Having had to live in the shadow of Lionel Messi for the past three years, 2012 is perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo’s best chance at usurping his nemesis and retaking his place at the very top of the game.
The Real Madrid forward lost his claim to being the world’s best player in 2009 and has not realistically looked like winning it back since as Messi starred in a magical Barcelona side that dominated both in Spain and in Europe.
But this year a combination of success for the Portuguese and the relative lack of it for his Argentinian counterpart will give Ronaldo hope of once again being named the Ballon d’Or.
Ronaldo was bought for a world-record fee of £80 million with the express brief of bringing the good times back to Real Madrid, but he arrived at the starting point of the Barca hegemony spearheaded by Pep Guardiola.
But finally, three years later and following the acquisition of head coach Jose Mourinho, everything finally fell into place for Real and for Ronaldo.
Ronaldo was undoubtedly the star for Real last season as they won La Liga with 100 points, nine more than Barcelona managed that season and one more than their previous title-winning record of 99 points.
The No. 7 scored a phenomenal 46 goals in that competition—more than double that of the next highest-scoring Real player, Gonzalo Higuain with 22.
That achievement was diluted, however, by the fact that Messi scored 50 for Barcelona.
In Europe, too, Ronaldo was exemplary. He scored 10 goals in 10 Champions League games as Real were eliminated in the semifinals on penalties by Bayern Munich. Under those circumstances, it’s not too hard to swallow the fact that Bayern striker Mario Gomez finished the season with two more goals than him in the competition, but there was Messi again.
The little No. 10 bagged an incredible 14 European goals—including five in one game against Bayer Leverkusen—to end up as top scorer for the third season in a row.
Even after the season was over, Ronaldo still had one ace up his sleeve with which Messi could not compete: he had an international tournament coming up. Starring performances in the colours of your country carry more weight when it comes to the weighing up of a player’s legendary status, and the same is often true for the annual awards.
A top-drawer showing in Poland and Ukraine from the Portugal captain would surely put him in the box seat for Ballon d’Or.
While his Euro 2012 campaign got off to a poor start with a sub-par performance in the opening defeat to Germany and an array of bad misses in the win over Denmark, Ronaldo finally came alive in his country’s final match against Netherlands. He scored both goals in the 2-1 that confirmed Portugal’s progress out of the “Group of Death”, and he scored the only goal in a ruthless outclassing of Czech Republic to book Portugal a semifinal place.
However, despite having a competition record of 35 shots during the championship and finishing with a goal tally level with Golden Boot winner Fernando Torres, Ronaldo’s tournament will be remembered for a kick he didn’t take. Ronaldo put himself down as Portugal’s fifth penalty-taker against Spain, but after Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves failed to convert their efforts his services were not required.
Ronaldo was widely criticised for his decision to go last, with some calling him arrogant and others claiming he bottled it. Both accusations are rather harsh, but the end result was that he missed out on an iconic opportunity to prove his true greatness on the international stage.
Earlier in June, Messi—who is also yet to fully show his best club form in his country’s colours—starred for Argentina against their neighbours Brazil. It may have only been friendly, but Messi’s match-winning hat-trick was a joy to behold. The diminutive attacker’s third goal—a trademark solo run and strike from range—brought his goal total for the season for club and country to 82 goals. A truly frightening effort.
Ronaldo may have won the better silverware in 2012, but he will have to really pull out all the stops over the rest of the year if he is to rip the golden ball from Messi’s grasp.