Cristiano Ronaldo: The struggles and successes of football’s top dog

Cristiano Ronaldo is certainly on par with Lionel Messi when it comes to being the greatest footballer of all time, but off the pitch the Portuguese star is miles ahead of his rival. Truckloads of money, beautiful women, fast cars and adoring fans – Ronaldo has what most of us will only ever dream of having.

However, life hasn’t always been so great for the Real Madrid man. As the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “The Boy has been through a troubled time.”

Younger years

Born in Santo António, Funchal, a neighbourhood in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, Ronaldo lacked many of the luxuries of childhood. Named after his father’s favourite actor, Ronald Reagan, the life that he was born into could not have been further from that of the then-US President and actor. Living in a two-room, tin-roofed shack, he shared a single room with his brother and two sisters, and toys and Christmas presents were unheard of.

Speaking to The Mirror, the £80 million goalscorer admitted: “It was a small space, but I didn’t mind. I’m incredibly close with my brother and sisters and we loved being together. For us it was normal, it was all we knew. Everyone around us lived the same way and we were happy.”

His mother, a cook, and his father, a gardener, did their best to provide for their children, but living in Madeira was evidently difficult. To make matters worse, Ronaldo appeared to be heading down the wrong path in his early years. The often-fiery front-man was uninterested in acquiring an education, and was eventually expelled from the school system aged just 14 after throwing a chair at a teacher who had ‘disrespected him’. Although, while it was evident that his education was unlikely to provide him with a way out of poverty, he still had one other escape route. While most would agree that assaulting your teacher is likely to land you at most a toilet-cleaning job at a fast food chain, it ultimately led Ronaldo to a £380,000-a-week contract at one of Europe’s top football clubs.

Ronaldo had found a way in to football through his dad, who had taken on work as an equipment manager at a local boy’s club, and by the age of 10 people had already started to see his potential. The youngster soon joined local Premeira Liga club Nacional, who went on to name their training facilities after him years later. Although, Ronaldo was only at the club for a single season before he was snapped up by Portuguese heavyweights Sporting Lisbon.

Sporting Lisbon

It was at Lisbon that CR7 started to make his name as one of the rising stars within the game. He became the only Lisbon player to ever score for the Under-16, Under-17, Under-18, B-team and first-team in a single season when he netted a brace in his first-team debut during a 3-0 victory over Moreirense in October 2002, which proved to be the first of many record-breaking feats for the forward.

Ronaldo started his professional career at Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon, aged just 17.
Ronaldo started his professional career at Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon, aged just 17.

Although, a footballing world without the Real Madrid star could have been a real possibility. Ronaldo was diagnosed with a racing heart aged 15, which could have brought an end to his football career. Whether you love him or you hate him, we can all admit that football would be a lot worse off without him. However, such was his determination to succeed that he had surgery to fix the problem and went back to training just a few days later.

His abilities flourished at Lisbon, and while it had always been clear that he was talented, people began to realise that they were seeing a potential legend of the game beginning to blossom. His first coach, Paulo Cardoso later said: “When he got the ball he went past two or three players. At the end of the game the players gathered around him, they knew he was a special kid.”

Other clubs started to consider making a move to secure his services during the mid-way point of the 2002-2003 season, with Barcelona and Liverpool among the front-runners. Although, the two clubs deemed that the youngster wasn’t good enough to play for a top club and declined to bid for the future-Ballon d’Or winner, who went on to stay at the Portuguese club for the remainder of the season.

Although, according to Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, it was Arsenal who came closest to landing the superstar. The 17-year-old was all but set to join the club following a week-long trial with the Gunners, but their desire to build a new 60,000-seater stadium, now The Emirates, scuppered the deal, as they needed as much money as possible available to go ahead with their plans. The Emirates went on to cause a whole host of problems for Arsenal, with the club failing to win a trophy in 9 years, but long-serving boss Arsene Wenger claimed that allowing Ronaldo to slip through his grasp was the biggest mistake of his 34-year managerial career.

Having failed to secure a move elsewhere during the January transfer window, a sensational pre-season performance catapulted him back into the spotlight. Many branded Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Lisbon as a meaningless friendly, but it hugely impacted the club’s success over the next few seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United side went into the game on the back of 4 successive victories, which was brought to an end by a double brace for the Portuguese star. While he may not have been celebrated by the Manchester United faithful at that moment in time, the players recognised what a fantastic player they had just faced, and urged Ferguson to snap him up.

Manchester United

Ferguson later admitted that he had told his assistant manager: “We’re not leaving this ground until we’ve got that boy signed.”

At that stage, Real Madrid had already submitted an £8 million bid for the teen star’s services, but an offer in excess of £12 million saw Manchester United secure their man, and he arrived at the club days later, meaning Madrid would subsequently have to pay 10 times the amount of their initial bid six years later.

Upon arriving at the club, Ferguson assigned Ronaldo the famous number seven shirt, previously worn by club legends such as George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and most recently given to England’s world record signing Angel Di Maria. The kit number is iconic at Old Trafford, and for it to be given to an 18-year-old who hadn’t yet revealed just how special he actually was showed how highly Ferguson rated the Portuguese youngster.

6 goals and 7 assists in 2003/04, 9 goals and 6 assists in 2004/05, 12 goals and 8 assists in 2005/06. Ronaldo’s start to life in England was slow, especially considering the heights that he has gone on to reach, but steady. He was progressing, winning medals and impressing the whole of Manchester, but he hadn’t yet cemented his place among the world’s best. During those three years he came within touching distance of success on the world stage when Portugal reached the final of the 2004 UEFA European Championship, only to succumb to a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of Greece. Ronaldo’s mother once admitted that her son was nicknamed ‘cry-baby’ during his childhood, as he ‘used to cry when he passed and his friends didn’t score’, and it was evident as he burst into tears following that defeat just how young he still was.

Ronaldo breaks down in tears following Portugal's shock Euro 2004 final defeat.
Ronaldo breaks down in tears following Portugal’s shock Euro 2004 final defeat.

CR7’s immaturity struck again during the 2006 World Cup when Portugal met England in the quarter-finals. Wayne Rooney was shown a red card for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho after Ronaldo appeared to urge the referee to do so, which a cheeky wink towards the Portugal bench moments later seemingly confirmed. United team-mate Rooney shrugged the incident off, but the press were quick to criticise the emerging star, which almost saw his leave for Madrid prematurely.

Although, to give him credit, Ronaldo had been thrust into the spotlight at such a young age, and had come from a life of nothing to more than he could have ever dreamed of in the space of a few years. Similarly, his father passed away due to alcoholism in 2005, aged just 52, leaving Ronaldo to care for his mother and sisters alone. He was just 20-years-old, but tasked with so much, and clearly needed more time to mature and adjust.

Some wisely chosen words from Ferguson ultimately convinced him to stay on at Old Trafford, and he went on to perform above expectations in the following campaign, propelling himself in amongst the world’s elite. 23 goals and 23 assists later, Ronaldo had started to make a name for himself on the big stage, but he wasn’t done yet. The 2007/08 season saw him net 42 goals in all competitions, and thus the Ronaldo we all now know was born.

Naturally, Real Madrid once again came knocking for the rising star, and Ferguson agreed to let him leave the following year if the Galactico’s stumped up a world record transfer fee. Another 26 goals later, and Madrid submitted a record-breaking £80 million fee, which Ferguson had to duly accept, given the promise that he had made to Ronaldo. The transfer fee has since been broken by Gareth Bale, but it does not do Ronaldo justice. The market has continued to balloon over the years, and considering that the likes of James Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria warranted £60 million fees last summer, the £80 million Madrid paid for Ronaldo would equate to somewhere around the £120 million mark now.

Real Madrid
From the off Ronaldo began breaking an array of Madrid’s goalscoring records, previously held by club legends such as Alfredo Di Stéfano and Hugo Sánchez. Much in the same way he progressed at Manchester United, his season stats at Real Madrid steadily increased. 33 goals and 13 assists in the 2009/10 season, 53 goals and 18 assists in 2010/11, and 60 goals and 17 assists in the 2011/12 season. CR7 had evidently become one of the best players that the world had ever seen, and was challenging Lionel Messi for the crown.

Ronaldo has consistently scored more than 50 goals a season ever since. This season has been arguably his best yet, with 54 goals and 21 assists in all competitions, and there is still plenty of time for the superstar to add to his tally. This season alone, the Ballon d’Or winner became the fastest player to score 200 La Liga goals, went level with Messi as the all-time top goalscorer in the Champions League, put away 5 goals in 1 game against Granada, broke Di Stéfano’s hat-trick record, and became the first ever player to score more than 50 goals in a season 5 times.

The talented youngster appears to have finally matured while at Madrid. That may come down to the fact that he now has another child to care for, after paying for the legal rights to his son, born to an unknown mother. The importance of raising his son well is seemingly important to the player, and it has done wonders in helping him to control some of his less attractive qualities. As he once admitted, “my son is the most important thing in this life. After that, it’s the football that matters most to me. Money comes after that.”

World's best dad?: Ronaldo enjoys time with his son, Cristiano Ronaldo Jr.
World’s best dad?: Ronaldo enjoys time out with his son, Cristiano Ronaldo Jr.

Ronaldo has come a long way since the days of sharing a small bedroom with his siblings, and is now a local legend in Madeira. So much so that he opened up his very own museum in the area in 2013, which displays all of the various awards, medals and trophies that he has won throughout his illustrious career.

Whether you love him or you hate him, Ronaldo’s talent is clear. Of course, the Portugal star’s footballing reign hasn’t come without controversy. There have been numerous instances of diving, tantrums and fall-outs with referees, managers and players, but this has always been overshadowed by the fact that he is arguably the best player that the world has ever seen.

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