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Cristiano Ronaldo, that goal, and why it’s time to stop searching for comparisons

We need to stop trying to figure out when he will return to Earth.

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Right when Juventus were starting to believe they could find an equalizer in the first game of their quarterfinals matchup against Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo ended those hopes and the tie itself. He did so with one of the most aesthetically pleasing bicycle kick goals that I have ever seen. Zinedine Zidane was left dumbfounded and the Juventus-leaning crowd that was jeering him throughout the game was forced to clap for him.

The bicycle kick is one of the most difficult techniques in soccer: a player has to jump up with his back to goal and connect with a cross or a clipped pass while horizontal in the air. The shot also then has to go behind him where he cannot see the goal. Most of the time the bicycle kick is done badly, just by the sheer difficulty of it — some players barely get off the ground, others connect with their shin, most are trying without any real hope of actually hitting the ball. But even a bad bicycle kick is still more impressive than most other goals. It’s fun to see every time. When it’s done well, as with Ronaldo or Zlatan against England, it’s breathtaking. That’s when the goal stands as a testament to and celebration of the beauty of the human body and the world class technique of the individual. When Ronaldo scores that goal at 33 years old, it’s almost an affront to everything we know about the trajectory of a player’s career and the concept of aging in sports.

Ronaldo has always been in the business of proving people wrong. It’s one of the things that drives him, even at the stage of his career where he really doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. He’s achieved all there is to achieve and has won almost all available trophies in a player’s career. He’s confidently one of the greatest players to ever play the game. He declares himself as the best ever.

There’s the usual detractors who believe he’s inferior to Lionel Messi, and unfortunately their careers will always be compared by the magic of them existing at the same time. Rather than people being grateful for the luck of having the two in the same generation, comparisons are made in order to denigrate one or the other. Messi did this thing Ronaldo hasn’t done, so he’s obviously better. Ronaldo did this thing Messi hasn’t so it’s no question he’s the superior player. Messi plays in a more complete way, Ronaldo scores more goals and goals are what decide games. So on and so forth.

The need for the reduction in the guise of comparison and celebration is a problem of imagination. It’s a desperate attempt to get a grasp of the two in a world where they stand out as almost alien beings. It’s the same problem that sees people waiting for the end of Ronaldo’s run, arguing that eventually he will follow the career trajectory of an ordinary player. At 33, he should be in the twilight of his career, so every goal drought is evidence of his expected downfall, which should presumably come any day now.

Ronaldo struggled earlier this season, and Real Madrid had to change because of it. He’s their best goalscorer and when he’s missing chances, there’s not really an alternative who can replicate his usual consistency. He also had similar problems the year before. A goal drought isn’t unheard of for him, though it didn’t seem to reflect a physical decline. He was getting in his normal goal scoring positions, but the ball wasn’t going into the back of the net.

Ronaldo is the first player to score in 10 consecutive Champions League games. After his two goals against Juventus, he has 119 goals in the Champions League total, the most of any player. He holds the record for most goals in a Champions League season with 17 and he’s the only player to score in three Champions League finals. He has four Champions League titles so far and could possibly lead his team to a third consecutive title this year. He has scored 36 goals in all competitions so far, 10 away from his total last year. This is all before going into his domestic goals and records.

One day, Ronaldo’s production will decline and he will eventually have to retire. That’s the nature of time. Everyone’s moment comes to an end, no matter how spectacular the individual. But to expect Ronaldo’s career to follow the ordinary path is to do an injustice to the man. He’s proven over and over that he’s different. That he is something never seen before. Records after records have been broken and he’s won every award available to an individual multiple times. He’s not ordinary and has never been. There’s no need to discount him in that manner. We have to admit ignorance in a case like his, because there’s no standard to what he is doing.

At the age of 33, Ronaldo is still an absurd player and we should let him be so without trying to compartmentalize him into rigid comparisons and timelines. No one has done what he’s done as well and as long as he’s done it. We should finally accept that we don’t really know when he will stop being incredible. He’s made the prediction of his downfall look silly for years now. We should all be more like the Juventus fans who stood to applaud Ronaldo after the bicycle goal, simply appreciative of the man, and happy to have been witness to the spectacular things that he continues to do.