It’s official. Cristiano Ronaldo is association football’s leading career goal-scorer. He netted goal number 760 against Napoli on January 20, and has now usurped legendary strikers Josep Bican and Pelé to reach the apex of footballing folklore. Cristiano stands out from Bican and Pele because he reached that apex during modern times, when the eyes of the world were glued to his every touch of the ball on TV and online. But despite the pressure of the astronomical expectations placed upon his shoulders, Ronaldo performed night in, night out. As a result, he’s gained the reputation of a goal machine, having normalized the unthinkable: having more goals than games played. But things weren’t always this way.
When Cristiano first stepped on the field in 2002, his playstyle was uncannily similar to that of his footballing idol, Luís Figo. Both Portuguese right-wingers possessed sharp technical ability, flair and a cross-oriented playstyle. They contributed to their teams more through their assists than with their goal-scoring prowess — as Ronaldo’s first 26 Champions League games proved. He netted a whopping zero times, yet today he stands alone as the leading goal-scorer in the competition’s history with 132. So what sparked such a drastic change in Cristiano’s playstyle? One man: Lionel Messi.
The diminutive Argentine has shared the headlines with Cristiano Ronaldo for the past 15 years, with a stranglehold over football’s greatest prize: the Ballon D’or trophy. They’ve been recognized for the honor on multiple occasions, with Ronaldo winning five and Messi earning six of the coveted awards. Each player pushed each other to reach greater heights and score more goals.
Before these two, Spain’s Raul led the UEFA Champions League goal-scoring charts with 74. Today, Cristiano alone has nearly double that.
In football, the ultimate team prize is the FIFA World Cup — but on the individual front, it’s the Ballon D’or. Since Cristiano wanted to be number one, he needed that Golden Ball to cement his status as the greatest player in the world.
So in 2008, he made it happen. Ronaldo netted 42 times across all competitions that season, including a head goal in the Champions League final. That night in Moscow, Cristiano knew he’d accomplished his individual goal. Six months later, on Jan. 12, 2009, he was handed his first Ballon D’or in Zurich, while Lionel Messi received the second place medal — but they’d soon switch places.
The following year, in a packed Estadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy, Barcelona defeated Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League final to knock Cristiano Ronaldo off the top of the footballing ladder. Now, it was Messi lifting the Golden Ball, prompting Ronaldo to head to Madrid on his own quest for dominance. The rivalry was just beginning, with 40 goal seasons becoming the norm.
From 2009 to 2012, Messi became the first and only player to win four consecutive Ballon D’ors — his final one courtesy of his record 91 goals in a calendar year. Cristiano’s 63 goals just weren’t enough.
But the following season would be his year. With 69 goals in 2013, Ronaldo won his second Ballon D’or — and his tears let the world know just how much it meant to him. The rivalry stood at 2-4, with Messi still well in the lead. But Cristiano was on his way. The only problem was a borderline existential question: Why?
Why score all these goals if there’s no trophy to show for it?
To his doubters, Cristiano had a response of epic proportions.
From 2014 to 2018, Ronaldo won four of the five Champions Leagues, and was the top scorer in every single one of them. He broke the all-time Champions League record and — to this day — still holds the podium all to himself, with 17 goals in 2014, 16 goals in 2016 and 15 goals in 2018.
Upon bidding farewell to Real Madrid on July 10, 2018, Cristiano left the history books with 450 goals to his name. That summer, he took on a new journey at Italian outfit Juventus. Today, you can still tune in to the soon-to-be 36-year-old’s goals — as he scores week in, week out.
As for Pelé, he claims his official record of 578 goals should actually be 1,283 goals, one that may never be eclipsed.
But if in a couple years time, you hear Cristiano beat that record too, don’t be surprised.
For CR7, it’s never a matter of if — but when.