TWO years ago, I had dinner with then-Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo in his favourite Turin restaurant and told him a story about swimming icon Michael Phelps that made him purr with admiration.
Phelps, the indisputable GOAT of the pool with 23 Olympic gold medals, had revealed to me how he once went five consecutive years without a single day off, and when I asked why, answered: “To be the best, you have to do things that other people aren’t willing to do.
“And I figured that because my rivals all did six days a week training, if I did seven then for every year, I would get 52 other days more training than anybody else, every single year. So over five years, that was an extra 260 days.”
“My main strength is my mind,” he said. “I think it’s my strongest point. Talent is not enough, if you don’t dedicate 100%, you’re not going to reach the level that you want.
“Sometimes, if I’m a little bit lazy and play with the kids or whatever, I have to go to the gym for at least 40 minutes afterwards because this will make the difference at the end of the day. If you don’t do that work, you won’t be No1.”
For the past few weeks, Ronaldo has been the subject of derisive sneering from people who should know better that he’s washed up, finished, kaput… that the magic’s gone, the wondrous goal machine broken, he’s too old and too slow to be a proper force anymore.
He, apparently, was ‘THE problem’ at United, not the shockingly leaky defence or miserably mediocre midfield.
I’ve watched all this with wry amusement, because if there’s one thing my Portuguese friend’s even better at than scoring goals then it is making critics eat their words.
This was his 59th hat-trick – one of the many ludicrous stats on his CV – and one of his best, featuring a thunderbolt 25-yard screamer, a tap-in created by razor-sharp awareness and movement, and a bullet header to win the match.
It sounds absurd to say Ronaldo was out to prove a point, given how little he has to prove to anyone about his football ability.
But the real point he proved in scoring his 805th, 806th and 807th career goals, taking him past Czech legend Josef Bican to become the top goal-scorer in football history, is that Cristiano Ronaldo is now indisputably the greatest player ever.
But frankly, as this season progresses, the argument is surely over.
Just consider this startling fact: only one player has scored more Premier League goals than Ronaldo this season (Salah), but 91 players have scored more than Messi in Ligue 1 for PSG.
The Argentinian’s tally of just two goals in 18 league games is by far the worst of his mercurial career, but his painful struggles in Paris perfectly exemplify why Ronaldo is the GOAT.
For me, it comes down to this: Messi is a genius, no question, but I’ve long suspected he’s what cricket fans would call a ‘flat-track bully.’
From the moment he left Spain and was taken out of his heavily protected comfort zone, he’s faded faster than my taste buds after I caught Covid.
Yet Ronaldo has repeatedly moved clubs, and countries, to give himself new challenges, from Portugal to England, Spain to Italy.
And everywhere he’s gone, he’s delivered big titles and broken more scoring records.
Unlike Messi, he’s deliberately dragged himself out of HIS comfort zone again and again.
Also unlike Messi, who is three years younger, Ronaldo – now 37 – is defying all normal age limitations to continue performing miracles in the toughest of leagues.
The stats don’t lie: Ronaldo’s now the greatest ever Champions League goal-scorer, the greatest international goal-scorer, and the greatest overall goal-scorer.
This isn’t because he’s a better natural player than Messi, or indeed other gifted greats like Ronaldinho and George Best, but because he has a superior mental strength and resilience.
One of my favourite video clips is of a smirking Woods, after his sensational Masters comeback win in 2019, watching myriad critics declaring him to be done as a top flight golfer after scandal and injury left him out of the Top 1000-ranked players.
The brutal critiques fuelled him just as they fuel Ronaldo who will be equally amused today as he sees his most vociferous media antagonists suddenly lavishing praise on him again.
I think the other quality that makes Cristiano the GOAT is his supreme self-belief which he explained to me like this: “If you don’t think you are the best in your job, I think you’re not thinking properly.”
He smiled and replied: “No1. Not No7, but No1.”
Today, I texted him to ask him to sum up in one word why he’s the GOAT.
“I need three words,” he replied. “More than special one, I’m ‘The Only One.’”
Then he sent two laughing emojis.
I could almost hear him chuckling – and winking – out of my phone.
But he’s right.
As we saw yesterday, Cristiano Ronaldo’s now out on his own as the greatest footballer to ever play the game.
Top 10 players that I’ve seen in my lifetime:
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Diego Maradona
- Lionel Messi
- Ronaldo (Brazil)
- George Best
- Thierry Henry
- Zinedine Zidane
- Paolo Maldini