Who is the best player in the world? It is arguably the favourite topic of the football fan, but it is also the most difficult to resolve due to the inexorable passage of time. Pele is always cited, of course, and rightly so, but he banged in almost half of his career goal tally in friendlies. Diego Maradona won the World Cup pretty much single-handedly in 1986 and had a dominion of the ball that no other player in history has been able to match, with the exception of George Best. The Northern Irishman never graced a World Cup, but tormented defenders at the highest level for Manchester United with exceptional skill and poise, verging on downright cheek. Johan Cruyff never won the sport’s most sought-after trophy but is credited with revolutionising the way the game is played. The list of candidates goes on and on, but these are perhaps the four most cited “best” players of all time. But how can such a debate be measured? Certainly not by the FIFA Ballon d’Or, which Maradona never won and Pele was never eligible for. By the number of World Cups amassed? Even Pele’s unique claim on that front has been embellished a tad, FIFA awarding a retrospective winner’s medal to him for the 1962 tournament in 2007 despite the Brazil legend barely kicking a ball after being injured in the group stage. And then there’s George Best, a winner of the Ballon d’Or who never even featured in a European Championship.
It was precisely the FIFA Ballon d’Or that the crowd at the Bernabeu were clamouring for on Saturday, 9th October, 2013 against Real Sociedad as Cristiano Ronaldo hit yet another hat trick in the white shirt of Real Madrid. And herein lies the great question of this generation: Where does Ronaldo lie in the reckoning for the world’s best player? There are several lines of debate in that question, not least should he even be considered the equal of Lionel Messi? In short, he really should. Ronaldo’s treble against Sociedad was the 19th of his Real Madrid career solely in the league; only Madrid Legend Alfredo di Stefano and Telmo Zarra, the Athletic Bilbao great, have more in La Liga with 22 each. That seems a record that will be overhauled soon enough.
The Portuguese forward is already the 5th highest scorer in Real Madrid’s history, overtaking Hugo Sanchez and currently bearing down on Ferenc Puskas. Only three active Liga players are in the top 20 all-time scorers domestically in Spain: Messi (223 goals), David Villa (178 goals) and Ronaldo (162 goals). But what stands out about Ronaldo’s achievements in the league are his goals-per-game ratio of 1.09 which the highest of anyone on the Spanish league’s all time top scorer list and the time he has taken to hammer the goals in. Villa has been playing in La Liga since 2003 and has a strike ratio of 0.54. Messi made his debut a year later and is worth 0.87 goals per game. And then there is the Barcelona philosophy. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic would tell you and Villa to a lesser extent, there is one top dog at the Catalan club and the team’s style of play in the past has been entirely tailored to the Argentinean. Ronaldo hardly has the same setup at Real Madrid, where the goal-scoring onus has been shared between Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema as evident in the 2011-2012 season where the trio had over 20 goals each in the league and a total of 118 goals between the 3 players, the most of any European attack for that season.
The Portugal captain is now 97 goals shy of the club legend Raul’s tally of 323. At his current rate of scoring he will reach that target sometime in 2015. Raul required 741 games over 16 seasons to reach that total. Ronaldo has played 217 games for Real in 4 seasons and already has 226 goals. With a contract due to expire in 2018, if he remains relatively injury free, it is inevitable that Ronaldo will smash every club record going, and alongside Messi will also break every Liga and European goal-scoring mark that exists, including Telmo Zarra’s staggering haul of 251 league goals in 278 games, the closest comparison to Ronaldo in goals-per-game ratio at 0.91. Messi is 6 goals shy of Raul’s tally in the Champions League, and Ronaldo 12 goals shy.
It is perfectly conceivable that neither will win the World Cup, although Argentina’s best chance is next year on almost home soil. Javier Mascherano said in a recent interview that Messi is attempting to condition himself to be in perfect shape for the tournament in Brazil, a target that the hamstring injury he suffered against Real Betis perversely will help him to achieve. Ronaldo, meanwhile, he led Portugal to a 3-2 World Cup playoff triumph in Stockholm against Sweden and he did it in grand style bagging a hat trick and becoming Portugal’s joint all time top scorer with Pedro Pauleta on 47 goals and of course he is going to be the outright top scorer unless he decides to hang up his international career boots right now.
Whether or not Ronaldo will finally win a second Ballon d’Or in Switzerland next January, ending a run of four straight awards to Messi, there is little doubt that both players have earned the right to be uttered in the same breath as Pele, Maradona, Best and Cruyff. Will one of them ever be considered the best player of all time? Maybe, with all the variables that entails. In the meantime, does Ronaldo have a pretty good claim to a personal, undisputed heavyweight title of his own: the greatest scorer of goals the game has ever witnessed? At his current phenomenal rate, it seems very likely. And the likes of Pele and the great legends as well as FIFA and UEFA presidents Sepp Blatter and Michele Platini and football managers, football players and the entire football world will be forced to salute Ronaldo.