In many respects, Cristiano Ronaldo’s rise to become one of the foremost athletes in world sport and arguably the greatest footballer of all time cuts to the heart of the “Nature Versus Nurture” debate that has for decades framed analysis of what separates legendary sportspeople from their elite level colleagues.
On the one hand there are commentators who argue that mastery of almost any discipline, sporting or not, can be achieved through practice. Malcom Gladwell is the best known proponent of the “Nurture” thesis, and while the “10,000 hour rule” proposed in his book Outliers is far from proven, he puts forward a persuasive argument that practice can make perfect on the sports field.
On the other hand there are those who contend that the “Nurture” thesis is almost redundant in the context of sport owing to the decisive influence of biology in determining the level that any athlete can reach. David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, is Gladwell’s fiercest critic, arguing in a 2013 interview with Outside that the “10,000 hour rule” is no more than an average of differences.
It is obvious that Ronaldo would never have achieved what he has on the football pitch without possessing some degree of natural, biological talent. How else would Sporting Lisbon have signed him as a 12-year-old and set in motion the remarkable chain events which took him from the civil parish of Funchal in North Eastern Madeira to the Bernabeu via Old Trafford?
Indeed, one look at Ronaldo’s body would seem to confirm the fact that he was blessed with a set of physical characteristics which would help him climb to the summit of world football in way that Lionel Messi, for instance, never was.
But despite these physical advantages, it was ultimately a relentless work ethic and steely self-belief which drove Ronaldo to the top of his profession. The 12-year-old Cristiano still had to overcome the trauma of being away from his family in order to establish himself in the sporting academy, and it takes a strong mentality for any player to break into a senior side at 17.
It was at Manchester United, however, that the true strength of Ronaldo’s character became apparent. The forward arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2003 as a wiry-framed 18-year-old who many doubted possessed the physicality or mental toughness required to thrive in England.
He left for Real Madrid six seasons later as the most expensive player in football history, having scored 84 goals in 193 appearances, winning three Premier Leagues, an FA Cup and a Champions League while far superseding the level of players such as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez who had once ranked ahead of him at Old Trafford.
This achievement in itself is perhaps not too surprising, however, Ronaldo surpassed Raul’s 323 goal record in fewer than half of the 741 matches it took the Spaniard to achieve that figure (310). He has since struck twice more to take his tally up 324 goals in 311 Real Madrid appearances, winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the club’s historic 10th Champions League in the process.
For Ronaldo to have achieved so much at such a young age and to have kept improving year on year for most of the last decade is a testament to the outstanding work ethic that has underpinned his entire career.
Ronaldinho, for instance, possessed all of the talent required to rank alongside Messi, Ronaldo, Pele, and Maradona as one of the game’s historic greats. However, he only really shone at Barcelona for three seasons, winning FIFA’s Ballon d’Or award twice in 2004 and 2005, before sliding into terminal decline.
Ronaldo, by contrast, won his first Ballon d’Or as a 23-year-old at Old Trafford in 2008 and claimed his second and third at Madrid in 2013 and 2014. There would have been many more, too, were it for the meddling of one Mr. Messi.
For an athlete who has built his success on consistent improvement to turn his attention towards posterity is worrying, and there are already signs this season that the 30-year-old is not the player that he was 18 months ago.
Ronaldo’s game has always relied more on pace and power than that of Messi, and at two years older than the Argentine, it is difficult to see how he will be capable of maintaining the level that he set during his peak physical years as his body declines.
We are witnessing the twilight of the superhero period of Ronaldo’s career, and the fact that he agreed to produce a film to celebrate his achievements suggests that this is something he is aware of, too.
[Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images]