Why Cristiano Ronaldo Is the Michael Jordan of World Football

I will always ride with Messi, but the brilliance of CR7 right now? Bring it on. And bring on Juventus! Introducing the B/R POWER 50—a celebration of 2018's most influential people in sports culture.



In so many ways, Cristiano Ronaldo reminds me of Michael Jordan. He's one of the most remarkable players and individuals we've had in sports, and he's still going. But it's not just his ability on the field. I've really admired his metamorphosis, how he's changed his game over the years.

Early Ronaldo is like early Michael. With Jordan, people thought of him as this super exciting, brash gunslinger. Michael always called his shot. But like Ronaldo, Jordan learned to win. He learned he needed to conform to the team. That's when Michael became the greatest player of all time, in my eyes. As Jordan got older, he became much more economical and efficient, and that's exactly what Ronaldo has done. On the pitch, he's learned how to make his play—less explosive in individual movements—more successful for the team, and in that, I see the greatness of Jordan.

Before I go too far, let me say this: Lionel Messi is my favorite player and is, I believe, the greatest footballer of all time. But especially in the past year, Ronaldo's greatness is unrivaled even by Messi.

The thing I've come to admire most about Ronaldo is that he's a great athlete, not just in his performance on the field but also in his athletic tools. When he first came to Manchester United from Sporting CP in 2003, he was a skinny kid with incredible speed and coordination—a dribbler, somebody who ran at people to take them on. He'd cross balls in the box or try to create lanes for himself to have a shot. As he's gone on in his career and played with Real Madrid, he's evolved beyond that, treating his body and his craft with all the passion and energy it takes to be at the top of the game—a quality I respect above all others in an athlete.

Ronaldo scored four goals for Portugal in the World Cup...then moved to Juventus. (Photograph by Stu Forster / Getty Images)

He also has become a finisher of the highest order. Obviously the wonder goals have always been there—the 30-yard smashes and volleys—but he's additionally developed a poacher's heart. He's become less picky with his spots, a hungry goal scorer who gets into the box endlessly and is always in the right place at the right time. He's changed from being a player who played in between the lines to one who is more than happy to clean up the scraps. His aren't always the prettiest goals now, but he's found a way to have the ball fall to him and finish.

Of course, Ronaldo has a petulance to him at times, too. That hasn't necessarily been my cup of tea. Yet, no matter what, the guy just keeps going and going and going. He overcomes. When he fails, he picks himself up and succeeds. When he's under pressure, he learns from it and grows. He's become a historically great player, and over the past five years to have become Messi's rival is a feat in its own right.

But beyond the ever-present comparison of Ronaldo's on-field dominance to Messi's, there's another aspect of Ronaldo that has gained a power of its own: his style. Starting at Manchester United, you saw him bring the flair, the stepovers, the great goals. Now we see the fruit of that in Mo Salah and Harry Kane, guys who have been influenced by Ronaldo and likewise play a little bit of whip, drawing striker goals as wings. His metamorphosis, from winger to whip to straight-up No. 9—all these iterations of his game have brought such diversity and power to his career. He's reimagined himself multiple times to gain longevity and succeed at an incredible rate for his age, 33. And now he's moved on to Juventus to bring back Champions League glory to one of the most storied clubs in the world, challenging himself to perform in a much more physical league than he's played in over the past nine years.

The other thing is that he's obviously a good-looking fellow. And he's not afraid to take his shirt off. I think women and men alike have taken notice. He's a marketable guy in that respect. He photographs well and has a high self-image, which means good things for advertisers and newspapers. Ronaldo wants all of that, too. He loves it. He's a superstar uniquely made to handle it, whereas with Messi, that's not his interest or skill set.

Ronaldo will take all of that on. He doesn't only want to be the best player. He wants to be the best-looking. He wants to be in the best shape. He wants to tell everyone he's the best. That's something I think people genuinely want in their superstars sometimes. Some people like a more humble superstar—that's my inclination—but a lot want their superstars to be over the top. That's what makes Ronaldo the movie star of the game.

I once had disdain for the attention he seeks—that he sought it even over on-field success—but he's proved that wrong. There was a time when I didn't think he played well in finals or was at his best in big moments. Now I have to take my hat off and say he's become an outstanding player in the biggest moments. When Portugal did not play great in the Euros and still won it, they had someone in Ronaldo who could carry the burden of their fans' expectations, of the media's expectations. There's real value in having a personality and a character in your dressing room who can handle all those things and give the team confidence when everyone is criticizing them. And now, Ronaldo has succeeded in the Champions League. The days when I would complain he'd go missing in big games, they're long gone.

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The movie star of the beautiful game. (Photograph by Quality Sport Images via Getty Images)

Whether you like Jordan or LeBron James or James Harden or Russell Westbrook says more about you than it does about them. Between Ronaldo and Messi, it's the same thing—generational players on opposite sides of the spectrum.

When I see Ronaldo, with all his bravado, I think I might not have gravitated toward him initially because that bravado exposed a weakness in me, that maybe I was afraid to call my shot. I wasn't afraid to take it, but maybe I was afraid to call it. Maybe a weakness of mine was not having more of an ego. Maybe I gravitate toward Messi because he's an incredible competitor and fighter but does his business quietly.

As fans, as members of the media, we love comparing the two. At a certain point, it's not even about who's better than whom, which club you root for or what Ronaldo and Messi even think about themselves. They're fun for some, pointless for others. And in Ronaldo, many people see the person they want to be.

I look at him, and I see Jordan.

—As told to Joon Lee

Steve Nash is an analyst for B/R Football, a two-time NBA MVP and an eight-time NBA All-Star.