During his first eight seasons with Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 364 goals, a jaw-dropping average of 52 per year. In fact, only in his debut season did he fail to achieve the 50-goal mark, as injuries kept him off the pitch for nine La Liga matches and for the full Copa del Rey.
In those eight seasons, Ronaldo played an average of 50 matches, another impressive mark when sustained for such a long period. His famous determination to play — and score — in every possible match knew no limits, and phenomenal numbers, shocking stats and records kept piling up as the years went by.
It’s nonsensical to say that those marks meant little to Real Madrid supporters or that Ronaldo’s goals were meaningless. Sixteen goals against Barcelona, including a winner in a Copa del Rey final and a clutch goal at the Camp Nou last season, made for the kind of stories that socios like to tell their grandchildren when they describe one of the greatest players ever. His exploits against Atletico de Madrid, one of his favourite teams to score against, would deserve a full column if we were discussing a true Real Madrid rival, not a simple local feud.
Before this season started, Ronaldo already occupied a different level in the hearts of the Santiago Bernabeu faithful, having scored the winning penalty in the Champions League final last May. He was close to the Olympus where Alfredo di Stefano and Raul Gonzalez sit. Those two are stars who, records aside, reached the heart of the true Madridistas like no other players, great as those others might have been in a white shirt.
Looking at his numbers this season — 42 goals in 46 matches, 25 of them scored in La Liga, his lowest total ever — it may look like the beginning of a decline likely in Ronaldo’s unbelievable stats. However — and we’re exaggerating slightly for the sake of argument — nothing that Ronaldo did during his first eight seasons with Real endeared him to the fans like these past two months have.
We all knew about his ambition, a characteristic most Madridistas tend to enjoy. But this year he’s shown the maturity to listen to Zinedine Zidane and rest for long spells of the season. That maturity has given us the best Ronaldo we’ve ever seen in April and May, a scoring machine when the going gets tough, annihilating adversaries left, right and centre and leading the team to a Liga/Champions League double, the likes of which hadn’t been achieved since the ’50s.
The whole squad knew about his work ethic, his obsessive care for his body, his determination to succeed. He was just using those assets without correct direction, wasting his energy in November and December and not reaching the end of the season in his best form. At age 32, this was only going to get worse had he not understood that he needed to change.
And what a change it has been. His goals have defeated Bayern Munich, Atletico de Madrid and Juventus in succession, while they’ve also been key to Real reaching La Liga’s finish line in top position, something the club badly needed in order to recover the domestic throne from the hands of Barcelona.
The sheer happiness of his teammates and his fans after the Champions League title in celebrating his success says it all. Ronaldo has found his role, his balance between scoring and winning, the right focus to use his skill and strength in the best interests of the club. With the Portuguese star in the right frame of mind, and with the squad stacked behind him, Ronaldo’s retirement might be farther away than many believe. Regardless, his place in the heart of every Madridista is forever guaranteed.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.