Given his amazing year, Cristiano Ronaldo is a worthy Ballon d'Or winner
The low point was in April and, as often happens, darkness and light mixed liberally. It was his 100th game, Real Madrid demolished Borussia Dortmund 3-0 and he equalled his own record of 14 Champions League goals. But he also limped off with 10 minutes to go, clutching his thigh.
Cristiano Ronaldo would miss four games, including the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, which Real Madrid won 2-1. He came back and scored more goals, including a last-ditch beauty that was voted Goal of the Season in La Liga. But then he went down again, seven minutes into the third-to-last league game of the season against Valladolid. Hamstring, again.
He was put on ice for 17 days, returning just in time for the Champions League final.
It was during the second layoff that the rumors took hold. More than one "well-informed" source (every club has those, and they're sometimes a little too willing to speak) suggested that Ronaldo's problem might be congenital and that he may never be the same again. Too much wear and tear. Too many miles on those tires; after all, he had played some 700 games for club and country, and he had turned 29 just a few months earlier.
Ronaldo hasn't talked about it but if the rumors got to the papers, they probably got to him as well. And, no matter what the club doctors might have told him, you wonder how he might have reacted.
Sure, we have faith in doctors. But theirs is often an inexact science. And, really, you feel that the one guy Ronaldo has faith in, the guy who let him down less often anybody else, is Ronaldo himself.
Maybe that's why when he returned and scored that goal from the spot in the final seconds of the Champions League final to make it 4-1, he celebrated as if he'd scored the mother of all winning goals.
He was criticized for it (yours truly was no different) and it fit the usual "Cristiano as prima donna" trope. All about him rather than, say, Sergio Ramos, without whom Atletico would have been champions of Europe. But when you step away for a moment and you take it all in -- the injury, La Decima, the fact that this was his competition with 17 goals -- it begins to make a bit of sense.
Indeed, that injury was still there: patellar tendonitis in his knee, plus the fallout from his hamstring. It meant he often had to train on his own and pull on an ice pack about as often as he put on shinpads. Portugal were bounced out of the World Cup on goal difference and that was that.
Yet it was a somewhat different Ronaldo who showed up after the summer. And that Ronaldo was perhaps just as important as the one we saw in the first half of the year, the one who was all about records, silverware and gritting teeth through injury. This Ronaldo plays without angst and insecurity, and with the ego and preening dialed down several notches.
What's more, he's just as good, if not better.
Remember his "I am sad" comments?
Remember the whole business with how Real Madrid supposedly wasn't "campaigning" hard enough on his behalf to win baubles like the Ballon d'Or?
Remember the supposed annoyance at the fact that Lionel Messi and Barcelona were the darlings of the world media and Real Madrid was some kind of Evil Empire with Jose Mourinho as Emperor Palpatine and Ronaldo as Darth Vader?
Remember when Mourinho, right here on ESPN, suggested that the "real Ronaldo" was the Brazilian one, and he responded by firing back "I don't spit where I eat"?
Thankfully, much of that is gone. What controversy has Ronaldo been involved in during the past five months? No contract disputes. No disciplinary issues. No accusations and recriminations and insinuations. Just football, most of it exceptional, as evidenced by his club's 22 straight victories across all competitions.
It's not a surprise that his manager, Carlo Ancelotti, says he's playing the best football of his career, or that Ronaldo returns the compliment by calling Ancelotti the best manager he ever had. (The list, as we know, includes Manuel Pellegrini, Mourinho and that Sir Alex Ferguson guy.)
Ronaldo is a guy who's content and productive. And because he and Messi seem to ebb and flow at different times, he's benefited while the Barcelona star has struggled with all sorts of insinuations, from his much-publicized tax case to accusations that he wields too much power, both with Argentina and at the Camp Nou.
Has Ronaldo's ego shrunk? Probably not. This is still a Real Madrid side that works for him and cedes the limelight to him, but you can also look at it and conclude the following: it speaks volumes about the regard in which the likes of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema hold him that they're willing to turn into blue-collar type players and do the grunt work on his behalf.
That is the ultimate test. Diego Maradona's teammates said they didn't mind toiling in obscurity off the ball while he trotted around the pitch if it meant Napoli could win. Despite their star names and stellar salaries, Ronaldo's supporting cast evidently feel the same way.
You don't mind the grandstanding. Or, as some eagle-eyed supporters noticed, the fact that when he poses for team photos, he stands on his tippy-toes so as to appear taller and bigger than everyone else.
That's who he is. If the folks who go to work with him every single day don't find it annoying, why should we? Especially when he continues to deliver like no man this side of Messi has done in the past 20 years.
This is Ronaldo, the grownup. A grownup diva, perhaps, but a grownup nonetheless. And he's a worthy Ballon d'Or winner in 2014.
Check the criteria again: "sporting performance and general behavior on and off the pitch from 1 January 2014 until now." Check and check. 2014 was his.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.