KING OF THE WORLD?
On current form Cristiano Ronaldo has few peers and his displays are just reward for his manager’s patience
In December 2005 I had the pleasure of interviewing Cristiano Ronaldo for a book. I say pleasure, but holding the attention of the young Portuguese for an hour proved as tricky as trying to tackle him in mid-stepover. Of course it may well have been the questioning, and because Ronaldo’s English was still doubtful there was also an interpreter present breaking the flow, but Ronaldo spent the second half of our conversation scratching his neck and checking his glittering watch.
One subject focused him. “If you want to be one of the best players in the world - which I want to be - you have to learn all the time,” he said.
Ronaldo felt he had to do two things. “It doesn’t matter what tricks I do, they have to be of use to the team,” was the first. The second: “I have to finish better. If you are a good scorer people will see you in a different dimension. In a couple of years, if I’m scoring more, people will think better of me.” This player once gave the impression of feck-lessness but he knows his game and he has been as good as his word.
Streaks of self-indulgence remain and in players so bent on self-expres-sion they can never be eradicated: witness the last footballing act of Zinedine Zidane. But Ronaldo, beyond dispute, is a team man nowadays and has a fat wallet to bear witness to his scoring. “The manager paid me the bet. He pay, he pay,” Ronaldo laughed on Wednesday, referring to the £400 wagered by Sir Alex Ferguson that he could not get 15 goals this campaign. He has 16 already, player of the year awards in the offing, and the status he craved.
He is one of the best players in the world. The best? Hype is the enemy of modern football, but if the question was “best on current form?” it would be hard to furnish names of those who are playing better.
The old gods now seem false. Watching Ronaldinho at Anfield on Tuesday setting his body beautifully but then spearing a volley into the stand or a sitter against the post, prompted reflections that in the flesh, cartoon grin apart, he is only a bit like he appears in the commercials and computer games.
Thierry Henry is stricken by physical problems and, in terms of playing for Arsenal these days, some argue mental ones too. Zidane, of course, has butted out of football; Ronaldo, the Brazilian one, appears semi-retired, the reputations of Fabio Cannavaro, Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack plummet. Only the ultra-parochial would argue Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the two Englishmen who finish high in “world’s best” magazine polls, are truly deserving of that status.
Gerrard has the capacity to become one of the elite but still lacks the ability to avoid mundane performances possessed by the greats. The same could be said of Wayne Rooney. Ronaldo, even on off-days, is finding it hard not to be a matchwinner. His tricks and feints were overcooked against Lille, and he has used the ball better, but one searing dribble and perfect cross to Henrik Lars-son decided the game. He stirred from another moderate display to arrow in the free kick leading to John O’Shea’s winner at Liverpool. His late burst of inspiration gave United victory over Fulham the previous week.
Of those performers in world football of a similar class only Kaka, Francesco Totti and Petr Cech have reached such peaks of effectiveness this season. Yet Totti has been flaky on the international stage, particularly in tournaments, where Ronaldo has flourished, and goalkeeping is too narrow a discipline for Cech to be “world No 1 footballer”. If there was an annual order of merit in the sport, in 2006-07 only Kaka, the princely Brazilian, would contend with Ronaldo for top spot. Sir Bobby Charl-ton says Ronaldo “does things I’ve never seen anyone else do”, which is extraordinary praise from a former teammate of George Best’s.
Ronaldinho arrives at Old Trafford in midweek for a charity game. Not long ago that would have caused Ferguson to pine, but now the sequence of events in summer 2003 that saw an £18m move for Ronaldinho evaporate and the manager buy Ronaldo for £12.24m instead seem skewed in United’s favour.
“Maybe there will be a sense of what may have been when Ronaldinho comes here but we know at this club someone else always turns up,” Ferguson said. “We thought we had Paul Gas-coigne and he changed his mind and went to Tottenham so we signed Paul Ince and he was fantastic. Then we tried to get David Hirst and Alan Shearer but got Eric Cantona, and what can you say about that? We thought we had an agreement with Ronaldinho until some events changed the course of history and we got Cristiano. It’s amazing, football.” So is Ferguson. He has shown extraordinary faith in the Portuguese, putting long-term gain before short-term penalties, and been rewarded for his judgment yet again. Handing Ronaldo a first-team berth as an immature newcomer to England of 18 diminished United in some games; siding with Ronaldo in a spat with Ruud van Nistelrooy hastened the Dutchman’s exit.
After the World Cup, when Ronaldo was vilified for his part in England’s exit and craving openly a transfer to Spain, people said Ferguson was mad to keep him. Jose Mourinho did similar when refusing a Didier Drogba transfer request. The twin success stories of the English season are players galvanised by two extraordinary managers.
“I feel I have grown up. I am a man,” said Ronaldo. “It [growing up] is important in my football too. When everything is good I don’t think you grow up fantastically, I think maybe you need a few problems to grow up. It is good if people in England have started to admire me. I think I have changed a little since the World Cup. I am stronger with my mentality and my game as well.” With United facing a striking crisis Ronaldo offered a reminder to Ferguson: “I have played down the middle in Portugal and I like to play there.”
This, incidentally, was after the Lille match on Wednesday, when Ronaldo lingered to give his time generously to waiting reporters - not something all United players, notably their captain, are willing to do. Ronaldo was polite, attentive and answered in the very good English he speaks these days. When it’s your time to be on top of the world you don’t even need to check your watch.
RONALDO'S RIVALS FOR THE CROWN
World player of the year in 2004 and 2005, the Brazilian has more ability than any player on earth but he has rarely used it effectively this season
Henry has been eclipsed by Ronaldo, and with the United player in talks over a new £120,000-per-week deal it could be Henry who makes a long-predicted move to Spain
Elegant, cerebral and subtle, Kaka is just 24 and entering his prime. His glorious goal gave AC Milan victory over Celtic in the Champions League
Back from a fractured skull with some dubious headgear, he is playing better than ever. No goalkeeper since Peter Schmeichel has proved such a matchwinner on so many occasions
- The Times