Cristiano Ronaldo’s Legacy – Where Does He Rank?

Following Argentina’s victory in the final at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and Kylian Mbappé receiving the Golden Boot but Lionel Messi getting the Golden Ball, much attention has been paid to the fact that it was the last World Cup for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi looks like he still has some time left, and was brilliant against France in the final, whereas Ronaldo is currently without a club and looks more or less done with the national team, after being used as a substitute in both of Portugal’s knockout matches in Qatar (in no small part thanks to putrid play in the group stage). This has led to some re-evaluation of Ronaldo’s legacy, especially with Mbappé’s CV soaring and GOAT talk beginning, so it’s time to break it down. If this is it for Cristiano Ronaldo, where does he rank all time?

The ridiculous statistics of Cristiano Ronaldo.

First, the basics. Ronaldo has pounded home 819 goals and assisted 234 in 1145 appearances – the most in the history of football. Pelé finished around 760 official goals, Josef Bican is generally considered to have scored 804 – and Lionel Messi has scored 793 (and assisted 350 more). Ronaldo has scored a whopping 146 penalties, meaning he’s managed 673 career non penalty goals in those 1145 apps. Shockingly enough, although those are very impressive numbers, they actually aren’t *that* ridiculous from an all-time perspective. Players like Pelé, Ferenc Puskás, Bican, Gerd Müller, and Messi have better goal scoring ratios, both with and without penalties.

What makes Ronaldo’s scoring record impressive is the longevity and consistency. Perhaps the most ridiculous Cristiano Ronaldo stat available is this: he has scored 15+ goals in every single calendar year since 2004. Seriously. In fact, between 2007 and 2021, he scored 30 or more goals every single year. Between 2011 and 2017, he scored at least 50 every year – a remarkable SEVEN straight years with 50+ goals, which is a record. He scored 48 in 2010 and 49 in 2018, so it easily could have been 9. He’s the only player (in Europe) to EVER score 60+ goals in 4 straight years. His goalscoring is just absurd.

Impossibly good goalscoring numbers.

But Ronaldo in his prime wasn’t just a poacher. At his absolute peak as an overall footballer, between 2009-2012, he was a good dribbler and very good playmaker on top of his impressive goalscoring, one of the most complete wingers the sport has ever seen. Ronaldo’s best dribbling season in terms of dribbles/90 was 2004/05, when he completed 4.18, but he didn’t have a season below 2 until 2012/13. He created chances, drove the ball up the pitch, leapt to the sky, headed the ball like nobody else, had a great weak foot, and scored absurd long-distance goals. And although his other attributes fell away as he declined, his goalscoring did not.

Some blame Ronaldo’s dribbling and creating decline on his purported career-threatening knee injury, but there’s really no truth to that. Ronaldo’s dribbling more or less steadily declined from his 2004/05 peak – and in fact, his 2015/16-2017/18 outputs were lower than his Juventus numbers, indicating that it was much more about role than a rapid decline in skill/agility (his numbers did fall off a cliff at Manchester United, though). When it comes to key passes and xA (expected assists), it’s the exact same story – sharp decline from 2015-2016 onwards. Of course, the popular twitter thread blaming his injury is filled with medical misinformation, and it’s simply impossible that the condition described in the thread (patellar tendinosis) would result in loss of dribbling/creation ability yet still allow Ronaldo to retain his absurd leaping ability, but it was worth looking at the data anyways. 

The story of the knee injury is a fun one – but just a story.

What do these dribbling and chance creation numbers tell us? They tell us a story – a story of a remarkable player who managed to stave off decline by effectively transitioning from a lethal winger into one of the best poachers in history. Ronaldo by 2013 was well into his transition into a poacher – a transition he completed in 2015 (although he still had some creative duties). His transition allowed him remarkable longevity, longevity that saw him finish as the 3rd top-scorer in the Premier League at 36/37 years of age. But how does he measure up all time?

When it comes to the GOAT debate, beyond aesthetics and watching the game, most people like to compare resumes and use trophy logic. Ronaldo fans like to talk about the UCL, the fact that he’s “done it in three leagues,” and his international record. Almost every single Ronaldo GOAT argument comes down to these three things. There’s several names you always hear being thrown around in GOAT debates: Messi, Ronaldo, Pelé, and Maradona are the pretty clear top 4 in the public’s view, then others such as R9, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Zidane, and Puskás are occasionally mentioned, with Mbappé looming. Each argument has varying levels of validity, and together they actually paint a pretty clear picture of where Ronaldo stacks up to those players. 

Ronaldo is generally considered the best UCL player ever. That’s not entirely fair to Maradona, who played 6 career UCL matches (back when it was the European Cup) or Pelé, who never played in the UCL. The modern iteration of the UCL is, by far, the most conducive to higher goal totals. Ronaldo tops the list with a whopping 140 goals in 183 appearances (the old record was Raúl, with 71 in 142 appearances), good for a .77 goals per game ratio. Several other legends, though, have comparable resumes in terms of goalscoring. Messi currently sits on 129 goals with a .8 ratio. De Stefano scored 49 goals in 58 appearances, a .84 ratio – and Puskás had 36 in 41 (.88). R9 and Cruyff are nowhere to be found – but it should be noted that Cruyff wasn’t a goalscorer and R9 didn’t play in the modern era (the top 4 all time is Ronaldo, Messi, Robert Lewandowski, and Karim Benzema, who are all active). Mbappé doesn’t have the matches played yet, but is quickly building a phenomenal UCL resume. But Ronaldo’s UCL argument goes beyond just  goalscoring. 

Ronaldo’s statistics in the UCL knockouts are the ones most often used by his fans in debates.

The single statistic Ronaldo fans point to most is goals in the UCL quarter finals and beyond, where he’s scored a whopping 42 goals and the next-closest player (Messi) has just 20. Most of this difference comes in the quarterfinals, where Ronaldo’s scored 25 goals in 22 appearances and Messi just 12 in 23. But simply handing Ronaldo the title of best UCL player ever (and GOAT) based on this one statistic is completely illogical. First of all, Ronaldo’s played 49 matches in these rounds, but 1145 in his career. You can’t judge someone’s entire career off of that small of a sample (less than 5%). Second, there’s more to the sport than just goals. Third, context to these goals is important. Messi’s average UEFA coefficient opponent ranking in the QF’s is 10.7, but Ronaldo’s is 21.8. In the SF, it’s 5.5 for Messi vs. 7.4 for Ronaldo. That’s a huge difference in opponent quality. This isn’t supposed to be a Messi vs. Ronaldo piece – that’s simply to illustrate part of the context behind Ronaldo’s numbers. They’re amazing, but they can’t make him the GOAT by themselves.

And here’s a fun fact: If you removed all of Ronaldo’s semi-final goals and assists, he’d only lose the 2009 final appearance and would still have 4 UCL’s. Ronaldo’s scored a ton of big UCL goals, but in the UCL semi-finals and final, he’s only ever scored or assisted ONE goal that impacted a match’s (or 2 legged tie’s) outcome (his 2008 header vs Chelsea), in 27 appearances. For a player who’s garnered the reputation of always showing up when it counts, he hasn’t actually made the difference much in the final 2 rounds of the UCL.

Objectivity is important, though, and Ronaldo has delivered numerous clutch UCL performances beyond those 2 rounds, which were key in his gaining this reputation. His 5 goals in 2 matches against Bayern Munich in 2016/17 (although the last 2 were offsides), his clutch hat-trick down 0-2 against Wolfsburg in 2015/16, his clutch hat-trick down 0-2 against Atlético Madrid in 2018/19, and his plethora of clutch goals in the 2021/22 group stage come to mind. He’s not the obvious UCL GOAT that his fans would like him to be, but he undeniably has a remarkable resume in the most difficult club competition in the world. Others such as Di Stefano, Puskás, and Messi also have legitimate claims to that title.

What about “doing it” in three leagues? Ronaldo has, after all, won league titles and the Golden Boot in England, Spain, and Italy. Sure, he played for traditional powerhouse clubs in those leagues (Man United won 11 titles between 1992/93 and 2008/09, and won 2 Premier Leagues and made a UCL final in the 4 seasons following Ronaldo’s departure, while Juventus was coming off 2 UCL finals in 3 seasons and 7 straight league titles when Ronaldo joined), but no one else has done that either way. It’s an impressive accomplishment. Pelé proved himself against Europe’s best when Santos toured the continent, but never actually played in the leagues, so this is a bit unfair – and when Pelé played, the Brazilian league was perhaps the world’s best. Maradona, meanwhile, dragged a decent Napoli side to 2 Scudettos, a remarkable achievement, while Messi helped Barcelona to a whopping 9 league titles in 12 seasons (including 6 in the 9 seasons Ronaldo played at Real Madrid). In fact, Real Madrid have won as many league titles since Ronaldo left (2) as they did in his 9 years there. That probably says more about Messi’s importance to Barca than it does Ronaldo’s to Real Madrid, however. 

Ronaldo was 33 when he joined Juventus, but banged in 101 goals in just 134 appearances.

Ronaldo scored 101 goals and gave 20 assists in 134 appearances with Juventus, scoring a whopping 29 penalties. 92 npG+A in 134 apps is very good for a striker who was aged between 33 and 36 in his time there, but it’s not mind-boggling. In his last season, Juventus lost their title streak, nearly missing out on the UCL, and some fans believed that his play was making the team worse, despite his goalscoring. It’s hard to know for sure if that’s true, but the Manchester United fans who thought Ronaldo made the team worse last year have been clearly vindicated by their improved results without him this season, so it’s not unrealistic. With that said, his Real Madrid record was unbelievable (450 goals and 120 assists in 438 appearances, 79 penalties), and it’s not entirely his fault that his Madrid teams couldn’t measure up to the wrecking ball that was Messi’s Barcelona. 

If we are being realistic, though, there’s only one real hole in Cristiano Ronaldo’s legacy as a footballer, and it’s in crucial international matches. As great as he was in UCL knockouts, he was quite the opposite for Portugal. Ronaldo’s Portugal knockout record in major tournaments, assuming he doesn’t play in the 2024 Euros, will end at 5 G+A in 19 knockout stage appearances – and 0 in 8 at the World Cup. Ronaldo’s World Cup record is simply not good – he managed just 7 npG+A in 22 appearances, adding 3 penalties. In fact, Eusebio, not Cristiano Ronaldo, is Portugal’s all-time top World Cup scorer, and he only played in 1 World Cup (although Ronaldo is the only man to ever score in 5 World Cups). Some of this is because of the squads around Ronaldo (2006 and 2022 were very good, and 2018 was solid, but 2010 and 2014, his prime years… not so good), but then again, both Pepe and Gonçalo Ramos have managed more KO G+A than Ronaldo (and Ramos only played 2 matches).

In 47 Euro/World Cup matches, Ronaldo managed 17 non-penalty goals. For maybe the greatest goalscorer of all time, that’s simply not very good. He had some big clutch performances, however – vs. Hungary in the 2016 Euros group stage and Wales in the semi-final, vs. the Netherlands in the 2004 Euro semifinal, vs. the Netherlands in 2012 in the Euro group stage, and of course his famous hat trick against Sweden in the qualifying play-off for the 2014 World Cup that won him the 2013 Ballon D’or after voting was extended. It’s just that the overall body of work, beyond dominating qualifiers and friendlies, isn’t very good.

It is worth discussing Portugal before Ronaldo, though. Portugal had made only 3 World Cups before Ronaldo, and 3 Euros – but since his first callup in 2003, they’ve never missed a major international tournament. It’s been dicey a few times (the 2014 World Cup, the 2022 World Cup, and the 2012 Euros, specifically), but it’s a notable record. Portugal is not a country that had a rich footballing history before Ronaldo on the international stage.

Portugal’s record at the European Championships wasn’t all that impressive before Ronaldo.

But that isn’t entirely because of Ronaldo. Portugal’s record reveals a nation that was on the upswing as Ronaldo joined. In 1996, they made the Euro quarterfinals in their first tournament since 1984 (and second ever). In 2000, they made the semi-finals. In 2004, Ronaldo’s first Euros, a team with players such as Deco, Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Costinha, Maniche, and Ricardo Carvalho, widely considered Portugal’s “golden generation,” made the final. In 2002, they made their first World Cup since 1986 without him. With that said, Ronaldo’s had some mediocre Portugal teams. The 2014 World Cup team that went out in the group stages was not good. The 2010 iteration wasn’t that good either. 2006 was strong, 2018 was decent, and 2022 was excellent – but 2022 was only great when he wasn’t playing. 

Many all-time greats, though, elevated similar squads. Messi’s 2014 Argentina team wasn’t all that good, but he dragged them through the group stages and then past Switzerland into the QF (one of his most underrated performances). He didn’t do much against Belgium or the Netherlands in the next 2 rounds, but that team probably doesn’t even qualify for the tournament without him – as demonstrated by the 2018 Argentina team that needed his return and miraculous hat trick against Ecuador just to qualify. In 2022, Messi carried an Argentina team missing some key players to the title with a string of insane performances, winning his 2nd Golden Ball (the only player to do so). Maradona’s in the GOAT conversation in the first place because of his 1986 carry job, and they almost went back to back. That 1966 Portugal team wasn’t all that, but Eusebio squeezed them into the semifinals anyways. Pelé inarguably played on elite teams (the 1962 iteration won the title without him), but his performances in the knockouts in 1958 and 1970 were incredible and key to his teams’ World Cup victories. Mbappé has now scored in 2 World Cup finals, hoisted 1 World Cup trophy, and has as many World Cup knockout non-penalty G+A in 2 tournaments (7) as Ronaldo managed TOTAL npG+A in his 22 career World Cup appearances. Ronaldo inarguably never came close to doing any of what those players did – and that will forever be the thing that holds him back in terms of his legacy.

Ronaldo’s Real Madrid tenure – one of the greatest 9-year stretches in history.

His overall CV boggles the mind despite these flaws. He’ll retire with the most or 2nd-most goals in history (depending on if Messi manages to pass him before he retires), and if Messi’s goal scoring continues declining, he’ll retire with the most goals ever unless someone new comes along – like a Haaland or Mbappé. He’s one of 2 players of the modern era to hit 1000 G+A. He won the Euros with a country that didn’t have a rich footballing history, and is perhaps the most successful player in the history of the UCL. He spent about 10 years of his career (2007-2017) as the best or 2nd-best player in the world (before players like Neymar and Mbappé started passing him in 2018/19 – Neymar’s first PSG season was insane as well in 2017/18). He’s a Manchester United and Real Madrid legend, and managed a relatively successful stint at Juventus between the ages of 33 and 36.  450 goals in 438 matches at Real Madrid is just unbelievable.

So where does that put him all time? There’s clearly no legitimate argument at this point that has him above Messi. Does he have an argument over Pelé? Also probably not. There’s the competition argument for Pelé, but he dominated absolutely everyone he played – no matter the stage. The same can’t be said for Ronaldo. With that said, though, it’s difficult to compare across eras – if we’re talking about the *best* players ever, Ronaldo ranks higher just because of the relative difficulty of his era. But we’re talking about footballing legacy as well.

So, Ronaldo’s no higher than 3rd. Is he above Maradona? This is an interesting one. Maradona clearly had the higher peak – Ronaldo never approached anything like the 1986 World Cup – but Ronaldo’s longevity has been absolutely ridiculous. Maradona was more or less finished at 32, whereas Ronaldo was taking Real Madrid to yet another Champions League title with absurd scoring displays. Do you take the better peak, or the lower peak with all-time great longevity?

What probably holds Ronaldo back here is that he will retire without a World Cup, or a notable World Cup run. This one more or less comes down to personal preference – the artist, or the machine. 

Beyond Maradona – who else could you pick over CR7 based on their peak? Di Stefano, maybe. Puskás. Cruyff. Zidane. R9. But none of them touch Ronaldo’s longevity.

Let’s cap it here: Cristiano Ronaldo, World Cup disappointments aside, is a top-5 player of all time. Without question. As far as to where he ranks specifically – the most objective ranking of him as an overall footballer appears to be #3 all time. If peak matters more, maybe he slides down the ranks a little bit – but no matter what, what cannot be denied is that he’s forever a legend of the game.

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