Cristiano Ronaldo is without doubt the man that everyone in football loves to hate. Whether it’s an element of jealousy, his arrogance, his transfer conduct, the infamous ‘getting Rooney sent off’ saga, his manner and expression, or simply a combination of the lot, there are very few outside Old Trafford who give the man the respect and admiration he will feel his talent invariably deserves.
Ronaldo’s class is beyond doubt. That his surname now prompts recognition over his plump Brazilian namesake, speaks volumes of his road to brilliance. Like many foreign imports, he took time to adapt to the league, to ebb the flair and fine tune his delivery. But his goal tally and all-around displays over past seasons have taken him, and his club, to the summit of the global game.
It has been an eventful road for Cristiano. A trip to the World Cup in 2006 saw the notorious incident with Rooney. His gesticulations to the official, that wink to the bench after his United team-mate was shown a red card. This incident bred hate amongst opposing fans. Many felt that he would not return to his club, or to the country. Ferguson though, recognising the vast influence of the player on his side’s future fortunes, made sure a new contract was signed by the winger until 2012.
Ronaldo thrived on the crowd abuse and his status as the league’s pantomime villain. Scoring 23 goals the following season from his position on the right wing, he helped the club to clinch the league title. Then he strode with ease into the 2007/08 season, netting an incredible sum of 42 goals to help add another Premier League and an elusive Champions League medal to his budding collection. He had reached the zenith of world football; the accolades were literally thrown at his feet. Manchester United fans loved him. Everyone else despised him, but increasingly with a grudging awe.
The Slight Demise
In search of their new Galactico, Real Madrid announced their interest in the Portuguese star as the 2007/08 campaign closed in. Many expected the player to rebuff their approaches, but Ronaldo flirted time and time again with the illustrious giants. Media speculation peaked, the main headlines slapped across his forehead with England’s absence from Euro 2008. Then, as the Bernabeu began to appear an inevitable destination, Euro 2008 ended, he returned to Manchester, and his flirtations were cut short.
Once reunited with Sir Alex and his team-mates, little comment was made from the Ronaldo camp. Then, as the season loomed ahead, the speculation settled as it appeared he would be staying put. Some of his own fans condoned his Spanish rendezvous as some started to turn against him. Then came the usual platitudes; Ronaldo claiming that he wanted to stay at the club, that he was fully committed to the cause and would continue to wear the shirt with pride. Real Madrid was out of his mind for now. Some forgot, some forgave.
Injuries postponed his start to the campaign. United trotted along, never drifting into concerning form but failing to reflect last year’s radiance. Everyone anticipated the world’s best returning, and with that, the best of Manchester United would be back. When the return came, team form enhanced briefly, Ronaldo smashing home a few penalties, showing flinches of his dancing skill. There seemed though, to be a subtle decline to his game.
His touchline sprints were not as frequent, nor were his razor-sharp cuts into the middle from the wings before smashing home a trademark match winning shot. It also appeared that he was rekindling his customary crumbling to the ground. The diving accusations reached fever pitch once again. A feature of his game that has rested on the periphery in the last two fantastic seasons, scarcely resorting to such measures as he thumped goal after goal.
Now it seems he is plunging to ground with every challenge. Clutching his legs to his chest, performing those traditional rolls, or simply shooting his hands to his face in a vice-like grasp of agony. All commonplace on the continent, accepted somewhat within some foreign cultures. But here, it is loathed by fans and pundits alike and is greeted with infuriation and resentment.
On the surface, Cristiano Ronaldo is hailed plain and simply as a diving cheat and a sulk. These accusations have always been there, but with his performances having diluted this season, they are stronger than ever. A simplistic theory has developed that his decline in goals and form is because he is persistently seeking a foul, continually whining when things don’t go his way. That if he stayed on his feet like he had started to do in the last couple of seasons, his perfection and clinical touch would return. If he tried to play football instead of sulking and falling over, he would be back to his best. A widespread belief it seems, even one drifting into his own supporters.
However, beneath the surface, behind what has grown into a trademark pout, there is a depth and a twist to this common conception.
Let me take you through an incident from this season. Ronaldo collects the ball neatly with an expert cushioning with his instep, traps the ball. He feigns left with an impulse thrust of his wand-like feet, then rolls the ball onto his right side and taps the ball forward in preparation for a dash at goal. A boot appears into the scene, whips out at the side of his right leg with deceiving force. The ball spins further to the right with a proficient flick of his boot, the foot trailing in its wake. Another strapping leg thrusts forward, desperately lunging.
The heel hits Ronaldo’s left leg, inches to the side of his shinpad; his knee buckles slightly. Then from behind, another leg reaches out and knocks the ball away from his control. Ronaldo tumbles, rolls to the side, clutching his leg as he spirals on the grass. He looks up. The referee offers a dismissive shake of the head and waves play on. He is aghast, throws his arms out in frustration, smacks the ground angrily. The crowd jeers and abuse rains down on him. Play continues around him.
Does the incident come to mind? It should, as it takes place week in week out since the winger returned from injury. It is as commonplace as his name in the newspapers. His legs are hacked as he carries the ball forward. Players deliberately aim for his ankles, his heels, provoke him as they slide studs to where his shinpads fail to relieve his leg from the onslaught. The kicks often don’t force him naturally to ground, malicious swipes mostly blind to the referee or to a watching TV audience.
The TV struggles to reflect the venom and deliberation behind them, especially when the odd one is played out to the viewers in super slow motion. Ronaldo experiences the blitz, but then drops to the ground to win the free kick he deserves. Often it seems he has fallen softly at a trivial touch to the foot or leg. A touch not enough to take him down. He is accused of diving. The referee, well drilled with his reputation, shakes his head.
Some are less disguised than others in their approach to the winger, a la Steven Taylor. Though many wrote Ronaldo’s reaction off as bordering on the utterly outrageous, it was his way of highlighting to the referee what has been done to him. What the defender has resorted to in order to prevent him streaming forward towards the goal. Can he really be chastised for going down in this instance, or indeed in the way he did? Should he really be expected to wait to be properly pummeled before taking such measures? After all, had he continued to gallop on, then proceeded to quietly point the incident out to the referee once play had stopped, would the yellow card, or the justified red, been given to the defender? Not likely.
A week later, Steven Taylor opted for a similar approach to Arsenal’s creative crux, delivering a comparable forearm blow to Andrey Arshavin. The Russian’s reaction was similar to Ronaldo’s. Unsurprisingly, he was not to receive the public condemnation that the Portugal winger did.
Admittedly, Ronaldo does sometimes crash to the ground without any contact, a lot rarer though than what is the common notion amongst fans. Whilst some of these are plain and simply to deceive the referee and win an undeserved free kick, a lot are purely in anticipation of another flogging, expecting another chop to his legs as he strides past a red-faced opponent. It hurts a lot less when you prepare for the fall, ride the foul, than if you are simply toppled over. Once again, can he really be blamed in this instance?
Messi was targeted with such underhanded tactics by opposing players in a clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid earlier this season. The commentators picked up on it after a few minutes. After a while, so did the referee. This was largely when Messi stopped trying to skip over the melee of thrusting boots and simply went to ground. It alerted the official to the treatment he was receiving and yellow cards were duly distributed. The fouls then rescinded.
Yet with Cristiano Ronaldo, when he chooses to resort to the same measures to encourage a referee’s protection, is too often overlooked. His character and his persona promote contempt. His sulk endorses scorn. Messi is adored, admired, respected. Reaction to his unsavoury treatment at the hands of Heinze et al, saw the referee issue a series of yellow cards which discouraged further swipes.
When referees see Ronaldo flail and fall, see him spiraling in agony on the turf, they disregard it as simulation, as attempting to con a free kick or dismissal. Many mark this as his own doing because he dives so much, or at least did in his earlier Manchester United career. True, but to a far lesser extent than is so frequently voiced.
The End of an Era?
A cloud of frustration has enveloped Cristiano Ronaldo in spite of his club’s position in the table and having breezed through to the quarter finals of the Champions League. Rumours have surfaced that conclusive discussions over a switch to Real Madrid at the end of the current campaign have already taken place. The ‘experts’ even claim that his ‘downturn in form’ is partly because his head is in the Spanish capital. Doubts are cast towards his dedication for the task at hand.
Perhaps Ronaldo, frustrated with the perceived injustice of his recent handling by Premier League opposition, feels even more inclined to make the move to Madrid. However, it must surely take the vast majority of even Ronaldo’s esteemed self confidence to believe he can take them to glory after Madrid’s drab display at Anfield. Add to that the La Liga domination of Barcelona and the sparkling talent glistening the Nou Camp right now, his silverware collection won’t be receiving the same boost as his bank balance.
It is also vital to note, that were he to make the illustrious move to Spain, his weekly opponents will not be treating him much differently. He will still be targeted, as long as he remains the same colossal threat, as long as he remains one of the best players in world football. As Ian Wright put it when discussing the 23 year-old on TalkSport, La Liga players won’t simply stand off and say, “wow, do another one of those step over thingys.” The sly digs, the ankle hacks, will all occur just as frequently. On the other hand, the reaction and outlook of the officials when it comes to him going to ground and feigning injury may alter from his Premiership experiences.
It is hard to see when Cristiano Ronaldo will regain his blistering form. He hasn’t been poor this season by any stretch of the mind. Key goals against Inter Milan are evidence of this, as is his dipping free kick stunner that won the game against Blackburn earlier this year. But will he grace the Premiership again with his best form before he makes that inexorable move to Real Madrid? The form that scorched the league in the past few campaigns.
The only thing for sure is that he will not be receiving any slack. Not on the pitch and certainly not off it. He will continue to thrash his arms in frustration as the referee jogs silently past, feeling hard done to and whining irately. He is prone to kick out himself in frustration, flick his foot at an opponent after being repeatedly harassed. Blackburn’s David Dunne hacked him repeatedly before Ronaldo lashed out in anger. So far this has gone unnoticed by officials. Though it does breed more contempt amongst fans and players.
Though still impossible to justify, the scything approach that rivals are taking with the winger is a long distance from what happened to Pele in his astounding career. The Brazilian was hacked mercilessly through the 1966 World Cup by Portugal and he certainly received very little protection from the officials at the time. It is fortunately (or unfortunately in the eyes of many loathing supporters) a different era now, and such ferocity does not take place. That level of crunching behaviour by defenders would be severely punished now. They must resort to much more opaque measures. Harder to spot measures. Often more frustrating and still quite painful for the individuals concerned.
Even in the current era, Ronaldo does not stand alone in being targeted and literally kicked out of a game. Thierry Henry, marked by many as the Premiership’s best ever, was targeted every week amidst his individual supremacy. Defenders would go out with the intention of delivering a few ‘knocks’ to the French wizard, but would often leave with a mix of embarrassment and bitter disappointment. He was simply too good, would skip over challenges, stride past them, ride each niggling shot taken at him, and let his class shine through. He would give chasing defenders a look of derision, belittling them with simply a unique stare. His charisma made him too hot to handle and he continued to score goals and control games with the same remarkable elegance.
Cristiano Ronaldo has not yet learnt to handle the ‘niggles’ in the same way as Thierry. But then Henry arguably had a much easier task. He was loved by most fans, even the majority of Manchester United fans admired and respected his alluring talent. Ronaldo sits at the other end of the spectrum. He is a lot younger than Thierry Henry was when he began to wreak havoc on Premiership defences. He has approached a drop in form, it hasn’t even been a full season, yet there has been a barrage of doubt.
There have been questions, even astonishing uncertainties over his ability. But in reality, his talent cannot be disputed. His ridiculous goal ratio from out on the right wing was bound to dip at some point in such a tough league. He was bound to find a hurdle that he didn’t simply hop over without a second thought.
The Best of the Best
Now comes the real test for Cristiano Ronaldo. He is a world class player. Anyone disputing that may as well dispute his shirt is red (at the moment at least). His aspirations, his desire to be the best ever, have been fervently announced by the winger. Now these ambitions will truly be put to the test.
Can he be the BEST in the world – can he be the best EVER? He believes so. His confidence won’t falter. The self belief that gives him that abhorrent air of arrogance is there for all to see. His opponents treat him as the best of their generation have always been treated by defenders. George Best; Pele; Hugo Sanchez; De Stephano; Maradona; Thierry Henry; Messi. All of these footballing legends have gone out onto the pitch, inflicted such levels of fear, demonstrated such superlative flair and flamboyance, that their rivals could think of no other remedy to their brilliance than to simply try and kick them into submission. The treatment used to much more severe, and they could not be blamed for reacting on rare occasions. Pele for example, famously retaliated to some horrific fouling and sent an Argentinean defender sprawling bloody nosed in a 1964 clash.
It is the true geniuses of the beautiful game however, that have always persevered. They all passed the true test of class and delivered the same level of mesmerising performances for years to come. When the truly best in the world are kicked — they kick back. But not in the way Ronaldo has done so far this season.