Cristiano Ronaldo will go down in history as one of the game’s greats. The Portuguese is Real Madrid’s all-time top goalscorer, with more than 400 strikes for Los Blancos, while he has four Ballons d’Or and four Champions League crowns – three with the Spanish side.
But can he be considered the club’s best-ever player?
Ask around at Barcelona and everyone will tell you that Lionel Messi is the finest footballer to play for the Catalan club. In fact, many will go further and claim that the Argentine is the best player in the history of football.
That he is considered Barca’s best is understandable. Messi has been at the forefront of the club’s most successful era, leading the Blaugrana to two trebles (in 2008-09 and 2014-15), eight Liga titles and featuring in four out of their five Champions League crowns, scoring in excess of 500 goals along the way and setting up many, many more.
Down in Madrid, Ronaldo has been brilliant too in that time. The Portuguese surpassed Raul’s record of 323 goals for Madrid in 2015 and averages slightly over one per game for Real. It is an incredible return on the €94 million paid by Los Blancos to Manchester United in 2009.
But while Barca’s best era has happened in recent years under Pep Guardiola and later with Luis Enrique as coach, this is not the standout moment in Real Madrid’s history – despite the team’s three Champions League triumphs over the past four seasons.
When Goal spoke to fans outside the Santiago Bernabeu recently, not many picked Ronaldo as the finest footballer in the club’s history, even though all of them did admit that he is among the very best players to have pulled on the famous white shirt.
“In the history of Real Madrid, there have been great, great players,” the club’s former goalkeeper Paco Buyo told Goal. “It would be unfair of us if we forgot players like [Alfredo] Di Stefano, who is one of the greats not only at Real Madrid, but in football.
“I think Cristiano is a true Real Madrid legend for everything he has achieved, but I think it is difficult to say he is the best player to have passed through the club. He is surely in the top three.”
Madrid have been blessed with an array of fantastic footballers over the years and perhaps it comes down to personal preference and age. Many younger fans will pick Cristiano as the best ever, while the older ones remember the club’s golden era in the 1950s and 1960s.
“There are many players,” said Buyo, a six-time Liga winner with Madrid in the 1980s and 1990s. “There’s [Ferenc] Puskas, [Paco] Gento. Gento won six European Cups! There’s so many. It would be unjust to forget them because football has no memory and we practically don’t remember what has gone before. We focus on the present.”
So in years to come, will this team be remembered as Cristiano’s Real Madrid like the side from the 1950s and 1960s is often recalled as the one led by Di Stefano?
“Cristiano is a star in every sense,” Buyo said. “He has won it all with Real Madrid, he even won the Euros with his national team and that shows his level. But it will depend on what happens in the coming years, if he wins more Champions Leagues for example. The Real Madrid of Di Stefano, Gento, [Raymond] Kopa, Puskas… they won five European Cups in a row and that is an extraordinary legacy.”
Former Boca Juniors, River Plate and Argentina goalkeeper Hugo Gatti gave some insight into just how special Di Stefano was as a player and also said that it is difficult to make a comparison between his compatriot and Ronaldo.
“I played against Alfredo in a tribute match for Gento (with River at the Bernabeu) in 1965 and in 1984 or 1985, he was my coach at Boca,” he told Goal. “Now and again, he would play around with the ball and join in, with those sprints he always did. And at the age of 70 he was faster than all of us!
“He was the best. For me, after Pele, who was the best in the world, the best in history, Alfredo comes next. So the comparison with Cristiano is difficult.”
Gatti, who spends half the year in Madrid where he works as a television pundit, is a regular at the Bernabeu these days and a fan of the Spanish side. He is also a staunch supporter of Ronaldo.
“I’m an admirer of Cristiano in every sense,” he said. “On the pitch, he’s the number one. But you have to be great off the pitch as well. And for me, Cristiano, on and off the pitch, is the number one. He is special. I love Cristiano. He’s a leader.”
While today’s players see their every move captured on camera, however, footage of Di Stefano is fairly rare and most of his career cannot be watched on video or on the Internet. So what was he like as player?
“When I played againast Di Stefano, he was 39 or 40,” Gatti said. “I think he was at Espanyol, but he had come back for the tribute to Gento, with Kopa, Amancio, Puskas, all of those. And he was a phenomenon. He still played the same way: he would ask the goalkeeper to give him the ball, then he would come out playing from the back, pum, pum – he attacked and he defended.
“Alfredo was a phenomenon. The most similar player I saw to Alfredo later on was Cruyff. For me, Alfredo is the greatest [in Madrid’s history]. In Europe as well. For me, the player who revolutionised European football was Alfredo Di Stefano.
“After Alfredo, you have Cristiano. With different characteristics. Alfredo was a player who always wanted to progress and he was explosive. Cristiano, for me, is a guy who never stopped learning. He has a winning nature, he’s a great striker, he wants to win it all and to improve all the time. For me, Cristiano is like Rafa Nadal in tennis: more, more, more; better, better, better.”
Juande Ramos coached Real Madrid right before Ronaldo’s arrival in 2009 and the 63-year-old admits he would love to have had the Portuguese in his team.
“When you have those kind of players, Ronaldo or Messi, you know that they can score a goal or win a match at any moment. If the match is difficult, if it’s tight, those players can win the three points and resolve everything,” he told Goal.
Between 2004 and 2010, Madrid failed to make it beyond the last 16 of the Champions League (including in that season when Ramos was in charge), but Los Blancos have won the competition three times in the past four seasons and Ronaldo has scored more than 400 goals in that time.
“That’s the whole change right there,” Ramos said. However, he too believes it is tough to compare Cristiano with other illustrious names from Madrid’s history.
“I would say that they are situations that are difficult to compare because football evolves and changes a lot.” he said. “I didn’t see Di Stefano for Real Madrid, but people talk about him a lot. People also talk about the five European Cups. I didn’t see them, so I don’t want to compare. There have been very important footballers.
“Raul was at Real Madrid for many years as well, he was very important for the club. So comparing if he is the best in Real Madrid’s history, I can’t compare because they are totally different eras. Gento won six European Cups, they are different situations…”
Indeed they are. So while Ronaldo may be the choice among the younger generation, Real Madrid’s history is much greater than these past few years. And for all his brilliance and his goals in Spain, the Portuguese still has a long way to go to surpass the great Alfredo Di Stefano.