Jorge Servin for B/R
There was a moment 15 minutes into the Madrid derby last November that left our mouths agape. Atletico Madrid were playing Real Madrid at their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, in La Liga. Real Madrid’s defence cleared the ball from a corner kick and began moving upfield in a wave. When the ball reached their team’s midfielder, Luka Modric, he shovelled it into the path of teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.
As Ronaldo raced toward Atletico’s half of the pitch, he only had to outrun Atletico Madrid’s last covering defender, Juanfran, to be clear on goal. We sensed how this was going to end. Juanfran, who is a month older than Ronaldo, has a receding hairline and the gaunt, lived-in expression of a man who looks like he’s hitting middle age.
Then the unimaginable happened. Juanfran outsprinted Ronaldo—a guy who used to perennially register as the fastest footballer on the planet, per studies like the one by Der Spiegel in 2009 (h/t Goal.com)—and intercepted the ball. Ronaldo lowered his head in shame. It felt like a defining moment.
The game ended scoreless. Ronaldo had failed again to add to his tally of one goal for the season in La Liga. Was the gig up? Was the end in sight? There was logic to all the career obituaries that were being written. Here was a guy about to turn 33. He had miles on the clock—he was playing his 16th season in top-flight football—and Juanfran had just outrun him to the ball.
And then? Boom! Five months further into the season and Ronaldo has been terrorising defences around Spain and Europe, scoring goal after goal. He’s notched 24 in La Liga. In the UEFA Champions League, he’s scored 15, compared with the six his great rival, Lionel Messi, has scored. We were foolish to doubt Ronaldo. He continues to defy expectations. It seems he is making a mockery of the aging process.
“I’m not surprised because I know him quite well and the life he lives,” Ramon Calderon tells B/R; the former president of Real Madrid brokered the deal in December 2008 that brought Ronaldo from Manchester United to Real Madrid. “He’s focused all the time on being the best player in the world. He gets up every day trying to be better than the day before.”
Santiago Segurola, a doyen of Spanish football writing, says Ronaldo is part of a trend amongst top athletes in their sports who benefit from improvements in diet, the treatment of injuries and scientific know-how in strength and conditioning. He points to the longevity of stars like baske