Five Ballon d’Ors, 100 international goals, 31 major trophies, and, of course, six perfectly chiseled abdominals. It seems the more we look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s achievements, the more we are convinced that he really could be the greatest ever to put on a pair of studs. What’s crazier is that his legacy is still far from finished. Now into his 37th year, Ronaldo continues to shatter record after record, none more significant than his recent scoring of his 760th senior career goal in January, meaning his total now eclipses the tally of 757 held by the once-undeniable owner of football’s “G.O.A.T.” status, Pelé.
It appears the young lad from Madeira has accomplished everything one possibly can on a football pitch, individual or team-based. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s only natural to assume he’s the greatest, right?
Nah. While Ronaldo can easily be placed on a hypothetical ‘Mount Rushmore’ of all-time footballers, we mustn’t forget that statistics and awards don’t always tell the full story. In the context of football history, there have indeed been individuals who eclipse him at different levels of the game, be it through club play, international play, or even natural play. And while Ronaldo’s greatness will forever be compared to that of a certain Argentine contemporary, there are other legends who also merit a case for top spot. They range from a pre-Marvel “Black Panther” to a post-monarchy “King”.
So here we go. At the risk of never being able to go on Portuguese holiday ever again, these are five footballers who can claim the “G.O.A.T.” status above Cristiano Ronaldo.
5. Alfredo Di Stéfano
Despite his meteoric rise at Man United, and current successes at Juventus, Ronaldo will forever be a Real Madrid legend first and foremost. For nine seasons with the Spanish giants, he became the club’s all-time top scorer and won a plethora of trophies, including four Champions League titles in five years between 2014 and 2018. Nonetheless, this shockingly wasn’t Real’s most memorable golden age. It was rather in the 1950s, when they won a record five straight European Cups (the equivalent of the Champions League) whilst unquestionably led by the “Blonde Arrow”, striker Alfredo Di Stéfano.
Granted, Ronaldo has the Argentine forward beat statistically (having scored almost 100 more goals than him in as many games), but Di Stéfano has the edge in number of trophies won for “Los Blancos”, as well as his manner of winning them. In every one of Real’s European Cup wins between 1956 and 1960, Di Stéfano scored a goal in every final (Ronaldo, by contrast, scored in two of his four). Di Stéfano was also the sole constant of his Real’s glory years, as they underwent a revolving door of three managers within those five years, and only two of Di Stéfano’s teammates (Gento and Zárraga) stayed with him throughout the period. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s peak Madrid sides had the same core of six players (not including him) in those Champions League finals, with strategic wizard Zinedine Zidane running the show for three of their four victories. Di Stéfano’s record in the European Cup is even more impressive when you consider that in those days, the European Cup was limited to league champions only, meaning that Real had to win the Spanish league every year just to compete. If those same rules still applied, Ronaldo’s Madrid wouldn’t have even qualified for three of the four Champions Leagues they would eventually claim.
Alfredo Di Stéfano was therefore the single most important figure in Real’s rise to football dominance, beating out Ronaldo in terms of league titles, European titles, and overall impact in achieving those titles. It can in turn be questioned how Ronaldo can be the best ever, if he’s not even the best ever for his premier club. However, club level is only one half of the game. Surely his international career is safe, right? Well, let’s find out.
Especially after finally winning the EUROs in 2016, to say that there’s any Portuguese player on Cristiano’s level is nothing short of blasphemous. But let’s look at the context of that championship team. Ronaldo essentially didn’t play in the final, and throughout that tournament only had two noteworthy performances (against Hungary and Wales). Through Pepe’s defense, Rui Patricio’s goalkeeping, and Fernando Santos’ management, the Portugal team really began winning when new leaders emerged aside from CR7. In fact, before 2016, Ronaldo’s Portuguese teams were perennial underachievers, never being able to fulfill their true potential. Never was this more apparent than in the 2000s. Dubbed Portugal’s “golden generation”, it was an all-star cast filled with world-beaters like Figo, Carvalho, and Rui Costa, and a youthful Ronaldo at the helm. Despite boasting such promise, their sole appearance in a major final was at EURO 2004, when – in Lisbon, no less – they were stunned by an inferior Greek team.
Ronaldo’s inability to excel for Portugal, especially surrounded by such top-tier talent, is shocking. It’s even more shocking when you discover that another Portuguese player achieved so much more with so much less. He was a Mozambique-born superstar known by many as the “Black Panther”, and to the rest as Eusébio. The Benfica striker was among the biggest superstars of his time, winning everything from the European Cup to the Ballon d’Or. But he was at his absolute best in the 1966 World Cup, where his nine goals in seven matches earned him the Golden Boot (that’s right, England fans – it wasn’t Hursty!). Those goals were part of some spectacular performances. He scored a brace to eliminate defending world champions Brazil, followed by a masterclass against North Korea where he singlehandedly scored four goals to bring his side back from 3-0 down! Eusébio’s prowess and leadership led the underdog Portuguese all the way to the semifinals, where they were one solitary goal away from forcing the English hosts to a draw. It wasn’t gold, but there is certainly no disputing that Portugal’s bronze medal was won by one man. His prowess and leadership led a decidedly decent team to incredible results; contrast this with Cristiano, who often led incredible teams to decidedly decent results. One can only imagine how Portugal would have fared with Eusébio alongside the golden generation. There is very little doubt that, even among all those superstars, the “Black Pearl” would have still shone brightest, as he did throughout his career.
2. & 3. Messi and Maradona
Time to address the “flea” in the room. It’s true that this article could have simply compared Ronaldo to Lionel Messi. It’s a rivalry equal to that of Nadal vs. Federer or Prost vs. Senna, a back-and-forth over who is the greatest of their generation. It may therefore seem strange that for this section we have merged Messi with his idol, fellow Argentine #10, the late Diego Maradona. However, these two mighty mice share a playing style so similar, and so contradictory to that of Ronaldo’s, that they simply have to be compared collectively. For if there is one thing that both have over Cristiano, it is their roles as “pure #10’s” (attacking playmakers).
Ronaldo, as the witty “CR7” nickname suggests, has been a #7 (winger) for most of his career, with minor transitions to the #9 (striker) position. For Ronaldo to show a sustained 17-year consistency under these roles is nothing short of exemplary, but for all this he tends to lack in imagination. This quality is the prime characteristic of the mythic #10, the leader who can pull a rabbit out of a hat at any time. Be it Messi, or Maradona before him, these two players have given countless displays of out-manoeuvering myriad defenders, and even whole teams, out of nowhere. Consider this: when you think of Messi’s famous goals, one can immediately picture his spontaneous breakaway in the 2015 Copa Del Rey final. When you think of Maradona’s most famous goal (with his feet, at least), you immediately conjure the image of his 60 metre solo run against England in 1986 (named FIFA’s goal of the century). Now think of Ronaldo’s famous goals. Perhaps it is from one of his bicycle kicks, or set-pieces, or two-and-a-half metre headers. His goals are physical marvels, but they’re not necessarily studies in individual creativity. Ronaldo may therefore be seen as the best athlete ever to play, but he simply doesn’t have the on-field genius to surpass several #10’s as the best footballer ever.
The case for the Argentines also stretches beyond the pitch, into the trophy room. Messi has 33 major trophies to Ronaldo’s 31, and even reached the 700-goal mark six months before his Portuguese counterpart. Maradona, meanwhile, in addition to 46 individual honours, has to his name the one trophy that has eluded both modern stars: the World Cup, where, in 1986, he showcased the greatest single-tournament performance ever. As a player who played like no other, and won almost every conceivable trophy in doing so, it’s almost unlawful to put anyone ahead of “Pibe Maradona” as the G.O.A.T.
Call it predictable, anti-climactic, or a cliché, but Pelé remains the greatest footballer ever, and the reason is simple: he embodies every great quality of the previous entries on this list. His 18-year club tenure at Santos included 500 goals that lead to 25 trophy wins, including two from the fabled Libertadores Cup. His international career is even more legendary: as a 17-year-old, he was Brazil’s top scorer in their first ever World Cup victory in 1958, and later spearheaded the “Seleção” to two more titles in ‘62 and ‘70. Finally, he marked every single moment of his career with strokes of genius and artistry that made his #10 synonymous with the “playmaker” role. In every standard of the game, on every level of the game, the figure known simply as “O Rei” (“The King”) has yet to be totally surpassed.
Granted, Ronaldo recently surpassed him in career goals, but their numbers must also be viewed with respect to era. Pelé scoring 757 official goals in a more physical, defensive era of football (played mostly before the introduction of yellow and red cards in 1970), could certainly be deemed more impressive than Ronaldo’s goals after the new millennium’s restructuring of rules that favoured attackers to a greater degree. Some even argue that had he played in today’s game, Pelé’s goal totals may have even crossed the four-digit milestone.
This is not to take anything away from Ronaldo. It is never easy to eclipse the status of a “King”. To do what he’s done for as long as he’s done it is almost unfathomable. And while this list has admittedly roasted him on various levels, one silver lining for CR7 and his social media army is that we have yet to see the end of his career. So, does he still have a chance to surpass Pelé himself?