Friday 02 August 2019, 17:00

Kohli: Cristiano is on another level to everyone else

  • Virat Kohli reveals he’s in awe of and inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo

  • The cricketing megastar hails Brazilian Ronaldo and ‘beast’ Kylian Mbappe

  • Kohli discusses own footballing talent and love of the sport

The arguments against Virat Kohli being the greatest batsman in history are dissipating faster than the supersonic rate at which he scores runs. The India captain began 2019 by becoming the first man in history to simultaneously win all three major ICC awards – Cricketer of the Year, Test Player of the Year and ODI Player of the Year – and the 30-year-old continued ripping up records at the recent Cricket World Cup.

Off the crease, Kohli’s influence is stratospheric. The 30-year-old placed seventh on ESPN’s World Fame 100 this year, ahead of Rafa Nadal (eighth), Tiger Woods (tenth) and Lewis Hamilton (21st), while he boasts 107 million followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – over double Paul Pogba and more than any other non-footballing sportsperson aside from Lebron James (117 million).

And as his followers know, Kohli is a big football fan. Run-chase royalty and the fastest batsman to reach 10,000 ODI runs – he preposterously smashed the record in merely 205 innings – the right-hander took time out ahead of India’s tour of the USA and the Caribbean to discuss, among other topics, his FIFA World Cup™ memories, reveal who he thinks is the best player on the planet, and analyse his own footballing ability. Virat, at what age did you begin kicking a ball around and how much did you play football growing up? Virat Kohli: As early as six-to-seven years old, I guess. Kicking a ball around felt like a lot of fun and the most simple thing, although my heart and passion was always into cricket. We played a lot of football in the parks growing up, and with the cricket teams too as part of our warm ups. Football was a lot of fun to play growing up.

What was the first FIFA World Cup you remember and what are your favourite memories from the competition over the years? 1998 and 2002, because Brazil was amazing to watch. I saw Ronaldo, ‘The Phenomenon’, play and was totally blown away by his skill and ability on the ball. One of the greatest ever.

Which players have you most enjoyed watching over the years? Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Oliver Kahn, Luka Modric, [Andres] Iniesta, Xavi, [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, Cristiano is above everyone else. His commitment and work ethic is unmatched. He wants it that bad – you can see it every game.

Who do you think has had the greater career: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? Ronaldo. In my opinion he has taken on more challenges and succeeded at all of them. He's the most complete player I have seen and his work ethic, as I mentioned, is unmatched. He inspires people. I don't think many people do that. He's also a leader and I love that. Absolutely love it. He has amazing belief too.

Ronaldo and Messi are 34 and 32 respectively. Who do you see taking over as the best player on the planet: De Bruyne, Hazard, Mbappe, Neymar, Pogba, Salah, someone else? Mbappe stands out for me. His sprint in the 2018 World Cup against Argentina is hard to forget. He's a beast and he will definitely be at the top of the pile for me. Absolutely top-class player.

How far do you think India are off qualifying for the World Cup, especially with the increase to 48 nations for the 2026 edition? Honestly, not far off. We have improved drastically in our football over the last three-four years. With new talent coming in to make the difference, and our skipper Sunil Chhetri leading the team with amazing composure and inspiration, I see us qualifying very soon for the World Cup.

How big a shame is it that the legendary Chhetri has never got to play in a World Cup? It's a sad fact to realise, especially after all that he's done for the nation. If anyone deserves it, it’s him. And the team should rally behind that motivation and qualify, and dedicate it to him. He's an absolute champion and an inspirational human being.

Aside from India, do you follow any other national teams, and which clubs do you support? I like watching Portugal play now because they are maximising their resources along with having a legend in their team. They play with passion and belief, so I like watching them. Otherwise, in terms of pure ability and impact, France are very, very strong. I support Juventus now because of Cristiano. Simple. I support every club at which he plays. He inspires me.

What type of footballer are you and which pro footballers do you have a similar style to? I play in every position! (laughs) I play attacking midfielder a lot, and winger too at times because I love to run and sprint while playing football. Of course I try and score too, but I enjoy putting in crosses more after using my pace from the flanks. I think I'm similar to nobody because I'm not even one per cent of what these amazing players are. I play for the fun of it honestly.

How much do you watch football nowadays? Quite a bit. Football has always intrigued me. I love it.

You’re a co-owner of FC Goa in the Indian Super League. Do you see yourself being more involved in football after you retire from cricket? Yes, I see myself being involved more, and at a larger scale. Football has huge potential in India and I want to see it grow to a great level. That would be amazing.