Diego Forlan: From Man United days to Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo’s success down to hard work

In this week's column, Diego Forlan focuses on his former Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.

Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick in the Uefa Champions League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid has put Real Madrid on the brink of a third final in four years. Curto Del La Torre / AFP
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Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

The boy I used to translate for at Manchester United hasn’t done too badly has he?

Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford in 2003 and I was asked to look after him because I spoke Portuguese. I did the same with another Portuguese speaker who arrived at the same time, Kleberson.

Ronaldo, who we had spotted playing against us in a pre-season friendly for Sporting of Lisbon, spoke almost no English and we used many signs to communicate as English words, but he was keen to learn, on and off the field.

He trained harder than any player at United, looking to improve every part of his game.


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If he saw a player doing a trick which he couldn’t do then he would tell him that he would go away and practice and do it better than him within a week. And he did.

The United players, who trained every day in an ultra competitive environment, were impressed by how self-assured he was. He was an excellent addition to a great squad, but he was still very young.

My father came over from Uruguay to watch United train at Carrington for a week. He watched some of the best players in the world closely, players such as Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes.

The one he picked out? Ronaldo. “Diego,” he said, “when that boy starts hitting the target with those free kicks he’s going to be really special.”

I became good friends with him. He was quiet but friendly.

He was incredibly talented when he arrived at United and rightly lauded as the best player in Europe when he left for Real Madrid six years later.

Cristiano Ronaldo developed into one of the best players in the world during six years at Manchester United. Keith Williams / Action Images

Mentally and physically he went in pursuit of excellence. His success is not down to luck or inherited talent, it is because he has worked as hard as it is possible to work as a footballer.

You see the evidence of it most weeks. On Wednesday, he scored all three goals as Real Madrid beat my old club Atletico Madrid in the semi-final of the Uefa Champions League.

I was sad for Atletico. I would love to see them be crowned champions of Europe after reaching the final twice in the past three years, but it is going to be very, very hard against a Madrid side playing so well.

The reigning European and world club champions look like becoming the first team in the Champions League era to retain the trophy, and Ronaldo is a big reason why, though he is not the only reason.

Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Sergio Ramos have hit top form, three really important players in a team which has few weaknesses and a smart manager in Zinedine Zidane.

Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid in 2009 for a then record world fee. Juan Medina / Reuters

But Ronaldo is the main man, the one who is so driven to succeed that it is to his absolute credit that he is doing it so consistently even at the age of 32.

His game has changed but he is still really fast. He is more of a killer in front of goal now, too.

At United, Cristiano played on the right or left of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation.

He played like Barcelona’s Brazil international Ronaldinho – who United had tried and failed to sign before getting Ronaldo instead – and always tried to beat opposition defenders, often with tricks.

As he got more experienced and stronger he was allowed to play as a central striker and did very well.

He became more of a goalscorer and it stayed that way. He was more focused on scoring goals than tricks and dribbling past defenders.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s enduring rivalry with Lionel Messi has been a key feature in his career. Paul Hanna / Reuters

His goalscoring statistics are phenomenal and I say that, as a fellow goalscorer, one who was very happy to finish top scorer in the Primera Liga on two occasions.

There are other factors that have worked in his favour. Loving training helps – and I saw how much he loved training with my own eyes. Living clean has also helped.

He has also played for the perfect clubs. Sporting was ideal for his development and then he played for United when they were undergoing an improvement to becoming the best team in the world.

In Alex Ferguson, he had the perfect manager, the one to stand by him and support him when things did not always go to plan. Now he is with Real Madrid, who are the current best team.

There is also another factor: Lionel Messi. I don’t think he would push himself so much – and I say that in a positive way – if he did not have Messi doing exactly the same as what he is doing and breaking goalscoring records.

Cristiano Ronaldo has enjoyed success at international level this past year, winning Euro 2016 with Portugal. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

I also think that it is easier to score against the best teams. On one hand, it is hard to score against an exceptional defence like Atletico’s, yet players are most motivated when playing against the best.

He knew that the world was watching on Wednesday and he stood up to the challenge to continue an incredible run of achievements.

Winning the Champions League, European Championship and world championship in 2016 could hardly be bettered, but you also need some luck to separate you from the very best.

I believe there is very little between Madrid and Barcelona, who beat them in the clasico a week ago. And I still think that Messi is the best footballer in the world, but I am happy for Ronaldo, he deserves his success and the race between these two wonderful footballers is far from over.

I am enjoying every minute of it.


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