Move over Messi, CR7 is now the world's finest

Move over Messi, CR7 is now the world's finest



(Zlatan Ibrahimovic 68, 72)


(Cristiano Ronaldo 50, 77, 79)

l Portugal qualify 4-2 on aggregate

The World Cup began Wednesday morning.

Master of ceremonies Cristiano Ronaldo declared the tournament open not by cutting a ribbon, but by slicing through the Swedes.

The greatest show on Earth will be blessed by the presence of its greatest showman.

Portugal's 3-2 win over Sweden was more than World Cup qualification. It was the passing of the baton.

Like an Olympic torch being handed down by a weary campaigner, Lionel Messi's prized mantle changed hands in the Friends Arena.

But there was nothing friendly about the exchange. This was a hostile takeover. Real power isn't genially passed along. It must be seized.

Ronaldo became the finest footballer in the world through force of will.

He combined beauty and brute strength in such captivating fashion that comparisons within his own sport no longer justify his dictatorial dominance with a football.

Rafael Nadal comes closest. They are Iberian cousins, divided by an artificial geographical border but united by a natural genetic order.

As sportsmen, they have successfully married talent with muscular tenacity, literally changing their body shape to overcome the balletic attributes of their major rivals.

Messi is blessed with foot speed to rival Woody Woodpecker's beak. He pecks and pokes at the ball like it's a food source with a rapidity that defies physics. His blurry, repetitive touches of the ball are beyond all living footballers, even Ronaldo.

Roger Federer floats around a tennis court like Vaslav Nijinsky. He finds winners with a finesse more commonly associated with the finest ballet dancers performing Swan Lake. He moves with a graceful effortlessness beyond all living tennis players, even Nadal.

But Nadal and Ronaldo usurped their more aesthetic predecessors, finding perfection through persistence.

Messi found his intoxicating peak several years ago and reached a plateau. He needed to go no further and never came down. The view from the top was exhilarating and unattainable to everyone else. But Ronaldo kept climbing.

Playing for a transitional Real Madrid and a mediocre national side were trifling obstacles to clear.

Goal-scoring records were just finite numbers to be overtaken for club and country.

He already has 66 goals in this calendar year. His hat-trick equalled Pauleta's Portugal scoring record of 47. But they are still numbers on a scoresheet. The name on the back of the jersey has always meant more.

No hurdle will ever be higher than the one in Ronaldo's mind.

On the eve of the play-off in Sweden, a Portuguese newspaper revealed that Ronaldo was set to open a museum on his home island of Madeira in homage to... himself.

A man who makes museums for himself must make history for himself. If a hat-trick was required to brush aside Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden, then so be it. He relied on no one. He kept climbing.

Ronaldo had to be at the World Cup. And the World Cup had to have Ronaldo.

His one-man march to Brazil, hoisting a nation onto his muscular shoulders and carrying them to Rio, achieves two remarkably opposing things.

On the one hand, the egos of both Ronaldo and the World Cup are inflated to stratospheric levels.

Posters of his smiling, gleaming images will be plastered on billboards from Madeira to Marine Parade. Jerseys will be sold. Tills will ring. That's the inescapable, entwined relationship between the world's most marketable sporting event and the world's most marketable sportsman.

But the more Ronaldo appears to transcend the game itself, the more he regresses into something much more desirable; something purer, something innocent.

Seizing on incisive through-balls, his three goals against Sweden - left foot, left foot, right foot - belonged on the biggest stage but were imagined on the smallest.

Kids score hat-tricks like that, with their friends, against imaginary opponents, with live commentary shouted over the top, all over the world.

Today, they will recreate the goals on any available space - left foot, left foot, right foot - and mimic the celebrations. Tonight, they will score the goals in their dreams.

Ronaldo won a game on his own, for his team, for his country.

His tricks against Sweden were familiar to millions, but he still made us believe in magic. That's the job description for the world's greatest footballer and the position has just been filled.

Portugal's magician snatched Messi's wand Wednesday morning.

And he has no plans to return it in Rio.

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