Because of the enduring nature of athletic greatness, it’s often difficult to notice in real time the inevitable fall as the best players slip from amazing to very good to eventually old and bad. The greatest players are great for so long, then begin to peter off so subtlety before the inexorable effects of age eat away at the physical skills necessary to perform at the highest level, that usually you don’t realize what has happened until it’s too late. Peyton Manning felt like Peyton Manning up until the exact moment when it was obvious he no longer was.
But sometimes, if you pay close enough attention to the faint but perceptible differences in an aging athlete’s game, you can see the traces of senescence before it fully and irreversibly robs an athlete of their ability. Doing so gives an even greater appreciation for the ways and moments when an older but still dominant athlete adjusts to and fights back against time to yet again do something special.
Cristiano Ronaldo is getting older. The 32-year-old doesn’t look it, really; his body is as chiseled and bronzed as ever, his no doubt obsessively cared for face still youthfully unwrinkled, his hair still dark and stylishly coifed. Even on the pitch, he’s scoring more than just about anyone—though a tick off the pace of his usual, otherworldly standards.
Yet if you pay attention to the things Ronaldo does on the pitch—the way he moves with and without the ball, how he goes about scoring all those goals—it’s clear that the Ronaldo that exists today bears little resemblance to the fleet-footed, dynamically dribbling, whirlwind of a winger that was his most quintessential self. And yet in spite of these realities, this different, older Ronaldo is still the best player on maybe the best team in the world, the preeminent difference maker in a squad full of superstars, still one of the few denizens of the most rarefied stratosphere reserved for the super-elite.
Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich yesterday by a score of 2-1, and each of the critical moments that decided the match in Madrid’s favor were realized by Ronaldo. Ronaldo won the match much differently than he would’ve done so five years ago, but nevertheless, win it he did.
It’s instructive watching a collection of Ronaldo’s individual moments on the ball like in the video above. It drives home just how distinct his game is now from his game in the past. Peak Ronaldo was all speed and power. He feasted on the open space he’d find on the left wing by blazing down the pitch, ball at his feet, out-running and/or out-muscling and/or out-tricking the physically overmatched defenders on his way toward goal.
As you can see in his highlights from the Bayern game, Ronaldo can barely move with the ball in the same way he used to. It’s not that he’s slow, exactly—he’s still plenty quick enough when making straight-line runs without the ball—but that he’s lumbering now, a bulky presence whose stiff and muscular frame has lost most of its former agility and grace. This Ronaldo looks uncomfortable with the ball at his feet out on the wing. When he does attempt to size up a defender, the opponent often strips it right away from him with an ease completely foreign to the Ronaldo of old. To prevent this, he now plays simple passes off to teammates, relying on them to get him the ball in dangerous areas when before he could get it there all on his own.
And yet the transition—going from a goal-scoring, cut-inside winger to more of an out-and-out striker—he’s been moving his game toward for years now has been wildly successful, and allows this less athletically superior Ronaldo to be nearly as deadly as before. Ronaldo scored both of Real’s goals in a fashion perfectly typical of his late-career self. Both came from one-touch shots off crosses from wide as he awaited them from the center forward position inside the box, and demonstrated his unrivaled sense of attacking positioning and elusive movement and still-preserved quickness and finishing ability. Just as crucial to the goals were the two yellow cards Ronaldo baiting Bayern defender Javi Martínez into that got the Spaniard sent off, and it was Martínez’s dismissal that fully turned what had been a match Bayern had controlled into one slanted decidedly in Madrid’s favor. Those two goals and yellow cards are what won Real Madrid the match and will probably send them into the semifinals, and they wouldn’t have happened without Ronaldo.
It’s unclear how long Real Madrid can thrive with Ronaldo as their best player. He is unquestionably past his peak now, and while he still has so much to give on the biggest of stages as demonstrated yesterday, he is no longer the player he was. He can’t dribble like he used to, can’t run with the same ferocious force as he once did, is increasingly injured, and has even seen his goal stats decline. While Ronaldo has an impressive 19 goals in 24 La Liga appearances this season, that number is padded by six penalties. Thus his 13 non-penalty goals are the fourth most in the league, considerably behind the tallies of La Liga’s most consistent scoring demons Luis Suárez (24 non-penalty goals) and Lionel Messi (23).
Though it’s crazy to think that there will soon be a time when Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been so transcendently amazing for so long, will be old and washed, it is nevertheless true. First Ronaldo will suck, then Messi (who is also much different now than he was before) will suck, and the guiding talents that defined the entire sport will be gone and it will be bewildering and sad. But today is not that day. Today, even though Ronaldo isn’t the same sort of great, he is still, without a doubt, truly great.