Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo is the archetype of the modern attacking player. Blessed with blistering pace, immense physical strength and bewildering technical dexterity with both feet, the 25-year-old is also courageous in the air and possesses a thunderous shot.
Ability and hard work have turned him into one of the most recognisable athletes and his stock shows no sign of falling after a successful first year at Real Madrid. Signed from Manchester United for a world-record 94 million euros in July 2009, Ronaldo has been one of the few unequivocal bright spots during a transitional season for the Spanish giants. Humiliated by minnows Alcorcon in the Spanish Cup and dumped out of the Champions League by Lyon, Real were forced to turn their focus to the league where Ronaldo sparkled most brightly.
The Portuguese pin-up netted a penalty on his league debut in a 3-2 win over Real Zaragoza on the season's opening day and his prolific partnership with Argentine Gonzalo Higuain was one of the key factors behind Real's ability to match the pace of the enduringly brilliant Barcelona.
His star turn in Real's 6-2 demolition of Villarreal in February had Spanish newspaper Marca labelling him ‘God’, with El Mundo claiming: “One day, he'll win the ball, cross it in and head it home himself.”
The former Sporting Lisbon trainee scored a hattrick in a 4-1 win at Real Mallorca in May 2010 and described it as “the best match of my career”.
But that Real campaign ended in failure as they were pipped to the title by Barcelona. That Ronaldo continues to improve is a disturbing prospect for his opponents. It also demonstrates how far he has come since his early days at United when, having inherited the No. 7 shirt from David Beckham in 2003, the right winger was often criticised for his tendency to over-elaborate.
His initial performances showcased his undeniable talent but for all the flurries of step-overs and sharply executed turns, questions were asked about his ability to influence big matches.
He reached the Euro 2004 final on home soil and inspired his country to the last four at the 2006 WC, but it was upon his return from Germany that year that the trajectory of his career began to rise steeply.
Vilified in the English press for his perceived role in the dismissal of club-mate Wayne Rooney in the quarter-final meeting with England, Ronaldo drew motivation to fire United to the 2006-07 Premier League title. His performances the next season were sensational and he finished the campaign with 42 goals, the Premier League title, a Champions League winner's medal and the European Golden Boot, and the European Footballer of the Year crown.
A third English title followed last year, whereupon he made the long-anticipated move to Madrid, much to the sadness of coach Sir Alex Ferguson. “I have nothing but praise for the boy. He is easily the best player in the world,” said Ferguson. “His contribution as a goal threat is unbelievable. His stats are incredible. Strikes at goal, attempts on goal, raids into the penalty box, headers. Absolutely astounding.”
The one trophy missing from the Ronaldo collection is a major international honour and, after an underwhelming Euro 2008 and a failure to score in any of the qualifiers, he will know that it is time to deliver.
Portugal are placed in the Group of Death, while Euro champions Spain are potential opponents in the last 16, but Ronaldo is relishing the challenge. “If we get through and we play Spain I would be happy,” he said. “It will mean we got through.”