WORLD CUP COLUMN: The dazzling statistics that keep on getting better

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo applauds after the group B match between Portugal and Spain at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) PPP-180615-213015001
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo applauds after the group B match between Portugal and Spain at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) PPP-180615-213015001
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His statistics are truly phenomenal, and they keep on getting better and better.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup hat-trick against Spain last night was the 51st of his glittering career.

He now has 87 international goals for Portugal. To go alongside the 311 he has scored in only 292 La Liga appearances for Real Madrid (and he’s not even a central striker!). And to go alongside the 120 Champions League goals he has scored for Manchester United and for Madrid - 20 more than the next highest (Lionel Messi).

He has won the Champions League five times, more than anyone else in history.

•He shares the record for the most Ballon d’Or awards - five (joint with Lionel Messi). And he shares the record for the most FIFA best player awards - again five (and again with Lionel Messi).

•He has scored 34 La Liga hat-tricks, more than anyone else in history. Eight of them came in one season - a record he shares with, you’ve guessed it, Lionel Messi. Safe to say those two have dominated world football’s individual awards in modern times.

Yet Ronaldo has done something that Messi hasn’t. He has galvanised his country into winning a major international football tournament, with Portugal the surprise Euro 2016 winners.

The greatest players of all time have such an honour on their CV. Pele, still considered the greatest, won the World Cup three times with Brazil in three different decades. Then we have Diego Maradona, who almost single handedly (pun very much intended) masterminded Argentina’s World Cup triumph in 1986. Then we have Ronaldo, the genius behind Portugal’s first ever major tournament success two years ago.

Then we have Messi, whose major international honour was helping Argentina win the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold. The Olympics are the high point of many an international sportsman’s career, but not in football. Hardly anyone in this country, for example, remembers Argentina winning Olympic gold. But they do remember Maradona winning the World Cup. Messi was voted the best player at the last World Cup in Brazil, but Argentina lost in the final to Germany with Messi subdued - and no-one remembers the losers, do they?

Ronaldo lit up Russia 2018 last night, and today it’s Messi’s turn to try and remind everyone why he is considered the greatest footballer of the 21st century.

The debate about whether Messi is better than Ronaldo has been a long-standing one, and it could run and run. But iff Messi can inspire his nation in the same way Maradona did back in 1986, then he will have the weight of history on his side. After all, a World Cup win eclipses a European Championship one.

Portugal’s population is under 11 million - about a fifth of England’s - so that country’s Euro 2016 win was pretty impressive. Yet Argentina is not a big country - its population is under 45 million - and they are aiming for their third World Cup victory in 40 years. How and why countries with a smaller population than England can lift the major honours, and produce wonderful talents such as Ronaldo and Messi, and we can’t remains a puzzle for greater minds than mine to try and solve.

So while we strive to solve them, let’s just enjoy two of the finest talents ever to grace the game. Now, Lionel, you’ve got Iceland today ... is it a case of anything Cristiano can do, you can do better ...?