What makes a player the best in the world?
It is a question that the people eligible to vote for the FIFA Ballon d'Or award - journalists, national team captains and coaches - have to ask themselves before they mark a cross in the box next to their choice. Should the answer be sought in collective achievement, individualism or the personalities of the players on the short list?
A hopefully definitive answer in the context of the asinine world of modern football was provided at the award ceremony for the 2013 Ballon d'Or on Monday evening. Cristiano Ronaldo took the accolade, as was widely expected, and in doing so displayed a side that is rarely seen in public.
While his mother and girlfriend applauded in the audience, the Portugal and Real Madrid forward took the stage with his young son, Cristiano Jr. Clearly overcome with emotion, Ronaldo thanked his teammates and his family. He also made special mention of Nelson Mandela and the legendary Eusebio, who died last week and with whom Ronaldo enjoyed a close relationship. Ronaldo's win brought to an end a four-year hegemony of the award on the part of Leo Messi and, dare it be said, vindication of Ronaldo the person, as much as the player.
The statistics speak for themselves: 69 goals in 59 games for club and country; a one-man show that hauled Portugal from the brink of World Cup elimination in Stockholm to qualification for Brazil in June; the surpassing of Hugo Sanchez's scoring record for Real and the equalling of Pauleta's 47 for Portugal; five hat tricks, including the decisive treble against Sweden; and this season, the shattering of the record for most goals scored in a Champions League group stage and a total of 14 for the calendar year, eclipsing Messi's own mark. That Ronaldo deserved the Ballon d'Or on a sporting level is irrefutable. But the 28-year-old has won a more important victory overall: recognition off the field, as well.
Ronaldo's reputation precedes him of course. He is supremely confident, to the point of arrogance. But ask any man on the planet this question: Wouldn't you be? Ronaldo is a pure athlete - let's face it, he's a good-looking chap with a supermodel girlfriend and filthy rich. If several professional footballers, who shall of course remain nameless, feel empowered to strut the streets in defiance of social protocol and basic common decency, Ronaldo requires a second appraisal.
"If I win the Ballon d'Or, you're all invited to my party," he told kids suffering from leukemia at a charity event in December. Swiftly forgotten as he readied himself to swill champagne and roll around in piles of freshly minted cash, a la George Best? According to Spanish radio, quite the opposite: a plane on the runway.
Yes, Ronaldo has a museum paid for by himself and dedicated to himself on Madeira, a spit of Portuguese land in the middle of the Atlantic, but anybody who has ever been to the Bernabeu trophy room will concur with the reason why; people pay to get close to the players and teams they love, and that means the tourism dollar. Half of the silverware in the Bernabeu is comprised of the Bernabeu trophy, the Alfredo di Stefano trophy, the trophy invented for the sake of it.... most of the runners-up are of the calibre of Betis, Botafogo and Bolton Wanderers.
Another facet of Ronaldo's prowess is his natural athleticism: It is not inconceivable that had he not chosen football he could have turned his hand to pretty much anything else. Air Ronaldo? A sprinter? Fine, it's not exactly scientific, but simply put, sport could have given Ronaldo any number of channels to achieve greatness. It is to the benefit of all true fans of the beautiful game that he elected to dedicate himself to it.
Then there is the squeaky-clean issue. From FIFA president Sepp Blatter's mockery to this gem from supposedly impartial UEFA chief Michel Platini: "I am very disappointed for Franck Ribery. Next year we will return, and it will be Messi-Ronaldo, in two years' time the same, and three years' time, ditto. I am disappointed because for 50 years the Ballon d'Or took into account results and trophies on the pitch."
Ronaldo has also had to counter the notion that he is somehow persona non grata precisely because of the supreme self-confidence that makes him the player he is. Pele is no shrinking violet. Best was hardly demure. Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and a who's who of the game's greats have made their own cases with single-minded determination.
Recently, Messi's aura of humble ball-charmer has taken a battering with some fiscal issues and reports of former teammates for whom the Argentinian superstar doesn't care too much. See "Ibrahimovic, Z." for details. Ribery, meanwhile, has had his own issues with French prosecutors. Look for that one on your time, and not at work.
Ronaldo? Not so much as a speeding ticket, and that is sort of a badge of honour at Real Madrid.
The statistics to back Ronaldo's 2013 Ballon d'Or are a matter that cannot be argued with. His status as a prima donna purely interested in personal glory above all else requires timely revision. Blatter, Platini and the red tops will continue to goad him with belittling statements and affirmations of their own moral superiority. The 2022 World Cup debacle and the expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams should serve as a warning that their days of carefree irrelevance are numbered.
In the meantime, let football celebrate not just Cristiano Ronaldo the player, but Cristiano Ronaldo the person. He may have rubbed a few people the wrong way in his career, but at 28 he is in his prime as a player and deserves to be recognised for his on-field achievements. When the powers that be accept that he has matured as a human being, as well - perhaps more than they have - then maybe he will take his place in the pantheon of the universally respected greats.
Rob Train is a freelance football writer who lives in the Spanish capital and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. He works for the English language version of Spanish national daily El Pais and contributes to a number of other publications, including the Bleacher Report