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Ronaldo leads Portugal to World Cup, earns title as world's best soccer player

Column: Hold the hype on the World Cup
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Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring the opening goal during the World Cup qualifying playoff second leg soccer match between Sweden and Portugal in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday, Nov.19, 2013. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Cristiano Ronaldo scored three dramatic goals, punched his ticket to the World Cup, silenced his critics and cemented his position as the best player on the planet, all in the space of 90 extraordinary minutes on a frosty night in Sweden.

Ronaldo and his Portugal national team were in danger of missing out on soccer's biggest show while nursing a slender one-goal lead from the first leg of a home-and-home playoff against Sweden. However, with an incredible one-man show and a brilliant hat trick, the Real Madrid superstar secured a 3-2 road victory for Portugal for a 4-2 aggregate score line that was more than enough to seal a place among the world's best 32 teams next summer.

Three times Ronaldo was given space to surge forwards and three times he delivered a devastating punch to a Swedish team that was given little choice but to try to attack.

His first goal of the night came after 50 minutes and was a prime example of his finest attributes. Ronaldo used his smarts to briefly hold back as Portugal broke downfield, allowing him to sneak behind defender Martin Olsson and collect the ball mid-stride. From there his pace took him clear before a calm and cool-headed finish saw him slide the ball past goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.

At that stage Sweden looked doomed, needing three goals to book its place in Brazil. But then the other global star in the contest stepped forward.

Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic nodded home a header to start Sweden's revival, then drilled home a ferocious free kick to put the home side tantalizingly close to completing a thrilling comeback. Ronaldo quickly ended those hopes.

With Sweden left with no choice to attack, Ronaldo made the most of the open turf in front of him, charging forward on another counterattack and firing past Isaksson for Portugal's second goal with 13 minutes left. Two minutes later, he added a third, this time with his right foot, to put the contest to bed.

Lionel Messi has been a deserving winner of the Ballon d'Or award (given to the world's best player) for the past four years, but there can now be little doubt that Ronaldo deserves the crown this time around.

His flair for the dramatic seems to know no bounds and, at 28, the bad news for defenders is that he might just be entering his prime. Having effectively erased any suggestions that he freezes in the biggest games, Ronaldo has another opportunity to respond to the only remaining criticism over his relatively disappointing efforts in major international tournaments.

In both 2006 and 2010, he was not at his best when it mattered and Portugal's performance suffered accordingly. Brazil 2014 will offer the chance to correct that part of his legacy.

Ronaldo might be soccer's most polarizing superstar, adored in some quarters and detested in others. But even those turned cold by his overuse of hair products, permanent sneer and gruff attitude cannot fail to be impressed with his incredible technical ability and a streak of confidence that looks unshakeable.Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who recently upset Ronaldo by publicly claiming he was fonder of Messi, was swift to jump on the bandwagon by sending out a fawning tweet within minutes of the final whistle.

Portugal was forced into a playoff by its stuttering effort in qualifying, where it slipped behind Russia in its European group. Having survived the playoff system for the third major tournament in a row, the Portuguese cannot be discounted, especially if Ronaldo keeps firing.

With few major shocks during the qualification period, the 2014 edition may be the strongest World Cup in recent memory, and the draw on December 6 will be eagerly awaited. And perhaps even more so now, soccer's most dynamic star has finally confirmed his place as the world's best player.

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