

Four years later, Ronaldo went into the World Cup without an international goal since February of the previous year and although one eventually arrived in a 7-0 win over North Korea in the group stages, that would be that. The team never really gelled under former United assistant Carlos Queiroz and went out to champions Spain in the last 16 after a 1-0 loss, having failed to score in three out of their four games.

Brazil 2014 brought further frustration for Ronaldo. The Real Madrid forward had finished the season with an injury and was blighted by a knee problem throughout the tournament. His 80th-minute winner against Ghana in the final group game meant he had scored in a third successive World Cup, but it was not enough to prevent Portugal from a disappointing exit in the group stages.

It has been very much mixed fortunes for ‘CR7’ so far in the biggest competition of all.

Nevertheless, after winning everything at club level and claiming the Euro 2016 title with Portugal in 2016, this summer’s tournament in Russia represents one last chance to take home the game’s greatest prize: the World Cup.

“That could be the one that eludes him,” Cruz said. “Cristiano is incredible, but Portugal as a team are not as strong as Spain, Germany or Brazil. There can always be a surprise and their hopes rest on him, but Portugal are one of the outsiders for the trophy in Russia.”

Those thoughts are certainly reflected by the betting markets, with the European champions below Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, Belgium and England on the list of the most-backed teams to win the trophy in Moscow on July 15.

And even though the Selecao’s success at Euro 2016 was considered something of a surprise as Fernando Santos’ side were not among the pre-tournament favourites either, the World Cup is another level altogether.

“I think Ronaldo’s chances of winning the World Cup with Portugal are limited,” Ferdinand said. “I think the squad they have… yes, they won the European Championships, but there was not a fancied team there.

“But when you have a Cristiano Ronaldo in your team, you have always got a chance of doing something in every minute of every game, because he is that good.

“He produces so consistently, both for his club and country, that you cannot ever write off a Portugal team that has Cristiano Ronaldo in it.”

For Ronaldo, it is the chance to achieve immortality. After winning his fifth Ballon d’Or last December to draw level with Messi on five Golden Balls, the Portuguese said: “I’m the best player in history.”

And while a World Cup triumph for the 33-year-old this summer would not prove that statement to be true, it would set him apart from his rivals – and the Argentine attacker in particular – in terms of prizes.

Having claimed everything else there is to win, the World Cup is the missing piece in the jigsaw for the Real Madrid forward.

As Portugal prepare to face Spain, Morocco and Iran in Group B, however, with Uruguay, France and Brazil potentially in wait if they finish second in that sector, this may just be one trophy Cristiano will have to do without.

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