Cristiano Ronaldo won the Golden Ball award for European Footballer of the Year yesterday, becoming the fourth Manchester United player to take the honor and the first since fellow winger George Best in 1968.
Ronaldo beat out Barcelona striker Lionel Messi, who was second place, while Liverpool forward Fernando Torres was third in the poll results announced overnight by France Football magazine.
Such is his extraordinary talent, Ronaldo takes his place among the greatest players to have graced European soccer despite the less savory aspects of his game.
The Portugal winger was runner-up to Kaka in the Ballon D’or last year and, after scoring an extraordinary 42 goals to help propel Manchester United to the Champions League and Premier League double, was untouchable in the race for this year’s award.
For all the diving, the theatrics, the exaggeration, the “what me?” shrugs and the Real Madrid transfer shenanigans, Ronaldo’s most important contribution to the game is his astounding array of talents.
There are many people who can perform eye-boggling acts of soccer trickery, but the closest most of them get to the professional game is a bit part in a halftime fizzy drink advertisement.
Ronaldo does it in the white heat of battle at the very highest level, against the most committed defenders, who take it personally when he makes mugs of them.
His tricks, more often than not, are less for show and more a means to an end as, once he has made his space, he wastes little time in delivering his crosses and incisive passes.
Only George Best, who also won his 1968 European player of the year award after helping United to win the European Cup and scoring in the final, combined that talent as a winger and provider who also had a greed for goals.
Birthdate: Feb. 5, 1985
Birthplace: Madeira Islands, Portugal
2002: Makes debut for Sporting Lisbon aged 17
2003: August: Scores in pre-season friendly against Manchester United before moving to Old Trafford in a £12.42 million (US$18.7 million) transfer. Takes No. 7 shirt worn by David Beckham following the England midfielder’s transfer to Real Madrid. Makes United debut as substitute in 4-0 home win over Bolton Wanderers.
Plays for Portugal in 1-0 win victory against Kazakhstan.
Nov. 1: Scores first United goal in 3-0 home win over Portsmouth.
Dec. 1: Fined £4,000 at an FA disciplinary hearing for his role in the Old Trafford flare-up following a goalless draw with Arsenal.
2004: June: Voted United’s player of the season.
2005: September: Stars for Portgual in World Cup qualifier against Russia shortly after the death of his father.
2006: January: banned for one match by UEFA for making obscene gesture to Benfica fans during United’s 2-1 Champions League defeat at the Stadium of Light in December.
July 1: Protests to referee after United teammate Wayne Rooney tangles with Ricardo Carvalho in World Cup quarter-final. Rooney is sent off and Ronaldo is pictured on television winking at the bench. Ronaldo scores winning penalty in the shootout to knock out England.
Later that month, Ronaldo first reveals interest in moving to Spain after being linked with Real Madrid.
2007: Agrees to new five-year United contract.
April: Voted both the Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year by England’s Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the first man to win both awards in the same year since Scotland striker Andy Gray in 1977.
May: Voted Footballer of the Year by England’s Football Writers’ Association as United win the Premier League title.
Aug. 15: Sent off for headbutting Richard Hughes of Portsmouth during a 1-1 Premier League draw.
2008: March 19: Scores twice in 2-0 win over Bolton, taking his total for the season to 33 goals and so beating George Best’s record for most goals in a season by a United winger.
April: Voted PFA Player of the Year for second straight year.
May: Helps United to Premier League title.
May 21: Heads United in front in Champions League final against English rivals Chelsea in Moscow. Misses in shootout but United still win on penalties.
Ends season with 42 goals.
June: United report Real to world soccer governing body FIFA for pursuit of Ronaldo.
July: Undergoes ankle surgery.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter says Ronaldo should leave if he wants, arguing that keeping him at Old Trafford against his will would represent a move to “modern slavery” in soccer.
August: Having decided to stay with United, Ronaldo returns from injury as substitute in goalless home Champions League draw with Villarreal.
Nov. 15: Scores 100th United goal against Stoke.
Sunday: Sent off for second yellow card for seemingly blatant handball in the derby with Manchester City.
Yesterday: Named European Footballer of the Year and thus wins the Ballon d’Or.
Ronaldo’s return last season of 42 in 49 games was astonishing. The haul contained goals of all sorts, dead-eye free kicks, calm one-on-one finishes, “right-place, right-time” tap-ins and a number of towering headers.
United manager Alex Ferguson said his heading ability should be compared to the true giants of the art such as Tommy Lawton and Tony Hateley and says critics of Ronaldo’s diving should look at the punishment he takes.
“All these great players over the years, the Maradonas, Cruyffs, Peles — they all took a kick. It didn’t deter them at all,” Ferguson said last week.
“Cristiano has a similar thing. He had an operation in the summer, which was the result of consistent tackling on him, but he’s naturally brave,” he said.
Also like those greats, his talents cross the club and country divide.
Ronaldo was also voted the best player in England by his peers, journalists and fans across all clubs for two seasons in a row, despite the uncomfortable memory of his sneaky role in Wayne Rooney’s red card at the 2006 World Cup.
He is a talent that puts thousands on the gate. Fathers want their sons to watch him and their wives and daughters have an eye for him too.
His critics say he has yet to become a big enough influence for Portugal, or even United, in the biggest games, but it was he who scored his team’s goal in the Champions League final against Chelsea last season.
Under a massive weight of expectation, he may not have shone in Euro 2008 but nobody could doubt his commitment in helping Portugal to the quarter-finals and it was Ronaldo who converted the shootout penalty to take them into the 2006 World Cup semis.