The World Cup will define the extent of Ronaldo’s greatness

The Rio Report

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Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't need to dominate a World Cup to be acclaimed as one of the finest players of all time, but if he does do exactly that it could make all the difference in his quest to be recognised as the greatest.

Alfredo Di Stefano, George Best, Ryan Giggs, George Weah and Eric Cantona are all united by the fact they never even went to a World Cup, and it is not necessarily a coincidence none of them are quite considered in the same bracket as Pele and Diego Maradona, the two men widely spoken of as the best players of all time.

[RONALDO RETURNS AS PORTUGAL THUMP IRELAND]

Both of them are inextricably linked with the World Cup, Pele winning the tournament three times and Maradona dominating in 1986. Their club achievements are extensive, but if you think of the pair the image that invariably comes to mind is of them in the colours of their national teams, and on the biggest stage of all.

This summer, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have the chance to join them at that exalted level.

Some might argue the Portuguese and Argentine – just the 407 La Liga goals between them in 425 games – do not need to enjoy fine tournaments this summer to do so. Yet a World Cup victory would ensure the debate over the finest player in history would at least become a three- or four-way conversation.

It almost seems routine to say that Ronaldo is coming into the tournament on the back of another season of astonishing personal performance. He scored 55 goals in 45 games for club and country during 2013/14, and saved his best for when it counted, finding the back of the net 17 times in the 15 games from the end of February that defined Real Madrid's season and ended with their 10th European Cup being secured.

Yet it could be argued he has never shone on the biggest stage of all. The 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo's first, is largely recalled - in England at least - for the furore that followed the dismissal of his then Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney in the quarter-final between the sides.

Rooney was sent-off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho, but Ronaldo's reaction – rushing to plead for referee Horacio Marcelo Elizondo to take action, before winking once he had done so – briefly made him public enemy number one back in England. Ronaldo actually enjoyed a fine tournament, missing out on the Young Player Award after an online campaign in England ensured Germany's Lukas Podolski won the title.

Portugal exited that tournament to France at the semi-final stage, and four years later Spain did for them in the last 16. Ronaldo scored just a solitary goal in 2010, the seventh in a 7-0 victory over North Korea. With Portugal failing to score in their other three games in the tournament, the World Cup was undoubtedly a let-down for the country and its most famous player.

This time, things promise to be different. Ronaldo's dedication is quite something, his 3,000 sit-ups a day just one small part of a regime that has taken him from promising youngster to genuine superstar.

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"He is the most ambitious player I have met, with the hunger and desire to score in every game,” Xabi Alonso said back in February. “He is impressive in terms of his athletic qualities and his technical abilities. He is a complete player; he has a great shot; he knows how to put his opponent off balance in one-on-one situations; he's great at finding space and he has great timing.”

Certainly those qualities were to the fore when Ronaldo dragged Portugal almost single-handedly to Brazil. His performance against Sweden in their play-off was sensational, his hat-trick in the second leg one of the finest displays in recent memory. Now he has to do the same in a tough group against Germany, Ghana and USA. Come through that and Portugal will likely face one of Belgium, Russia or South Korea.

But there are some who believe Ronaldo is not even the finest player in Portuguese history, among them Luis Figo. To his mind Eusebio is still the king, and the outpouring of grief when the 'Lisbon Lion' died in January demonstrated that he was a national icon. What Figo cannot dispute is that if Portugal are to do well they need Ronaldo at his best.

“In my opinion no one is above Eusebio,” Figo told Laureus last month. “But probably Ronaldo will beat some records and for sure he will be remembered. To be remembered like Pelé or Maradona? Well, if you want to be remembered like that in the World Cups, of course, you have to win, but in his general image and the prestige he has, I don’t think he needs that.

“Of course, Portugal depends a lot on Cristiano Ronaldo, so it depends if he is fit or not, and depending on his performance in the World Cup. I think Portugal is not in the line of the favourites in national teams, but probably they are in the second line.

“He had a fantastic season this year too. I think his performance in the last years has been amazing and for Portugal he is the No.1.”

Now we must see if Ronaldo seizes his chance to be considered one of the best in history.

He made sure he would be on the back page of every newspaper after ripping off his top after scoring the last goal in Madrid's Champions League Final victory. Few would be surprised if he was striking the exact same pose later this summer as he bids to join the greats.

Julian Bennetts will be covering Portugal and Ronaldo's campaign in Brazil for us this summer - Follow him on Twitter @julian_bennetts

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