Earlier last week, Brazilian legend Ronaldinho left yet another club by mutual agreement. The story was like every other. After an initial bout of optimism, his time at the club (in this case, Fluminense) quickly turned tumultuous, and a split was in the best interest of both parties.
It’s the third club in the past three years for the former Ballon D’or winner cum journeyman, who’s found his career petering out in a way few could have imagined back in 2006. As we wait to see what the brilliant magician’s next move may be, it’s sad to see a player who had the world at his feet struggle to find his.
In fact, it makes the state of the current Ballon D’or holder even more impressive.
An athlete’s decline. Sometimes it’s slow and gradual; bit by bit something goes missing. Other times it builds up for years under the surface and strikes in one fell swoop. Then there are the oddities, of course, like the three-season long indian summer enjoyed by Andrea Pirlo at Juventus.
For Cristiano Ronaldo, it could be a combination of them all, but this isn’t some polemic against the Portuguese star. Make no mistake, we are witnessing one of the most unique ‘declines’ in the history of the sport, largely because we’re not exact sure if it’s a decline at all.
On the surface, this season seems like any other. Ronaldo is the leading scorer in both La Liga and the Champions League, netting eight goals in seven games. But a closer analysis reveals far more. Out of those seven games, Ronaldo’s only scored in two of them. His five-goal haul against Espanyol followed by his hat trick against Shaktar Donetsk in Madrid’s opening Champions League fixture seemed to indicate more of what’s to come, but he followed that up with four straight duds in La Liga.
Last week’s, in particular, a goalless draw with bottom-placed Granada, was quite telling. Truthfully, the entire team seemed to be anemic in front of goal, but the usually reliable Ronaldo was perhaps the biggest culprit. With each missed chance he seemed to grow only more frustrated, praying to the heavens and cursing to himself in retaliation.
Ronaldo is navigating his decline as if stranded on a minefield: there are potential triggers everywhere yet he meticulously avoids them, pirouetting around the inevitable pitfalls of what’s been a largely unrivaled level of consistency.
At this point, Ronaldo’s completed his transformation into a more central player. Gone are the days where his marauding runs down the left flank would culminate in a quick cut inside followed by a blast into the upper 90. He has almost totally eliminated the dribbling and ball-carrying part of his game. His 8.2 shots per game is around the same averaged by Newcastle.
Thus reveals the most unique facet of Ronaldo’s decline which, barring his alarming lack of success from free kicks, he’s hidden so well. You’ll hardly see Ronaldo failing at the things he once mastered. His dribbling proficiency and effectiveness has declined rapidly, yet it’s hardly apparent because he’s largely stopped attempting to exhibit those skills in the same fashion. Sure, he’ll still rope a defender into the corner and execute his patented stepovers, but those are largely safe maneuvers when compared to the intricate feinting he would exhibit before.
Ronaldo has masked his decline by doubling down on what he can still do, score goals. He’s desperate for goals because he knows it’s the one skill he can continue to exhibit at the highest level. He can’t do the things he once did, but if he can keep up his scoring ratio, he can appear to be on the same level.
On paper, one could defend last season as the best of his career. He toppled his record for goals and assists with 61 and 22, respectively. But most of that came in the first half of the season, when Real Madrid were flying and Ronaldo could do no wrong. Apart from some timely hat tricks down the stretch, Ronaldo has been largely underwhelming by his lofty standards for the majority of 2015.
Few players have exhibited the kind of discipline that Ronaldo has throughout his career. He reportedly doesn’t drink, hardly goes out on the town and is so laser focused on being the best he’s elevated himself to heights few could have really predicted when he was a skinny teenager dribbling in the Premier League.
It’s this attitude, this self-determination — this megalomania if you will — that’s turned him into who he is today. It’s also the same mentality that often leads to his antics. A bewildered Ronaldo, hands in the air exasperated when a teammate delivers a poor pass, is a recurring theme during a Madrid match.
Each and every one of the minor adjustments Ronaldo’s made to his game are part of that determination – pre-emptive strikes against looking like he’s somewhat past it. It’s something that most of the game’s legends were never able to quite do. Ronaldo knows he’s on a downward path, yet he doing whatever he can to slow the inevitable as much as a possible.
Ronaldo will likely make me eat my words in the long run and end up with another 50-goal season (though I can’t see him ever topping his mark from last year again), but even if he doesn’t hit the heights of old, his handling of the last stage of his career deserves merit.
And perhaps in the end it will be that, how hard he’s worked to maintain his level while battling against the uncompromising behemoth of father time, which could be rendered as his most impressive achievement.