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Third Ballon d’Or Confirms Cristiano Ronaldo’s State-Of-The-Art Genius

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WELL, that wasn’t much of a surprise, was it? Cristiano Ronaldo, who always looked like he was going to win the Ballon d’Or 2014, has won the Ballon d’Or 2014. And as ever when assessing the extent of his achievement in winning a third such Fifa gong (or equivalent) it is necessary to filter out first the various noises off.

First there is the need to blot out the barrage of self-promotional schmaltz associated with the Ballon D’Or itself, the only sensible human response to which is a desire to see the entire preposterously-tuxedoed spectacle custard-pied by benevolent anti-Fifa activists. At its best, football is contrarian, iconoclastic and gloriously uncertain. The Ballon d’Or is none of these, having become instead a marketeer’s backslap and a parasitic diversion from the real business of pure sporting competition that still lurks at the heart of all this.

Secondly it is necessary to negotiate a way past the yelps, squeals and general barking at the moon associated with the annual debate over the merits of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And finally there is the misdirection of Ronaldo himself, a sportsman whose triumph it has been to construct a footballing persona so complete and so devastating it is easy to picture him as simply a cog in the machine, an over-dog, a kind of white-shirted robo-warrior conceived by Nike technicians in a Fifa-approved laboratory and programmed towards the crowning triumph of a BD03 for CR07 in this our year CR2014.

All of which is incidental to the wider picture behind Monday evening’s coronation. In particular the rivalry with Messi remains a colossal red herring. In a slightly fraught year for Barcelona, at a time when he has had to adjust a little physically, Messi has still been great. The fact that Ronaldo has been slightly greater does not diminish this.

Similarly, the fact a player who scored 42 goals in 30 La Liga games and helped win the Champions League can still have his case as the world’s best player questioned by some is tribute simply to the status of both men. To see anything other than wonderful sporting riches here is to reach a level of entitlement that will only become clear a decade from now when we’re back to standard-issue Nedveds and Papins trouping the Fifa stage in their shiniest shoes.

Indeed the most interesting questions here are not whether Ronaldo deserves the award (he does); or where he stands now in the roster of all-time greats, but exactly how his talent has been refined in the past year to make him the most captivating and thoroughly modern footballer on the planet. This is a player whose goalscoring achievements as the cutting edge of the most expensive all-star team ever assembled are so extreme as to undermine, for some, their own credibility.

Indeed at times the past year has had a slightly Elvis in Vegas feel to it. Here he comes again, wheeled out on stage at the Bernabéu Grand, 12-pack bulging, hair perfectly pomaded, reeling off that tight but increasingly narrow roll call of C-Ron greatest hits, a footballer in danger of being obscured a little not just by the adulation but by the statistical overload of his own brilliance.

It is perhaps best to look for points of clarity. The most telling part of Ronaldo’s third Ballon d’Or is that it comes six years after his first. The Brazilian Ronaldo won Ballons five years apart. But nobody has ever come back to win it six years later, let alone having if anything improved as a player in the meantime. Messi may well be back as the world’s best next year, by which point he may have grown fully into the recalibrated Messi 2.0. But the difference right now is that Ronaldo remains physically undiminished, still propelling himself about the pitch with a flex of those terrifying neck muscles, still putting himself up one on one against an opposition defence as if to say: “You simply can’t match my movement or my control of the ball. Here I am, a living, breathing one-goal start.”

There are those who will say Messi is a more subtle creative player. Where Ronaldo is explosively linear, Messi weaves more aesthetically beautiful patterns, relies less on speed and power and more on his undiminished ability to pick a wonderful pass, to beat a man with a shuffle, to make the team around him play like angels. This may be true. But it overlooks the fact Ronaldo has also adapted in the past year, that he has distilled his game to a point where he now moves less, touches the ball less, and has refined his attacking presence into a wicked razor edge.

It is still easy to miss the old Ronaldo: the slaloming runs, the onanistic embroidery of those tricks and feints. But Ronaldo is done with that now. Above all there is a fearlessness in this retreat into a pure cutting edge, a player who is saying, “Judge me simply on my goals.” Ronaldo has had 10 or more shots at goal in a match at least nine times. There is no pretence here, no hiding from the game’s central point of influence. Just as when Ronaldo finally moves on there will be no mystery left, no outer fringe of his talent unexplored. We will know precisely how good he could have been: exactly this good.

There may be another bone of contention to the year’s Ballon in the fact Ronaldo barely influenced the World Cup in Brazil. The apologists will point to the serious knee injury that impacted his ability to inspire a mediocre Portugal team. Either way the World Cup appears to have been a relatively neutral element in the voting, reflection again of the primacy of the European game. The clustering of stars around the richest clubs may continue to cloud Ronaldo’s achievements for some.

It is a paradox that remains one of the most fascinating things about him. Here is a player who has succeeded in three European leagues, who had surgery at Manchester United to counter to the sheer toll of being repeatedly fouled, but will still be accused of having remained within the most sympathetic of environments, cosseted princeling of modern football’s star system. Here also is a skinny kid from Funchal, a nerdish outsider who has transformed himself into the ultimate glossily burnished footballing brand, so devoid of weakness, so statistically remarkable that his brilliance has almost become boring.

Ronaldo will be 30 in February. It is unlikely he can function at his current level of extreme athleticism for much longer. We are now experiencing Peak C-Ron, the best of a player who may or may or may not be among the all-time greats – it is an unwinnable argument, a comparison of different times – but who has without doubt transformed our idea of what a great player might look like now, and who remains a genuinely state-of-the-art footballing genius. – The Guardian

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