FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER – The Olympian evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo.

cristiano ronaldo

Author: Thore Haugstad

Carlos Queiroz first saw Cristiano Ronaldo as a fifteen-year-old playing for a youth team in the famed academy of Sporting Clube de Portugal. In the past, the Portuguese coach had observed several soon-to-be greats, such as Luís Figo and Rui Costa, but this one, he concluded, was better. Later, the two would work together at the Portuguese national team and at Manchester United, where Queiroz would marvel at Cristiano’s dedication to self-improvement. He remembers the days before the 2008 Champions League final, against Chelsea in Moscow, when Cristiano practiced free-kicks to acquaint himself with a new ball designated for the match. Queiroz studied the biomechanics of past greats to fine-tune the player’s technical approach. When they started practicing, the results were disastrous. The free-kicks flew high and wide, and two days went by without improvement. Finally, on day three, the ball started finding the net. “Air distribution in all balls is different and that one was a nightmare to work out, but the important thing is that Ronaldo never quit. Not after two whole days with no success,” Queiroz told the Daily Mail. “That is what makes him a pleasure. I always say he motivates the coaches, not the other way around.”

Queiroz’s background was crucial in luring Cristiano to Old Trafford. The Mozambique-born coach had deep knowledge of and connections within Portuguese youth football. In his first managerial role, a two-year spell with Portugal’s U-20 side, he won the U-20 World Youth Championship in 1989 and 1991, and guided talents such as Rui Costa, Figo, Fernando Couto, Jorge Costa and João Pinto. (In the two tournaments, Queiroz proved an early ability for defensive organisation. Over the twelve games, Portugal conceded four goals and kept ten clean sheets.) The success propelled him to the senior post, held from 1991 to 1993, and a stint with Sporting, from 1994 to 1996. When Cristiano dazzled in that pre-season friendly in Lisbon in August 2003, after which United’s players begged for his signature, Queiroz and Sir Alex Ferguson had tracked him for months. “I had realised that night that Ronaldo’s secret was now out,” said Ferguson. “We had to get it done.”

Cristiano moved to Old Trafford for £12.24m on 12 August 2003. (Ferguson’s other signings that summer were Tim Howard, Kléberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion.) Four days later he debuted, at eighteen, in the Premier League opener at home to Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, replacing Nicky Butt on the hour-mark. He impressed immediately. Bold and unafraid, he drove defenders into dizziness with his quick feet and repeated stepovers. The right-back, Nicky Hunt, was tormented, and Kevin Nolan had to pull Cristiano down to concede a penalty that Ruud van Nistelrooy missed. United won 4-0 and the teenager was the talk of the town. “It looks like the fans have a new hero,” said Ferguson afterwards. “It was a marvellous debut, almost unbelievable.”

When he arrived, Cristiano’s game rested on technique and speed. His body was skinny, his musculature undeveloped. Dribbling was his predominant quality, his stepovers becoming the first of many personal on-pitch trademarks. He infuriated almost as much as he thrilled. With the ball, his end-product was inconsistent and his decision-making suspect, and there were accusations of overplaying and showboating. Without it, he could be indisciplined and unreliable. Gary Neville, previously covered by the more industrious David Beckham, grew exasperated by his immaturity and felt like giving up on him altogether. Once, after Cristiano had attempted a back-heel finish instead of side-footing home, Neville snapped: “What the hell are you playing at? That’s not what we do here.”

There was less to criticise on the training ground. Cristiano’s professionalism reflected an unusual sense of determination. When the players hit the showers, he would slap weights on his ankles and practice stepovers. Roy Keane, renowned for his demanding nature, wrote in his 2014 biography The Second Half: “After the first few days, watching him play, watching him train, my reaction was: ‘This lad is going to be one of the world’s greatest players’… He was amazing. He was immediately one of the hardest-working players at United. Most of the players I knew worked hard, but Ronaldo had the talent on top of the work rate.” Neville, later won over by Cristiano, said that, at Carrington, “Ronaldo was a machine”. He also registered an early dedication to personal achievement. “He was always fascinated with becoming the best player in the world,” Neville wrote in the Daily Mail. “He would have no concerns about telling us in the dressing room or the media that that was his goal.”

His application particularly applied to the athletic. Mick Clegg, United’s fitness coach from 2000 to 2011, says the club’s gym culture was sound before the Portuguese arrived, led as it was by Keane, Ryan Giggs and Beckham, but that when Cristiano arrived, it hit another level. “He would do whatever training I prescribed and more,” Clegg told The Sun. “He lived and breathed football twenty-four seven and his dedication was phenomenal.” The two developed a close professional relationship and, if the coach was eager to teach, he had been gifted an exemplary student. Clegg told the BBC: “He had in his mind: ‘I need to make myself special, and I’m going to have to learn everything I need to become special. I’m going to have to regiment my day and my week, months and years, and become as good as I can be by every possible means.’ He had a plan.”

Cristiano’s time at Old Trafford can be split into two parts. In the first three seasons, from 2003 to 2006, he was a precocious winger in development. Despite initial frustration within the squad, as highlighted by Neville, Ferguson handed him twenty-nine league appearances in his debut season. (In four of the other five league campaigns in England, he would play between twenty-nine and thirty-four matches; a testimony to his endurance and understanding of his own conditioning.) The inaugural season ended with four league goals. The next season he hit five, then nine in 2005/06. The progression was steady and constant.

In this period there was something paradoxical about Cristiano. Ostensibly his primary weapon was the fleet-footed dribbling, which motivated so many youngsters to train on replicating his style. These solo runs wreaked havoc, yet they led to few goals for him personally. When he did find the net, it was owed to his sense of timing for running into the box. Starting from the wing, he would attack the back post for crosses, or sweep into the area for cut-backs. He was still a finesse player, but his off-the-ball movement was already in refinement.

Full-backs dreaded facing him. In 2004, United reached the FA Cup final, where they would face Championship side Millwall. His marker, Robbie Ryan, knew trouble awaited once United beat Arsenal in the semi-finals. “I remember watching him when he first came on the scene, and he obviously looked good,” Ryan told the Independent in 2012. “But all of a sudden a couple of months, February, March, he started really beating players and scoring. He was tall, I didn’t realise how tall, and I wouldn’t say he was skinny. He wasn’t built like he is now, but he was big.”

United won the game 3-0 and Cristiano scored the opener a minute before half-time. Ryan was substituted in the seventy-fourth minute. “I have never played against anybody like that in my life,” he said afterwards. “I was pleased to be taken off.”

Some tried to intimidate Cristiano. Ahead of a game, in the 2003/04 season, one of Leicester City’s strikers, James Scowcroft, was asked by his manager, Micky Adams, to greet him with a “welcome to England” challenge. “I did what he asked,” Scowcroft told the Independent. “But he was twenty yards away before I’d finished the tackle.”

In the summer of 2006, at twenty-one, Cristiano left for the World Cup in Germany where Portugal, under Luiz Felipe Scolari, would reach the semi-finals. It was not without drama. In the quarter-finals, against England, he allegedly contrived to get Wayne Rooney sent off, then winked towards the Portugal bench. English crowds were infuriated. The Sun published an image of his wink inside a dartboard frame, calling him a “Portuguese nancy boy”. The heckling was so bad that Ferguson had to travel to the Algarve to persuade him to return to Manchester. (The Scot initially sent an avalanche of text messages, then discovered he’d been using an old number.)

Cristiano did come back. His first game away from home was against Charlton Athletic. “Of course, the crowd booed,” recalled Ferguson in an ITV documentary. “But just before half-time, he got a ball, beat a man and hit the bar with a fantastic shot—and everybody shut up. They were terrified.”

Earlier that August, Cristiano had rejoined the United squad. “He walked into the dressing room and I thought: ‘Jeez, what has happened to him over the summer?’,” Neville wrote in the Daily Mail. “When he had come to the club he was this thin, wiry boy. Now he was a light-heavyweight. He’d been on the weights over the summer and it was like watching someone grow up in a matter of weeks.”

Gone were the showboating and overplaying. His leap was greater and he seemed stronger, faster, even better built. His free-kicks started to fly inn with regularity. He could hit low drives with minimum backlift, or smack home long shots with a speed and swerve that sent goalkeepers into a brief state of paralysis.

His instinct had also been altered. He still played out wide but, when taking on defenders inside the final third, he would no longer seek a cross; the aim now was to shoot. There seemed to have been a mental reframing process in which he redefined himself from a tricky winger to a ruthless goalscorer. This translated into a new sense of directness, and more goals. By the end of May 2007, he had scored seventeen league goals, and United had wrested back the title from José Mourinho’s Chelsea.

Over the ensuing summer, people questioned whether Cristiano could improve on such a season. It started badly, both for him and United. They drew 0-0 at home to Reading on opening day and followed it up with 1-1 at Portsmouth. In that match, in the eighty-fifth minute, Cristiano head-butted midfielder Richard Hughes and was dismissed by referee Steve Bennett. He was suspended for three matches, with United due to meet Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Manchester City next. They lost 1-0.

The ban gave Cristiano time to work. René Meulensteen, the Dutch coach then on United’s staff, knew he wanted to become the best player in the world. “I told him: ‘I can help you with that,” Meulensteen told the Telegraph. He drew Cristiano a diagram of his profile. It contained tactical factors: awareness, understanding and decision-making; physical factors; personality factors: winning mentality and attitude; and technical factors: passing, shooting, moves, turns and dribbling skills. What was his chief quality?  “Skills,” Cristiano replied.

Meulensteen proceeded to accuse him of playing to the gallery. The teenager prone to overplaying had long gone but, then as now, he craved the adulation of the crowd. “Cristiano, I’ve looked at your goals last season, and you only scored twenty-three because you want the perfect goal all the time,” Meulensteen said. “‘Look at me! Top corner!’ The most important individuals are the ones who elevate the team, not themselves. You think it’s the other way round. No, no, no. Elevate the team and the team will then elevate you.’”

The transformation from showboater to goalscorer had already taken place. What Meulensteen wanted was to instil a more clinical edge. He suggested Cristiano adopt the mindset of a poacher, such as Gary Lineker or Van Nistelrooy. “It doesn’t matter how you score, where you score, as long as the ball goes in the net,” he said. He invited Cristiano to set targets. “I think I can score between thirty and thirty-five goals,” Cristiano replied. Meulensteen disagreed: “OK. I think you can go over forty. This week, in these training sessions, I’m going to work on your way of finishing’.”

They went to the training ground. Some sessions consisted of Cristiano shooting from different positions and in various ways: volleys, chips, one-touch. Each drill had four repetitions. He was ordered to create a mental image of the situation and what he wanted to happen. Meulensteen gave colours to the four corners of the goal and requested that Cristiano shout out which one he was aiming for before striking. According to the coach, this worked the player’s subconscious mind and, by extension, his instinct.

By evidence of his goalscoring record, these subconscious triggers needed a few weeks to form. Cristiano’s first league goal of the season came in the eighth game, away to Birmingham, where he scored the winner by forcing a defensive error. Following were a brace against Wigan Athletic—a one-yard header and a tap-in—and, soon after, another brace in the Champions League, away to Dynamo Kiev; a powerful backtracking header and a penalty. The goals kept rolling in: one-touch finishes, headers, penalties, swerving free-kicks. “He just cannot stop scoring,” went the commentators’ go-to line. Somehow, his first hat-trick arrived only on 12 January 2008. It came in a 6-0 demolition of Newcastle United at Old Trafford. Six weeks later, in the second league fixture against the same team, at St. James’ Park, he lost his balance after trying to control a long pass. The crowd jeered as he fell to the ground. Three seconds later United recovered the ball and Cristiano, back on his feet, received it, skipped past Steven Taylor and scored.

Some of the goals were particularly memorable. In the Champions League quarter-finals, at Roma, Paul Scholes lofted a ball back across goal; Cristiano stormed into the area, rising majestically to head in the opener. In the final against Chelsea he used his aerial power again, nodding home a cross delivered by the left foot of Wes Brown. When the season was over United had won the double. Cristiano recorded thirty-one league goals and forty-two in all competitions. In 2008, he won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year.

Cristiano’s final season at Old Trafford was less prolific. A preceding summer flirtation with Real Madrid created the suspicion that a transfer was imminent. He hit eighteen league goals and twenty-six in all competitions, including a forty-yard rocket away to Porto. The goal bore testimony to his fitness work: few players have the power to score from that range. When he did leave Manchester, he was a titan of a footballer; an athlete befitting of the ancient Mount Olympus. Everything he had become, he had built himself.

“I look at the other players who come and go with talent,” Clegg told the BBC. “Nani and Anderson both came in during 2007 at a similar age to Ronaldo, but the difference was astronomical. The difference was the understanding and the knowledge of how to become the best. Ronaldo was above everyone else.”

Cristiano had hired his own chef to make sure he had the right diet. He had bought a house with a custom-built swimming pool to aid muscular recovery. Clegg recalled that, after training with the squad, Cristiano would come back into the gym and do power work for his legs. He would then go home, eat, swim, sleep and come back for repetitions the next morning. So it went for six years. “We did speed, power and reaction work, everything he needed and worked with on the pitch,” said Clegg. “So much of my work was tailored around him. I even went to Montreal and looked at cognitive devices and different ways of working that would extract that extra ounce out of him.

“He loved being here, yet he knew he was on a journey, and he knew it was going to take him somewhere else.”

On 6 July 2009, Cristiano was presented at the Santiago Bernabéu, having completed a world-record £80m transfer. He was twenty-four. Some 80,000 fans had crammed into the stadium—a remarkable number for the mere introduction of a new signing—to watch him kick a couple of footballs, wave and smile. The turf was being relaid, so instead of walking out on pristine grass, he emerged on a lime-green carpet. Earlier that summer, he had already undergone initial medical tests with Real Madrid while on holiday in Portugal. The official medical, on the same day as the presentation, had gone smoothly. “He has an extraordinary cardiac and lung capacity,” said Carlos Díez, the club’s medical chief. “We have complemented everything that we already did in Portugal and done all the specific tests. Now we will be able to start working using an individual plan in order to improve his performance.”

The summer had been marked by the return of Florentino Pérez, the construction magnate, who had displaced Ramón Calderón after running unopposed in the presidential elections. In his first stint as president, from 2000 to 2006, Pérez had signed Zinédine Zidane, Figo and Beckham to create the famous galácticos side. Now, his fantastical sense of ambition had not diminished. Before Cristiano arrived, he had secured Kaká from AC Milan for £56m, and agreed a £30m fee with Olympique Lyonnais for Karim Benzema. In August came Xabi Alonso from Liverpool for £30m. The new coach was Manuel Pellegrini, brought in from Villarreal. The galácticos sequel was ready to hit the road, with Cristiano in the lead role.

During his presentation, Cristiano had expressed how he had always dreamed of playing for Real Madrid. This is natural PR talk for most players, but on this occasion it seemed to carry more truth than usual. If there is a road to world domination, it tends to lead to Barcelona or Real Madrid; the two loftiest platforms for individual recognition. Whether Real Madrid is the greatest club of all time is debatable—it won the FIFA Club of the Century award in December 2000—but the prestige of its gallery of former players is undoubted. The club embodies a sense of legend and history matched by few if any. For a man of Cristiano’s ego, the prospects of individual and collective accomplishment made his push for a transfer understandable.

The season started well. Real Madrid won their first five league matches. But in the end, trophies eluded them. In La Liga, they took ninety-six points, yet finished behind Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona; in the Champions League, they lost to Olympique Lyonnais in the round of sixteen; in the Copa del Rey, they lost 4-0 to Alcorcón, then a Segunda División B team, in the round of thirty-two; an upset dubbed Alcorcónazo by the Spanish press. Pellegrini got the boot. Cristiano scored twenty-six goals in twenty-nine league matches, and thirty-three goals in total, but was eclipsed in the league by Lionel Messi, who scored thirty-four to claim the Pichichi. He did not even finish as runner-up: Gonzalo Higuaín struck twenty-seven times and snuck into second place.

Despite the failure to win something, Cristiano had delivered an eye-catching season. In some ways he had gone back to becoming a man of the spectacular. Many of his goals had been entirely down to individualistic quality; at no point had he, nor would he, rely less on his team-mates. In terms of solo runs and free-kicks, it had been his best season. The freedom granted to him by Pellegrini facilitated a balance between powerful finishing and balletic dribbling that, for him, has never since been finer. If the player of today is better than in 2009/10, the beauty of his goals are nowhere close.

Mourinho arrived the next summer. It initiated a new phase in Cristiano’s evolution. Renowned for his methodological approach, Mourinho installed a more formulaic system in which Cristiano received a more specific, restricted role. He was now defined as a left winger, though his profile was harder to categorise. “We try to find a position that is most comfortable for Cristiano,” Mourinho said in 2011. “And there is always the debate. Is he a forward? I do not think that he is. I think [his game] is one-on-one against a rival. Is he a winger? No, because he is also a goalscorer and when you are a winger, how many goals do you score in a season; half a dozen? I think that he is the mixture of two things. He has everything.”

This assessment would have been accurate at the time of Mourinho’s arrival. But the balance quickly changed. Forsaking his solo runs, Cristiano became more of a finisher: less flashy, less demonstrative; more direct, ruthless, efficient. Fewer touches, more goals. Under Pellegrini, team-mates had given him the ball and waited for magic to ensue. Mourinho constructed the team so that he be set up in ideal scenarios, be they one-on-one situations, far-post crosses or killer passes. Cristiano refined his acceleration, reflexes and sense of timing. He became the sharpest off-the-ball runner in the world, a master of headers and one-touch finishes.

Mourinho’s system was built round him. Set out in a 4-2-3-1, it was the perfect counter-attacking machine: Mesut Özil centrally, Ángel Di María on the right, and Alonso and Sami Khedria anchoring midfield. In transitions, Mourinho would attack with four players. Cristiano and Di María hared forward immediately, as did Özil, while the lone striker—Higuaín or Benzema—ran across the defence. Özil was key. The delicate German was deceptively quick, his passes timed and weighed like few others. Combined with the explosiveness of Cristiano and Di María, Real Madrid became unstoppable on the counter. The passes were directed and sharp, the runs carefully choreographed. Teams were killed off with the venom and speed of a cobra.

Cristiano thrived. In 2010/2011 he scored forty La Liga goals and fifty-three in all competitions; in 2011/2012 he hit forty-six league goals and sixty in total; in 2012/13 he struck thirty-four in the league and fifty-five in all. His productivity was stunning. An analysis of his finishes in 2011/12 reflected his evolution as a player: out of the thirty-two goals from open play—twelve penalties and two free-kicks being excluded—twenty were first-time finishes. The reason was clear. Mourinho had installed specific patterns designed to find him inside the box or in behind the defence. He no longer relied on his dribbling. He would score by the virtues of thinking faster, running quicker and jumping higher than any defender in La Liga.

The notion that Cristiano’s best attributes are not technique-based feels odd, eleven years after that blistering Old Trafford debut. But it is true. His X-factors are of the mental and physical kind. On the pitch, his focus rivals that of Van Nistelrooy. He reacts quicker than anyone, he is persistent, he is no longer vulnerable to distraction. Goals are scored on instinct. Off the pitch, his discipline is famous. Mourinho, despite falling out with him in their final season, called him “the most professional player I’ve ever met”. Carlo Ancelotti, when quizzed on the same topic by the Financial Times, blew out his cheeks in admiration. The year before, Ancelotti’s assistant coach, Paul Clement, offered two demonstrative anecdotes. “There was a game we arrived back from at 3am and he went off for an ice bath,” he told the Guardian. “Another time, we got back from Istanbul at 6am and the physio’s giving him a rubdown.”

This dedication has underpinned his psychical state. The athleticism he built at Manchester United has continued to improve, and he would not look out of place on an Olympic running track. In 2011/12, in a match against Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid won possession after defending a corner, and launched an immediate counter-attack. Cristiano, having defended the set piece, sprinted the length of the pitch to finish off the move. (He hit the post.) Afterwards, it was discovered he had run ninety-six metres in ten seconds. Usain Bolt’s world record over hundred metres stands at nine point fifty-eight.

In 2011, Cristiano did tests in a laboratory at the University of Chichester, in England. There it emerged he could leap seventy-eight centimetres; seven centimetres higher than the average NBA player. Later, in the 2012/13 season, in the first half of a Champions League round-of-sixteen match against Manchester United at the Santiago Bernabéu, he rose above Patrice Evra to head in a cross. At half-time, Ferguson prepared to rip into Evra for letting Cristiano score. When he saw the replay, he withdrew the bollocking. “His kneecap was at the height of Evra’s head,” said Ferguson. “Even Messi can’t do that.”

The statistical and historical comparisons between Cristiano and Messi often eclipse a fundamental disparity. While Messi’s game is based on having the ball, Cristiano’s is based on not having it. Judging by technical ability, Messi is a one-off, whose vision and intuition feel natural, almost inherent. His place is on the playground, ball in hand, driven by mere eagerness to play. He is a glorious representation of football in its purest form. Cristiano has less natural talent, but compensates with persistence, particularly through his commitment to self-improvement. If Messi’s abilities are natural, Cristiano’s have been built. If Messi is the artist, Cristiano is the machine. If Messi’s story is an ode to footballing genius, Cristiano’s is a tribute to the triumph of will.

Both men have a purity to their game. Matthew Syed, the Times columnist, wrote in early 2014 that “there is something deeply aesthetic about Ronaldo that goes beyond the stats and goals. It is about the almost perfect symmetry between his two feet. It is about the sense that on every dimension of skill—dribbling, passing, shooting, or charging forward to make a courageous header, like the thunderbolt from near the penalty spot against Roma in the Champions League quarter-finals of 2008—he is in the top rank.

“It is about his supreme balance and athleticism. You could almost say that, in footballing terms, Ronaldo is complete. Everything is in perfect proportion. He is football’s Vitruvian Man.”

The Vitruvian Man, of course, is the seminal drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, around 1490, which depicts the correlation between the ideal human proportions and geometry. “I would say, physically, he is the perfect specimen,” Clegg said of Cristiano. “From his height to his natural body type, muscular structure, how much fat he’s got in his system, his endurance capacity, flexibility, power and strength—they are in perfect balance.”

The evolution of Cristiano has continued under Ancelotti. In 2014 he won his second Ballon d’Or, and this year he received it a third time. The season has been stunning, and few would argue against this being one of his finest periods. Records are falling everywhere. If the world domination he has plotted since his impoverished childhood in Madeira can ever be said to have come to fruition, this is it.

It is often said that it is harder to stay on top than to get there; for Cristiano the opposite seems true. The intensity of his desire never wanes. The motivation is personal. Whatever he might say about trying to help the team, he is, by all evidence, driven by records and goals; the history books, his legacy, his standing among the best. His energy is drawn from a bottomless well of egocentricity.

Not all players are like this. Take Thierry Henry, who, at his peak, always seemed more in love with the game itself than with personal achievement. Like his manager, Arsène Wenger, he craved the perfect football, often squaring to team-mates when clean on goal, and becoming incensed when others did not return the favour. He saw football as an art form. When time was running out and Arsenal held a comfortable lead, Henry would slow down the game in an almost arrogant way, caring little about whether he scored another goal.

For Cristiano, the last goal of a 6-0 win is almost as meaningful as the first. His focus does not drop, hence his particular efficiency in the final fifteen minutes. In a match against Elche last year, with the score at 4-1, having scored a hat-trick, he was furious with himself for missing an angled header. In another game, against Athletic Club, the ball hit his shoulder and rolled into the net. The goal was pointless: Real Madrid led 4-0 and the clock stood at eighty-eight minutes. But not to him. He ran towards the corner flag, smiling widely, and did his trademark celebration. Had Henry scored the same goal, you’d feel he would have been embarrassed.

This insatiability has been at the core of Cristiano’s inexorable rise. It is his greatest asset. The hunger, the relentlessness, the dissatisfaction with everything.

“I have worked with some outstanding players like Roberto Donadoni and Zinédine Zidane, but Ronaldo’s mentality sets him apart,” Queiroz said. “He had all their good points but some that were better, like his persistence. They are all unbelievable professionals but the way this boy has worked since he was seventeen, his perfectionism, his obsession… For him, it is not enough to be good. He has to be the best.”

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