Monday saw Portuguese and Real Madrid superstar Cristano Ronaldo crowned as winner
of the FIFA Ballon d'Or for a second year in a row. It came as scant surprise, given his club's phenomenal form in 2014 that saw the return of Champions League trophy -- and with it the coveted "decima," or tenth European triumph -- to the Bernabeu.
"It has been an incredible year," he said at the awards ceremony. "I would like to continue the work that I have done so far. I want to try to improve, to become better as each day goes by.
"I never thought that I would bring this trophy back home on three occasions. I want to become one of the greatest players of all time."
This seven-year duopoly reflects the importance of these two supreme athletes on the game, and allows us to see how lucky we are to be able to witness the long summers of two of the finest players to ever grace the sport.
And part of the fascination lies in how different the two men are. Debating the relative merits of Ronaldo and his great rival Lionel Messi, talismans of Real and Barcelona, respectively, has been something of a parlor game in recent years.
It's easy to compare and contrast, at least superficially. On the one hand, the improbable, mercurial talent of the shaggy haired, oddly stooped figure of Messi, confusing defenders as much as inspiring his teammates to a higher level.
On the other: Ronaldo. A glistening, taut mass of muscle, neck like a tree trunk, powering forward relentlessly. He looks like he was created in a lab or a high tech factory; a Terminator, the ultimate footballer.
The two couldn't be much more different, in style and, if you are to believe the majority of the media, likability.
Ronaldo has suffered the slings and arrows of a largely hostile press for much of his career, starting as a foal-limbed teen in Manchester, where he was often derided as a "show pony," for elaborate and unnecessary tricks, and -- a sin in the English game -- diving to win free kicks and penalties.
The negativity followed him to Madrid and a then-record transfer fee. It is largely Real's cheerleading press, AS and Marca, that give him a free pass; the rest of the global sporting media grudgingly accept his gifts, but are quick to level criticism when they feel it due.
He's often seen as a ball-hog, a selfish player who would rather shoot than pass to a teammate. That he has taken at least 10 shots at goal in nine matches doesn't exactly banish the perception.
That his fellow "galactico" Gareth Bale would have the temerity to take a shot (and miss) in a recent Liga game
rather than pass to CR7, as the virtuoso has styled himself, earned him a withering look from the Portuguese master, and the opprobrium of fans.
Off the field, his reticence to engage the media -- a symptom, it is said, of his shyness -- has been interpreted as haughty and arrogant. Messi, on the other hand, who also eschews media coverage has typically been viewed as humble and self-effacing -- although recent tax
and locker room
scandals threaten to change that.
But the stats don't lie, and with the phenomenal return of 61 goals from 60 appearances (42 in 30 La Liga games alone) during 2014, it's hard not to give credit to this year's winner. He reached the 400-goal milestone for club and country (in 653 appearances) in January,
He is a footballing genius, and had he stood alone -- his yin unopposed by Messi's yang -- he would no doubt be already talked of as one of the all-time greats. As it stands, he's talking about that honor in aspirational terms, as a goal; he's spent most of his career battling comparisons.
He's also developed in leaps and bounds since his 2008 World Player of the Year trophy, refined his unquestionable talent since he first grinned on that FIFA stage. He's far more mature; gone are the unnecessary stepovers and (almost) the petulance.
To complement this, he long ago inherited an undimmable desire to win from his old mentor, Alex Ferguson, and he burns with passion and a need to score. That's only become more evident as he grows into the complete player he has developed into over the past couple of years.
And along with his natural ability, he's long been an indefatigable, consummate professional who gives everything he has until the final whistle, and that's what has fueled his work- and goal-rate in 2014.
He still takes a lot of shots, sure, but when "Ronaldo doesn't score," on the rare occasions that he walks away from a match without netting a goal is the headline, maybe he's right to do so. Certainly his Real Madrid coach, Carlo Ancelotti, doesn't begrudge him the efforts.
World Cup woes?
Germany's irrepressible keeper Manuel Neuer -- who was a distant outlier for the Ballon d'Or this year -- may feel aggrieved that his superlative World Cup went unnoticed in voting. Indeed, Fabio Cannavaro won the award's predecessor, the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2006, off the back of his considerable influence captaining Italy to 2006 World Cup glory.
But while he had a largely anonymous World Cup, it would be difficult to deny that, year round, it has been Cristiano's year. And, like the man or not, no one should begrudge him his time at the pinnacle.