As the ball rose, so did Cristiano Ronaldo. He turned a little and then jumped -- high. His body, sideways on, pretty much parallel to the floor, was more than a metre above the ground when he connected with the overhead kick, left leg thrust up first then right leg passing it on the way to the ball, foot striking it in the air. Falling now, he hit the turf at the Juventus Stadium about the same time as the ball hit the post with a thud that could be heard by everyone there, cutting through the quiet. It was the night before the Champions League quarterfinal and the place was almost empty. It was only a training session, just practice.
A little more than 24 hours later, he was there again. You'll have seen the goal by now, watched the video, seen the photo strips turned comic strips, like something out of Roy of the Rovers, or like some engineering analysis, the graphics breaking down the mechanics with arrows and lines and calculations. Ronaldo, back straight, horizontal to the turf, connected with the ball 2.23 metres up, they said. Others said 2.38, some said 2.40. Whichever it actually was, it was high. Superhuman. He leapt as high as Dick Fosbury, literally. Mattia De Sciglio isn't small and his head barely reached Ronaldo's hip.
Ronaldo's foot was up somewhere by the bar. Next second, the ball was in the net: Juventus's net, Gianluigi Buffon's net. Andrea Barzagli shrugged, as if to say: "And what the bloody hell are we supposed to do about that?" Afterward, Zinedine Zidane was asked if it was better than the goal he scored in the European Cup final at Hampden. "Mine was prettier," he smiled, but when it had gone in, he had held his head in his hands and did that Woah! gesture where you waggle your fingers as if you've just trapped them in a door. Massimiliano Allegri called it "extraordinary."
It was, Marca said, "the goal," giving it a fold-out front page, and everyone was talking about it. The day after, Marca "framed" it, calling it a work of art. As a picture it gained something, somehow -- longevity, for a start. Images immortalise, that's always been the way. The power of photography, more even than video is capturing a moment, everything stopped, paused. Ronaldo suspended in midair as if he was in "The Matrix."
"You can leave earth and go play with the Martians now," said Alvaro Arbeloa. AS borrowed the commentary from Diego Maradona's goal against England in 1986 to ask: "What planet did you come from?" Sergio Ramos instead compared it to Pele, and so did Pele. There was certainly a touch of Escape to Victory about it, literally like something out of a film, dramatic, heroic, artistic, and Pele asked: "I wonder where he got that move from?"
Over the last few days, it has been everywhere. You'll have seen it by now, probably lots of times. Inside the stadium, 41,000 people will long tell people that they saw it too. I was there. One day, many more than 41,000 will claim they were. "This will go from fathers to sons," Ramos told him. All the more so because of what happened next.
Ronaldo ran to celebrate, leaping into the air, the way he does. This time something was different, though; something that slightly checked the celebration, making it feel almost a little out of place, and yet deepened it too. There was a split second of silence, and then there was applause from the fans. Together, they had a moment. Ronaldo held his hand to his heart and did that gesture that means thanks, sometimes even sorry.
"This has never happened to me before," he said later. "It was an incredible moment, one of the loveliest I have had, and I'm very happy. I'm touched, it stays in your heart."
"Grazie," he added, in Italian.
Ronaldo had been seeking this for a long time. Not what came next -- there was a certain surprise in his voice, overwhelmed, moved, suggesting he never, ever imagined a reaction like the one the Juventus fans gave him -- but the goal itself. "I've been looking to do it for a while, I've had it on my mind," he admitted.
It may not be unique -- and one of the most enjoyable things about the past few days has been the (re)discovery of other great goals like it -- but there is something about an overhead kick that sets it apart. It's also one of those things every player wants to have done at some stage in their career but knows they probably won't. There's certainly something about it that makes it special, football's closest expression of comic book heroism and Hollywood endings. A picture can portray it and thus make it permanent in a way that perhaps can't be applied to anything else; no other skill can be captured in a single shot.
It attracted him, that is for sure. It mattered to him. Maybe it was the one goal Ronaldo thought he hadn't scored yet. He may never have watched Escape to Victory, but whatever you call it, an overhead kick, a bicycle kick, a scissors kick, a "chilean," carries a power he pursued. Now he has it. Some have suggested that this will be the image of him, his emblematic moment, the silhouette of him having something of the Michael Jordan about it.
As the players celebrated, Ronaldo said: "I did it, I did it." He had been trying for a while; trying and failing. Now he had done it -- and there, in a moment like this. You could almost put it all together like one of those film musical montages that handily accelerate through time, condensing long periods into a couple of minutes, showing progression, the journey, like Rocky running through the snow or up the steps: the attempted overhead kicks that didn't come off, building toward a crescendo, the night before in Turin, off the post, and then the night itself, the goal.
The goal, they called it. Maybe it will be now. This, Ronaldo said, might be the best he had ever scored. He remembered that he tried one for Portugal that hit the bar, went in and wasn't given. Other times, he missed it entirely, or scuffed it wide.
Some laughed at him for the failed attempts -- and it is true that the risk in trying it is not just physical, but feeling a bit of a fool, missing the ball and falling to the floor -- while some suggested that it was about time. Well, yes, it was. But quite apart from the silliness and the sneering, they missed the point. It was the fact that he pursued it until it happened that maybe even makes it better. That he fell -- quite literally -- and got up and tried again and again and again. And so, to Michael Jordan again. Arbeloa reminded us of his famous quote:
"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over again in my life. And that's why I succeed."
"Ronaldo had tried it so many times that I am happy he did it at last," said his former teammate, Xabi Alonso. "El que lo sigue lo consigue." The phrase means: he who chases it, gets it. And in Turin, Ronaldo had got it.
Maybe some will snipe that his pursuit of an overhead kick, the photo that may now come to define him more than any other, was pointless, frivolous or superfluous. In all probability, they're much the same people who jeer about him only scoring "tap-ins" and penalties. And, anyway, they'd still be wrong. Because the work and the practice -- and "practice" is a good word, all too rarely used -- and the effort and the relentlessness with which he chased this goal is the same relentlessness with which he pursues everything and always has, from the days when he went everywhere in Madeira with weights strapped to his ankles.
And this is the point: it was not just the goal, it was everything. And if it was symbolic of Ronaldo, or if it becomes symbolic of him, it is not just because of the moment itself but because of what was behind it. Because this was not a split second's inspiration, or at least not only. Because it was not just this goal; it was all the other goals too. It is that this defines him in a way that may be deeper than it first appears. Ronaldo made this happen, not least because Ronaldo made Ronaldo.
Paul Clement, the former Madrid assistant manager, tells the story of the team arriving back from one away trip at 5 in the morning. Exhausted, all the players went home to bed. Ronaldo immediately headed to the ice bath. There are loads of stories like Clement's and no need to revive them all, but even in the hyperprofessional world of elite football, where everyone works and everyone is talented, he stands out. Ramos knew what he said when he said the goal was "reward for hard work over so many years."
It has been many years, too. Throughout them, Ronaldo has changed. And, thinking about it, that's the other thing that the goal might have symbolised. Next week is the 30th anniversary of Hugo Sanchez's famous overhead kick against Logrones, his most emblematic goal, the one that came to define him. Sanchez was arguably the best striker that Madrid have ever had, until now. With this goal, it was tempting to wonder, is Ronaldo's evolution into some kind of supercharged, 21st-century uber-Hugo Sanchez now complete?
Or, as a quick aside, how about this? In Marca this week, there was a mention of Ferenc Puskas, the man with "two careers," the genius in his early days who joined Madrid later in life, by which time he was defined as a relentless, implacable goal scorer. Reading it, it was easy for the mind to drift to Ronaldo. Puskas, by the way, had a goalpost in the garden, with different-sized rings hanging from the crossbar at different heights. He spent hour after hour hitting them. He was, teammates recall, unerring.
Ronaldo turned 30 three years ago now. He is at the age when many players are winding down, but he has said he will go on until he is 40. That might be pushing it, but you wouldn't definitively rule it out. Not just because he looks after himself physically, taking care over everything from food to sleeping, or because he is relentless in his work and his pursuit of improvement. Not even because he is somehow not human; in fact, it is maybe more because he has recognised that he is human, because he has evolved.
Darwin's survival of the fittest is really about adaptability. Madrid's fitness coach Antonio Pintus says that they take Ronaldo's age into account. Last season, it was very noticeable how clearly they tried to protect him, resting him, looking after him. It was also noticeable how Ronaldo allowed them to, even though they had to help him to let go, to see that some games mattered more than others, to hold him back at times. Previously, he had been reluctant to do so. Zidane, though, told him that if Ronaldo listened and did as he said, he could prolong his career. "The coach was intelligent," Ronaldo said.
Intelligence. It's another word that should be applied to Ronaldo. Some of his evolution has been natural, it has just kind of happened, but given the attention to detail, the study, the relentlessness, few things about Ronaldo should be considered coincidental. It would be fascinating to hear him explain how much of it is planned, whether he has studied it, seen the stats, analysed the game, forced some footballing abstinence upon himself. The fact that he has adapted is unavoidable; not just in terms of a willingness to rest, to slim down a little, but it terms of how he plays the game.
What were those word above? Pointless, frivolous, superfluous. Ronaldo could hardly be further from those descriptions. Instead, he is ultraefficient. To prioritise and specialise is a skill. He may be better now than he has ever been, at a time when you're supposed to decline. Maybe in part because it is a time when you're supposed to decline?
Some games, there is a glimpse of the old Ronaldo, almost as if you can sense that he might fancy a bit of fun that day, the chance to enjoy himself, a bit of a throwback. Against Girona recently was an example: he went wide, played passes without looking, ran at people, went to some of the places and did some of the things that he doesn't do that often anymore. Mostly, though, he has evolved into something closer to a striker, and an almost absurdly impressive one.
A hugely successful one, too. It has been good for him and good for his team. He may never have been so effective. Both last season and this, he did not start so well, but look at him when it matters.
When Ronaldo renewed his contract at 31, one paper suggested that he was in a "critical" moment and some wondered if Madrid should let him go. It wasn't an absurd thing to think, not really. At 33, he is on course to be the Champions League's top scorer yet again, for a sixth successive season. If Madrid win this year's competition, it would be a third in a row, a fourth in five years. This is already their best era since Alfredo Di Stefano; last season, they won a league and European double for the first time in 59 years.
En route, Ronaldo scored the goal that clinched the league title and hat tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, plus two in the final against Juventus. He has just scored two more against Juventus. And, never mind the second goal for a minute, look at the first, the kind of goal that defines him now: the alertness, the sharp and late run, the finish. One touch, like Hugo. and if that was like Hugo, the second was just like him.
In the 1989-90 season, Sanchez scored 38 league goals, every one of them with a single touch. In the area, he was terrifying, unbeatable, unstoppable, the ball in the net before anyone had the time to react. Tough, strong, clever, able to disappear and reappear again, escaping markers, scoring goal after goal. Remind you of anyone?
This season Ronaldo has attempted 59 percent fewer dribbles than in his first season at Madrid, completing little more than 1.2 per game. All of his 22 league goals have been scored from inside the area. Of his 14 Champions League goals, only one came from outside the area. Only one goal all season has seen him take more than two touches. He was always a swift, instinctive finisher, but that has become an even more central part of his game. More than 80 percent of his goals have been taken first time.
Some have used that to snipe and sneer, as if first-time finishes somehow matter less, but just how silly that is was shown in Turin, where the goal was one touch, too. Practiced over and over again. A single, sublime touch taken two and a half metres in the air and 24 hours later.