While his place among the all-time football greats is already secure, Portugal and Manchester United forward Cristiano Ronaldo reached another truly gigantic career milestone by scoring twice in Thursday’s 3-2 win in the Premier League clash against Arsenal to take his career goal tally past 800.
Ronaldo — who was voted No. 2 among the world’s top forwards in ESPN’s FC 100 for 2021 — has taken just 1,095 official senior appearances for his country, United, Real Madrid, Juventus and boyhood club Sporting CP to score his 800th goal (and indeed, his 801st). That is a truly phenomenal achievement, whichever way you slice it.
As well as leading the pack among his peers, there have been claims that Ronaldo is already the all-time leading goal scorer in the professional men’s game — though it very much depends whose count you choose to credit. Confusion arises due to the reliability of the records dating from decades ago when the likes of Brazil great Pele and former Czechoslovakia striker Josef Bican were at their goal-scoring pomp, with the looser categorisation of “official” matches meaning their respective totals vary wildly depending on the source.
However, whether it’s an all-time record or not, there can be no doubt that Ronaldo now has 801 senior goals to his name as every single last one of them — from his very first as a 17-year-old for Sporting against Moreirense on Oct. 7, 2002 to his two goals against Arsenal on Dec. 2, 2021 — has been witnessed, recorded and officially registered.
How did he get here?
It’s worth recapping just how Ronaldo has become the top-scoring active men’s player in world football ahead of world-class strikers like Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even Lionel Messi.
After joining United from Sporting in 2003 as a wiry winger with a penchant for flashy tricks, over the next six years Ronaldo converted himself into a ruthless goal-scoring machine, so much so that even teammates Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez — each one a top-drawer forward in his own right — adapted their own roles to fully support the apex of the United attack. In 2007-08, the season United won the second of three consecutive Premier League titles and the Champions League final, Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 49 appearances for the club and won his first Ballon d’Or.
By the time he joined Real Madrid in 2009 for a then-world record fee of £80 million, he was the complete package. In his nine years at the Bernabeu Ronaldo scored at a rate of more than a goal a game as he won 15 trophies including two LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues. And his goal-scoring figures weren’t simply padded out with late goals to put the gloss on comfortable wins over LaLiga’s lesser lights — he scored plenty of goals when they mattered most against the best opposition, in the biggest games. No wonder he collected another four Ballon d’Or trophies before leaving Los Blancos in 2018.
At Juventus he continued his prodigious scoring rate, netting a goal every 1.33 games during his three seasons in Turin, which garnered him five trophies including two Serie A titles. His shock return to Manchester United in the summer did not do anything to knock his scoring form, with his goals coming at roughly the same rate back in England as he has extended his record tally for Champions League goals to 136 goals.
And let’s not forget his international exploits. Since making his senior debut for Portugal in 2003, Ronaldo has helped his country win the European Championship (in which he is the all-time top scorer) in 2016 and the UEFA Nations League finals (in which he is the all-time top scorer) in 2019, and broke Ali Daei’s long-standing world record for goals scored in men’s internationals with his 110th strike in September.
How long could he keep playing?
Despite the mid-30s generally being regarded as the “twilight years” in the standard professional football career, Ronaldo has adapted remarkably well to keep playing at the top level as he has aged. He will turn 37 next February, but retirement doesn’t appear to be an imminent concern. For one thing, he signed a contract at Manchester United until the end of the 2022-23 season when he returned to Old Trafford, with the option of a further year that would take him past his 39th birthday were he to take it up.
Indeed, Ronaldo has actually stated on several occasions in the recent past that he plans to play on until he turns 40, should his body allow him the privilege. Around his 35th birthday last year, he told Marca:
“Much will depend on what I feel, on my motivation. Physically it will never be a problem. I am treating myself well and I think can play safely for up to 40 years.
“The most important factor, honestly, will be more psychological — that will be the one that makes the difference.
“In any case, everything has a beginning and an end. I won’t last a lifetime but I still feel strong enough to continue winning. I will stop if I have no incentives.”
Fernando Santos, who as Portugal coach has won the 2016 European Championship and the 2019 UEFA Nations League with Ronaldo as his captain, doesn’t disagree, telling TVI24:
“Cristiano is ready to play until he’s 40, but he doesn’t know if it will happen. At some point he may feel that he no longer has the same conditions.
“He’s not a player who will lower his level, when he feels like he can’t be Ronaldo, he won’t.”
He might not be as quick as he used to be, but Ronaldo remains in prime physical condition and is rarely injured.
Given that he’s just scored his 800th career goal a little over two years since he scored his 700th — on Oct. 14, 2019, during a 2-1 loss in Ukraine — it is eminently plausible he could reach four figures before he calls it quits. It’s certainly a big ask, but if anybody’s up for the challenge, it’s Cristiano.
Like a fine Madeira wine, he is improving with age. In fact, he has actually become more prolific in the goal-scoring stakes since he turned 30.
Can he keep scoring at the same rate?
While not overly scientific, here we gauge the possibility of Ronaldo successfully hitting the 1,000-goal mark before the end of his career by examining a few different metrics. First and foremost, there’s every chance he’ll play on past 40 given his unflinching commitment to fitness, personal conditioning and professional motivation.
As things stand, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 801 senior goals for club and country combined. This official count does not include his goals for Sporting B at the very start of his career or his international appearances at youth level, which include two goals scored for Portugal’s under-23s at the 2004 Olympics.
As far as Ronaldo is concerned, goals have never been hard to find. In fact, they’ve been scored with clockwork-like regularity throughout his 19-year professional career. Since he left Manchester United for Real Madrid as a 24-year-old in 2009, his goal-scoring rate has never once dropped below one goal every 2.5 games for any club.
From the very start of his career onward, it’s taken Ronaldo roughly two calendar years to score 100 goals. That said, he rocketed from 400 to 500 career goals in the space of just 662 days (one year, nine months, 24 days) between January 2014 and October 2015 during the very height of his goal-scoring heroics at Real Madrid. Another ludicrously prolific purple patch like that and Ronaldo might well be ticking over into four figures sooner than anticipated.
He can always rely on penalties
From 11 penalties in his first 100 goals to 29 of them between 701 and 800, spot kicks have proved to be an invaluable and consistent source of goals for Ronaldo. So much so that his second of the night against Arsenal, and his 801st in his career overall, was scored from the penalty spot — the 142nd time he has converted a spot kick.
Some might use this as a reason to denigrate and debunk his goal tally, but as the old footballing adage goes: they all count the same.
If he continues as designated taker for club and country, Ronaldo will be guaranteed at least 10 goals per year — which roughly contributes 40 more goals toward his projected end-of-career tally, at the minimum.
The less said about his free-kick conversion rate, the better.
So, can Ronaldo reach 1,000 career goals?
During his last three full, uninterrupted seasons (2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020-21), Ronaldo has maintained a rough average of 47 goals in 55 games in all competitions per campaign. As there were no international fixtures played between November 2019 and September 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not included the 2019-20 season in the average.
If the 36-year-old Ronaldo were to consistently score at this rate for the next four years until the age of 40, he’d score 190 goals in 220 games for club and country. If we add these 190 prospective goals to his current tally of 801, we see that Ronaldo would fall narrowly short of scoring 1,000 career goals (801 +190 = 991 goals).
Still, there is nothing to suggest that he could not raise his scoring game another level while playing in the Premier League and Champions League for United. After that he could move to a club in another European league, or even move further afield to a league where he finds goals easier to come by.
When it comes to Ronaldo and his sporting ambitions, experience tells us it’s best to not bet against him achieving the impossible.
Additional research and writing by Tony Mabert