By Shrikesh Laxmidas
LISBON (Reuters) - Spectacular, vain, perfectionist, unstoppable or outrageously expensive, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo polarizes opinion more than anyone else in world football and is certain to be a focus of attention at the World Cup.
The World Cup offers Ronaldo a chance to continue silencing his doubters and also to tip the balance in his rivalry with Lionel Messi back in his favor after the Argentine replaced him as FIFA's best player in the world last year.
"He (Messi) has never won anything with Argentina and I have never won anything with Portugal. So we have to prove in the World Cup that we are the best players in the world," Ronaldo said in a recent interview with a British newspaper.
The two players could hardly be more different. The diminutive, soft-spoken Messi is a natural talent while Ronaldo is a powerful showman who has perfected his tricky runs, deadly free kicks and clinical finishing through obsessive training.
"He's one of the top professionals I've seen... First to arrive in training and last to leave. I look at him in training and feel I have to do more," said his Real Madrid team mate Raul.
Ronaldo's work rate and coach Alex Ferguson's guidance turned the show-boating 18-year-old from Sporting into a Manchester United icon who won every personal and team trophy available in his six years at Old Trafford.
The transition was probably made easier by Ronaldo's earlier experience of swapping a poor neighborhood in Madeira for Sporting's academy in Lisbon, without his family, aged 12.
After rising through the Sporting ranks and then moving to England, he scored on his Portugal debut in 2003 and has gone on to score 22 goals from 69 caps and perform impressively at three major international tournaments.
Ronaldo did not score in the qualifiers and an ankle injury forced him to miss Portugal's late surge to qualify.
"It happened, but I recovered well and perhaps the stoppage may mean I'll reach the World Cup in top form," he said.
Judging from his recent form at Real Madrid, he cannot be too far from that condition.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)