When Cristiano Ronaldo poured out his emotions after Portugal’s exit at the 2006 World Cup, few would have predicted the next three years.
The floppy-haired youngster had shown promise and a capacity to infuriate in equal measure during his three years at Old Trafford. So what if he wanted to leave? He hadn’t riled just anyone, he had contributed to the downfall of Manchester United’s, and England’s, main man: Wayne Rooney.
That wink was swiftly forgotten though. Three years later, Ronaldo had fired United to three straight Premier League titles, as well as victory in the Champions League. The Ballon d’Or had a first Premier League winner since Michael Owen in 2001. There has not been another since.
Giggs had the longevity, Scholes had that Zidane quote, Rooney had the natural talent, but never before had we seen one man carve up the top-flight like Ronaldo. Demanding the ball, throwing in same fancy footwork as he steamed towards goal, then bam. In perhaps the greatest team assembled in the Premier League era, there was no mistaking the main man any more.
The 40-yard screamer against Porto that earned the inaugural Puskas Award. The impudent flick against Aston Villa. That free-kick against Portsmouth. The steam-train header against Roma. The run from the touchline at Craven Cottage. The lad had it all.
But does any of this matter when Thierry Henry exists? A Frenchman who amassed 44 goals and assists in a single season. Who won four golden boots, was an Invincible and played his best football in the Premier League.
Perhaps not. But just because Ronaldo didn’t hit his peak in the Premier League, doesn’t mean he can’t be its greatest player – especially if Ronaldo at 95% was still better than everyone else operating at 100%.
Does it matter if we ‘only’ got three devastating seasons from the Portuguese winger? Had we got just one more, this argument would probably be settled given his duopoly with Lionel Messi. And anyway, it’s precisely because he was so good that his spell at the top in England was fleeting. He had bigger ambitions than the Premier League and only Real Madrid, and a world-record fee of £80 million, could satisfy them.
When we talk about all-time greats across all generations and leagues, Henry’s name rarely pops up in the top 30. Ronaldo is often first or second. And it wasn’t as though he suddenly became good at Real Madrid. He crafted his ruthless streak at Old Trafford, where he was arguably more exciting, before reinventing himself as one of the game’s finest goalscorers in Spain.
We don’t want to label Ronaldo the greatest in the Premier League because his career wasn’t dedicated to it, especially as Henry’s peak was exclusively spent at Arsenal. But even taking their impact in England in isolation, the debate is a far closer call than many would like to admit.