WHAT GETS YOU FIRST IS THE BODY. IT'S A LIFE-SIZED ACTION FIGURE: G.I. Cristiano, 185 pounds of lean muscle spread over a 6' 1" frame. Washboard abs, sinewed biceps, perma-tan—with any other guy you might think it's all an affectation, but not with him. Even his look is a piece of the puzzle, designed to complement the cogs of the perfect soccer machine.
Think back to the alltime greats, and you'll find plenty of physical imperfections. Diego Maradona was short, as is Lionel Messi. Pelé was no giant, either. Zinédine Zidane was slow (and bald). Johan Cruyff was frail. Ferenc Puskàs was chunky. The original Ronaldo? Big and solid, but he was injury-prone, much like Marco van Basten. Whereas Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro is a paragon not only of physical strength and athletic prowess but also of durability: Before he was pulled for a substitute in the Real Madrid--Atlético Madrid derby on March 19, he had played every minute of every league game for Real this season.
"Watching him is like watching something unreal; it's like playing on the PlayStation," said Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor, Ronaldo's teammate since the latter half of last season. The video-game programmer who designed the 26-year-old winger was looking for a mismatch.
Ronaldo's measurable attributes are only part of the story. You can time him over 40 yards, and he'll most likely be one of the fastest players in the game. But it's with the ball at his feet that his speed really kills. Then he has few equals. "He's probably just as quick with [the ball] as he is without it," Sir Alex Ferguson said in 2008. Sir Alex, who managed Ronaldo at Manchester United from '03 to '09, might be right, even though what he described is physically impossible. For humans, at least.
It's somehow fitting that Ronaldo hails from Funchal, on the island of Madeira, one of the westernmost spots in Europe. Madeira is part of Portugal, but it's closer to Africa than it is to the European mainland. And given the island's historical importance as a stopover between the Old World and America, you could argue that the player who commanded the world's highest transfer fee was appropriately born at the crossroads of three continents. He's that global.
Ronaldo's talents were evident so early that Sporting Lisbon of the Portuguese first division signed him at age 13 and took him to the mainland. But while he developed nicely on the pitch, adapting to life away from Madeira wasn't easy. He was so homesick that the club flew his mother over to stay with him. And at 15 he underwent surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat. By 17 he had made his debut for Sporting's first team, and the following summer Manchester United snapped him up for $20.4 million, outbidding half a dozen European clubs for his signature.
Normally clubs try to cocoon their budding stars from the pressure of a big price tag and high expectations. Ronaldo figured it would be the same with him; David Beckham had just vacated United's right wing by moving to Real Madrid, and surely the last thing the Red Devils wanted was to set up Ronaldo as Beckham's replacement. So Ronaldo asked if he could wear number 28, the same he had used at Sporting. But Sir Alex simply said, "No, no, yours is number 7."
So much for that theory. Ronaldo slipped into the jersey that had belonged to Beckham and, before him, such United legends as Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson and George Best. It took the Portuguese prodigy a year to establish himself on the right wing, but once he got going he seemed to grow with every game. In 2005--06 he was United's third-leading scorer, not bad for a 21-year-old winger. That summer, though, his career in Manchester was almost derailed as the club's fans were torn by conflicting loyalties to the Red Devils and to England.
By this point Ronaldo was a mainstay of the Portuguese national team, and when it faced England in the World Cup quarterfinals, he took the field against a number of his club teammates. When United and England forward Wayne Rooney stomped on Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho, Ronaldo was among the first to complain to the referee. Rooney was ejected, and the cameras caught Ronaldo winking at the Portuguese bench as Rooney trudged off the pitch. England crashed out on penalties, prompting a massive anti-Ronaldo campaign in the British tabloid press, which quickly dubbed him "the winker." There were calls for Ferguson to get rid of him, some even from United fans. Ronaldo himself was quoted in the Spanish press as saying he wanted to leave Manchester for Real Madrid.
Luckily for Red Devils fans the veteran Scottish boss ignored the uproar, and the following season was Ronaldo's breakout year. He scored 26 goals in all competitions in 2006--07 as United won its first Premier League title since '03. It was a prelude to the monstrous '07--08 campaign in which Ronaldo notched 42 goals, the second most in club history, as United grabbed both the Champions League and Premier League crowns.