By The Rex Factor
Cristiano Ronaldo is the best soccer player in the world.
This is not one of my UEFA Champions League preview pieces where I handicap games. It's an opinion piece, and one that will be followed up soon enough by my distaste for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and many things about both clubs.
Still, it's almost imperative that the discussion begin in earnest at some point in the very near future if Real Madrid can become the first team in the history of the Champions League to repeat as titlists: has anyone in the history of soccer ever had a better year-long run than Cristiano Ronaldo.
It's weird to even consider typing the Portuguese striker's first and last name, but only a decade a go, the most famous Ronaldo playing up front on the planet was a World Cup winner for Brazil.
The 32-year old is already legend and is known as “CR7” because of his No. 7 jersey that Sir Alex Ferguson gave him at Manchester United when he started his career there in 2003, taking the famous shirt from none other than David Beckham. Ronaldo said he was “petrified” to wear the No. 7 and had asked for No. 28 shirt after arriving from his native Sporting Lisbon to England.
Of course, Ronaldo fit in just fine wearing the No. 7 for the Reds and followed Beckham's career path by going to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009 and when Raul left Madrid, Ronaldo has been wearing No. 7 for country and club ever since.
A jersey doesn't make a player, though. Here's where the substance comes in. Ronaldo has scored 42 hat tricks since taking his talents to the Estadio Bernabeu. There are players who have carved out better-than-average to good CAREERS off 42 goals! Yet there will be only a handful or two that end up having a better career than Ronaldo's last 53 weeks if Los Merengues can hoist the Champions League trophy in Wales.
The benchmark for top foe in recent years is naturally against Barcelona and Argentina striker Lionel Messi. The two men have waged soccer's version of the 1980s NBA version of Larry Bird/Magic Johnson as they play through their prime years.
The notable exception is that while the Celtics and Lakers won almost every NBA crown in that decade, either Barca or Real win the Spanish La Liga crown every year – almost. Since Ronaldo got to Madrid eight seasons ago, Barca have won five titles and neither side have finished outside of first or second except in 2013-14. The Catalans have a chance to win a sixth this term, with Real winning one but finishing one position behind Barca every season except the 2011-12 title run for Los Merengues. Atletico Madrid was the 2013-14 outlier and have been losing to Real Madrid in the Champions League (looks like four years running) ever since.
It goes to show how strong Diego Simeone's side is to see them advance to face Real Madrid in two finals and two semis. But as one horse trainer I spoke with on the backside at Churchill Downs this week in advance of the Kentucky Derby said, “Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing.”
And make no mistake, Ronaldo refuses to let Atletico beat them in this event.
Five clubs have won the first leg of a Champions League semifinal by a 3-0 count and all have advanced to the final. Real Madrid are 5-0 lifetime when qualifying for the championship game, having never lost a final.
Clearly, it's all but a cinch for Real to make it to Cardiff, Wales for the Champions League Final. They would meet either Juventus or AS Monaco, and will be a decent favorite over each side.
So to put Ronaldo's “year” in perspective, if his club can lift the Champions League trophy again, he would cap the most storied single season in the history of soccer.
Portugal finished third in their four-team UEFA Euro Championship group in 2016. Normally, that would mean a trip home. But the tournament expanded to 24 teams in France last summer, so Portugal qualified as one of the best third-place teams in their group despite not winning a game and struggling to draws against Iceland and Austria before limping across the line after rallying THREE TIMES in a 3-3 draw against surprise group winner Hungary.
Of course, Ronaldo scored the last two Portugal goals to knot things and get his team into the knockout stages. From there, naturally Portugal upset a top-seed Croatian side after a 117th-minute goal. Yielding a second-minute goal to Poland's Robert Lewandowski as the Selecao rallied to tie it at 1-1 and advance to the quarterfinals on penalties.
Cinderella sides Iceland and Wales advanced to the quarters, where France dismissed the Icelanders 5-2 while Portugual set aside Wales in business-like fashion, 2-0. Ronaldo's first goal early in the second half was followed up less than four minutes later and Portugal were never headed afterward. The storyline was set up for the home side to hoist the trophy against the upstart Selecao – except that Ronaldo didn't get the script.
The only goal in the final was scored in yet another 120 minute game, as Eder netted in the 109th minute to give Portugal the shock 1-0 triumph. Eder finished last season and played this one for French club Lille OSC, ironically enough. But the run through the tournament gave Portugal its first-ever Euro crown, despite the side winning only one of its seven games in the 90 allotted minutes. It's a tournament run that is likely to be unparalleled in any Euro or World Cup again, and only speaks to Cristiano's ability to help will his team to victory, however improbable it might be.
Name a better from anyone in international soccer for club and country – ever. Team glory trumps individual accomplishments. I'm not familiar with much soccer outside of the 21st century but Ronaldo has clearly staked a claim to the best year ever if he can help his team win overcome Barcelona to win the La Liga crown again (it will likely be decided May 21st in Malaga), two Champions League crowns and an Euro – something never done by anyone for club and by the collective group of Portugal as a country.
Remember, Real Madrid also added a UEFA Super Cup to the trophy case at the start of the campaign before adding another trophy in the form of a UEFA Club World Cup crown in December. Ronaldo netted the backbreaker in the semifinals against Club America of Mexico in a 2-0 win before picking up a hat trick in the final against Japan's Kashima Antlers. Two of the goals were scored in extra time of the 4-2 win. He did the same thing four months later against Bayern Munich, netting a hat trick and two of the three Real Madrid goals after 180 minutes to send Real to the semis of this event. When a goal must be scored or a play must be played, Ronaldo has done it, and for more than 11 months straight.
After Tuesday's home mauling, and more important not allowing Atletico any away goals – it's going to be up to Juventus or AS Monaco to try to put a stop to this argument, which I've been contemplating since Real advanced to the semis.
Good luck to them against Madrid and CR7 – they're gonna need it. It's never easy to assume an upset in sports, but if form holds through Cardiff, then Cristiano Ronaldo will have recorded the best season in soccer - and perhaps, team sports - history.