By now Ronaldo was much more than a marauding winger. He was the focal point of Man U's attack. Sir Alex lined him up anywhere on the offensive front, and Ronaldo responded with gusto, scoring goals from all sorts of positions in all sorts of ways: right-footed, left-footed, on headers (who ever heard of a winger who was also his team's greatest aerial threat?), on free kicks—however he pleased.
And that's why Real Madrid ratcheted up its attempts to lure him away. Ronaldo knew how to play the game. Talking to English reporters outside Moscow's Luzhkniki Stadium, where the Red Devils defeated Chelsea on penalty kicks in the 2008 Champions League final, he said he was "definitely" staying at Old Trafford. Then he took a few steps, met the Spanish press and said he had "yet to decide" his future.
Ronaldo may have been just 23, but he had given five years of his life to United and delivered it the biggest prize in club football. He had earned his freedom. Sir Alex met him halfway. Ronaldo stayed another season—25 goals, a third straight league title and a (losing) appearance in the Champions League final—before forcing the move he wanted. And it wasn't just any move. It was a $130 million transfer. Throw in his six-year contract, and we're talking a total package approaching a quarter of a billion dollars, far and away the most expensive football transaction in history.
Florentino Pérez, who'd been elected to his second stint as Real Madrid president, was assembling his Galácticos 2.0 and demanded the world's biggest star. Ronaldo was the crown jewel in Real's half-billion-dollar spending spree, which included the acquisitions of Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema and Kaká. Ronaldo so lived up to the hype that in October 2009 rival witch doctors—one to hex him, one to protect him—popped up and received widespread media attention. He scored 32 goals, his second-highest total in league play, and although Real failed to win La Liga, he quickly established himself as the only player capable of contesting Messi's crown as the world's greatest offensive player. Through May 15 Ronaldo had scored 38 league goals (51 total), seven league goals more than his previous season best and seven more than his Argentine rival.
Hidden among all of Ronaldo's numbers is another quality, of the kind that coaches love: humility. No, not in terms of personality. That would be asking too much of the man. He showboats on occasion, he remonstrates with officials, he takes the periodic flop to win free kicks. His humility lies in the fact that while he can (and often does) carry a team, he trains relentlessly and doesn't shirk the grunt work. "Playing alongside him, I came to realize just how hard he works," said Xabi Alonso. "When a team loses the ball, some superstars wait for their teammates to get it back for them. Not Cristiano. He fights, he runs, he helps us in the midfield."
That work ethic, coupled with a sense of what it means to be a teammate and a leader, is what prompted Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz to name Ronaldo captain in the summer of 2008, at the ripe age of 23. And while his first World Cup campaign in the role was something of a dud—Portugal flamed out of the round of 16 in South Africa with a forgettable 1--0 loss to Spain, and Ronaldo scored just once during the qualifying games and the tournament itself—he had proved his worth in earlier competitions. It's not an accident that in his first three international tournaments, Portugal was runner-up (Euro 2004), a semifinalist (World Cup 2006) and a quarterfinalist (Euro 2008), easily the best sequence in the country's history.
Maybe, if humanity continues its upward evolution, in a few decades Ronaldo types—tall, strong, fast, with a dead-eye shot, Krazy Glue ball control and the ability to dribble through a forest of defenders' legs—will be common. But until this race of supermen turns up, he'll remain one of a kind.