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What Makes Cristiano Ronaldo So Great?

A scrappy kid from Madeira, Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo would develop a ruthless determination to become on of the best of all time.

By Andrew Woodin
Premier League's Cristiano Ronaldo

Before cutting the physique of a Spartan warrior, before harnessing a cannon of a shot, before emerging as a living legend, there was a spark – one that a skinny, scrappy Cristiano Ronaldo nurtured as a mere 8-year-old with his first club Andorinha in 1992. A year later, the future five-time Ballon d’Or Winner as  indulged in his first taste of victory, earning his inaugural solo award for the Best Player in the Adelino Rodrigues Children’s Tournament. As he matured, however, success became a bit more elusive for the youngster. After a brief stint with the Madeira-based club Nacional, he landed at Sporting Lisbon for the 2001-2002 season, and though he never made it past a couple of exhibition matches, his struggles to make it on the pitch helped forge his signature unbridled determination.

Though seeded from his days competing with his three siblings in his family’s small home in Funchal, Portugal, CR7 began molding that salty, chip-on-the-shoulder grit into the laser-guided focus he’s perfected today. Coaches noticed his skilled dribbling, but it was the teen’s relentless commitment to be better and motivate those around him that opened the door, and on Oct. 7, 2002, he ignited that spark into an inferno. In what would become the first of many, routine, spectacular performances, the 17-year-old leathered not only his first career goal, he also scored his second in Sporting’s victory over Moreirense. On stage for the entire world to see, the Portuguese youth confidently declared he had officially arrived.

In 2003, his journey took him to Manchester United in the Premier League in what would objectively be a match made in heaven. During a span of 196 games, he scored 84 goals and played a key role in three league titles before he departed for Real Madrid in 2009. While Ronaldo clearly made a name for himself at Old Trafford, his true ascension to become the “elite of elite” unfolded with Madrid. Earning every penny of his $133 million contract, Ronaldo notched 33 goals in his first season and 40 in his second, silencing every doubter who said he couldn’t live up to the hype. Then, in true Ronaldo fashion, the superstar netted a whopping 60 goals in 2012, propelling Los Blancos to a Spanish League title that year and the ever-coveted UEFA Champions League title the following season. With the accolades and trophies piling up, he shifted gears in 2018 and joined the iconic Italian club Juventus. Again, the superstar exceeded expectations, scoring 101 goals in 133 matches while hoisting five trophies along the way. It was a blissful marriage – one fortified by the fans’ genuine respect – yet the gifted striker wasn't done moving, and he shockingly rejoined The Red Devils in 2021. Now in the twilight of his career, how much further could his unparalleled conviction take him before the body crumbles?


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Time may still be on his side as the seminal player confronted his toughest test yet and delivered an impressive 18 goals last season. No longer raw and hampered with inexperience, Ronaldo’s evolved to be a ruthless and cunning forward. He can still switch into Terminator mode in an instant, and once he’s dialed in, he’s as dangerous as ever. Still, leading a team to the promised land at this stage of his career will continue to challenge the strength and resiliency of his spirit, and considering the mediocre condition of Erik ten Hag’s fledgling team, every eye watching will be glued to the Portuguese veteran.  

While no one’s blessed out of the gate with immediate greatness, some are just destined for more. It takes years of grueling training and a restricted lifestyle that would drive most to the brink of insanity, illuminating why there are so few, elite footballers like Ronaldo. Physical talent, no matter how incredible, can only do so much alone. An obsessive devotion to achieve peak form is crucial, but pairing it with bulletproof mental fortitude and a fearless spirit is what makes Portugal’s favorite son so great. At 37 years old, the verdict’s out on how much he may have left in the tank, but knowing Ronaldo, it’s safe to say he’ll do everything in his power to keep that precious spark alive a little bit longer.

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