Madrid (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have made the Ballon d’Or their own personal tug of war and on Monday the title for the world’s best player swung back the Portuguese’s way.
A hoarder of personal records and awards, it is Ronaldo’s reward for being on the winning side in the Champions League with Real Madrid and captaining Portugal to a first international trophy at Euro 2016.
Messi was second best as a league and cup double with Barcelona failed to mask Champions League disappointment and a third straight major final defeat with Argentina at the Copa America.
Ronaldo, 31, described Portugal’s surprise victory over hosts France in the final of the Euros as “the happiest moment” of his life despite a bittersweet ending to his tournament as he limped off in tears with knee ligament damage just 25 minutes into the final.
Whilst he never tires of showing off his impressive physique, the first signs of his body breaking down under the strain of his own relentless demands made Ronaldo’s achievements over the past 12 months all the more impressive.
He had two prolonged spells on the sidelines in spring and autumn, but still struck 50 goals for club and country for the sixth successive calendar year.
Three of them came at Euro 2016 where, if not prolific, Ronaldo still came to his country’s rescue in their hour of need.
Three times Portugal trailed Hungary and were headed for an embarrassing group-stage exit before Ronaldo made one and scored two to ensure they sneaked through.
He played his part too in the winner that saw off Croatia 1-0 in the last 16 and kept his cool as Portugal squeezed past Poland on penalties in the quarters.
However, the highlight of a tournament that proved to be the crowning glory of a magnificent career came in a showdown with Madrid teammate Gareth Bale and Wales in the last four.
No one in Europe scored more headed goals last season than Bale. Yet it was Ronaldo who soared highest for a bullet header to open the scoring before his shot was turned home by Nani for Portugal’s second in a 2-0 win.
Not bad for a player who started life as a winger at Sporting Lisbon and was initially derided as a one-trick pony with no end product when he moved to Manchester United, where he spent six years before sealing his dream move to Real.
– A Real hero –
It was a similar story this season at club level. Ronaldo’s sensational goalscoring form in 2015 had been criticised for a lack of goals when the going got tough.
Yet he routinely came up with the goods when Real needed a hero in the midst of a now club-record 35-game unbeaten run.
Indeed, Real’s last defeat, 2-0 away to Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarter-finals, was rendered meaningless as Ronaldo’s hat-trick overturned the deficit in the return at the Bernabeu.
Injury limited his impact for the semi-finals and final, yet he still battled through 120 minutes in Milan to put Atletico Madrid to the sword with the winning penalty for the third Champions League title of his career.
And the standout performance of his year came in inflicting more pain upon Atletico with a 3-0 win in the last La Liga derby at the Vicente Calderon last month to help Real amass a six-point lead at the top of the table.
Such is Real president Florentino Perez’s gratitude, Ronaldo has been rewarded with a bumper new five-year contract to protect his status as the world’s highest-paid sportsman.
“His stats are scandalous and he is also a player that has understood very well the philosophy, history and values of Real Madrid,” Perez told AFP.
“I hope they give him a fourth Ballon d’Or… and a fifth and a sixth.”
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