A player of protean talent

Prize catch... Cristiano Ronaldo poses with Real Madrid’s trophies during his presentation at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid. Real is banking on the Portuguese star to add to its collection of trophies.-AP

At the Bernabeu Stadium, 80,000 spectators turned up to see Cristiano Ronaldo introduced. Big and strong, standing 1.85 metres, weighing a solid 85 kilos, he will never be intimidated. It’s suggested that by the end of his contract he may be earning as much as £5 million a year. Certainly he will do far more, writes Brian Glanville.

It was a wink that was never forgotten; certainly not in Manchester. A wink, on a German field of play, in a 2006 World Cup quarterfinal, which accompanied, even celebrated, the sending off of England’s Wayne Rooney. The winker: Cristiano Ronaldo Santos Alveiro, alias Ronaldo. That day, Portugal’s outside-right and a Manchester United team-mate of Rooney. And when in June this year Ronaldo was transferred for an astronomical, record £80 million to Real Mad rid, as world and European footballer of the year, the reaction among United’s fans was strangely muted given that he was quite plainly irreplaceable.

‘France Football’, probably the leading soccer magazine of all, headed a penetrating article, Ronaldo Le Mal Aime. Ronaldo the unloved. Comparing him with the reaction of those fans when previously the hugely talented but idiosyncratic Eric Cantona decided to retire; emerging recently, as we know, as a somewhat unexpected film star and even theatre producer. True, Ronaldo, so often badly maltreated, could occasionally “get his retaliation in first,” as they say in the English game. A shocking foul at Fulham last season on Danny Murphy remains in the mind. But this was the exception rather than the rule and paled into insignificance by comparison with Cantona’s sudden, all too frequent, outbursts of gratuitous violence.

No, I am not thinking chiefly of what happened that evening on the Crystal Palace ground — I was there — when Cantona, sent off and horribly abused by a young local thug, attacked him with a kung fu kick, incurring long suspension. I am thinking rather of such incidents as that on the Swindon Town ground — yes, I was there too — when he suddenly and inexplicably kicked out at John Moncur.

Cantona was an exception; and highly original talent, an attacker at once powerful, highly skilled and supremely original. But Ronaldo is simply protean. What can he not do, on the ground and even in the air? As an outside right — surely his ideal position though as we know, he can drift right the way across the attack, function just as easily on the left though I don’t think this is his ideal role — and at centre forward? He is physically tall and strong, he has stupendous speed and glorious ball control. His right-footed free kicks are phenomenal in their velocity and in their insidious swerve.

There have been many great outside rights in the past. Stanley Matthews, who went on playing successfully into his late 40s; but how often did you see him head a ball or take a free kick? Brazil’s wonderful Garrincha, that doomed child of nature, with his astounding swerve, his own electric pace, his swerved free kicks, his ability, small though he was, to out-jump far taller men to head goals.

Moreover, he won two World Cup gold medals, playing a crucial part in both tournaments, in 1958 and 1962, where Ronaldo was hardly exceptional in that 2006 tournament.

Yet Ronaldo still seems the more complete player.

Is he petulant? Did he, in what proved to be his final season for Manchester United, show sometimes what might politely be described as a detachment, or even an indifference, on the field? France Football alleged “a curious reticence to celebrate goals, incessant jeremiads over the balls that didn’t come”. In an old English football expression, it was plain enough that ‘whatever his achievements, he “wanted away.” More specifically, he wanted implacably to go to Real Madrid.

For the United fans, this plainly smacked at least of ingratitude. After all, though he was already a burgeoning talent when he came to Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon — where he had been since boyhood — in 2003, Ronaldo was still only18 and his talents were evident, but they needed refining, disciplining and this was done by his manager, Alex Ferguson. The United manager brought a new economy and efficiency to his game, while still allowing him to express his panoply of gifts.

Was it then ungrateful of Ronaldo to be so keen to leave as he had been for a year before he did? Yet how far should gratitude and loyalty be expected to go in a football world where players, however famed and highly paid, can be ruthlessly discarded? And for goodness’ sake, Ronaldo gave United no fewer than six years of supreme service.

Could Ferguson have kept him? Should he not have made every conceivable effort not to let him go, for after all he was still under contract? And if the £80 million United received from Real was a breathtaking record; yet was it any kind of coup for United? The blunt fact is that Ronaldo was irreplaceable. United promptly bought the Ecuador right winger, Antonio Valencia, from Wigan; a strong, quick, penetrative player, whom I’d admired when I watched him playing for his country in the 2006 World Cup. But Ronaldo he isn’t. No one is.

Ronaldo was born on February 5, 1985 not on the Portuguese mainland but on the island of Madeira, into a poor, working class family. Snapped up so soon by Sporting, what time and chance had he to mature as a person rather than a footballer? Why criticise him for his recent exploits in Los Angeles, where he repaired after the season was over and consorted with that irredeemable birdbrain and “socialite,” Paris Hilton? He is, one repeats, still a very young, naive man.

Last season was not as amazingly prolific as the one before, when he scored no fewer than 42 goals in 49 games. But last April, just when he had been criticised by Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo responded with one of the most sensational goals in the history of the Champions League; appropriately enough, in his native Portugal. United had been embarrassingly held to a 2-2 draw by Porto at Old Trafford and there seemed every possibility that they might be eliminated in the quarterfinals. Only six minutes had been played when Ronaldo — switched to the centre for this game, with Wayne Rooney moving to the wing — shot from exactly 39.6 yards. The auguries had hardly been good; in 48 attempts on goal in his previous Champions League matches, he had scored only once. But now his tremendous right footed shot tore past Helton, the home keeper, on his right, to finish in the net. It was a goal worthy to win any game and win it did; at 64 miles an hour.

So United were in the semifinals, where Ronaldo would also score a memorable goal, though in very different manner. United were already 2-0 up at the Emirates Stadium having been held to a goalless draw at Old Trafford by an ultra defensive Arsenal team. This time, however, they had traumatised the Gunners with a soft, ninth minute goal, when their young, second choice, left back Kieran Gibbs, slipped as he shaped to clear Ronaldo’s low cross from the left, enabling the South Korean winger, Ji-sung Park, all on his own, to score with ease.

But United’s third goal, Ronaldo’s own, was memorable. Seventeen minutes into the second half, Park found Rooney who played the ball through the middle of a waning Arsenal defence. Ronaldo embarked on a lung bursting run from deep distance, leaving Arsenal’s defenders panting in the rear, crowning his burst by easily beating the Arsenal keeper, Manuel Almunia. United won 3-1 but the final in Rome against Barcelona was anticlimax. No repetition of the hard earned victory a year earlier in Moscow, where Chelsea had been beaten, but only on penalty kicks.

Cristiano Ronaldo honed his skills under Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who allowed him to express his panoply of gifts.-AP

Once again, Ronaldo was deployed in the centre of attack but he was poorly supported from midfield and got little done. My own view was that this was a match where he would more usefully have been used in his basic position at outside right given that suspension meant Barcelona had to pick the veteran Brazilian left-back, Silvinho, who would surely have struggled against Ronaldo’s dynamic pace. A severe anticlimax for Ronaldo, who had done so much to get United thus far. Not least when, four minutes after half time at Old Trafford against an Internazionale team, which had provided spirited opposition in the first half though a goal down, Rooney carefully delaying his long, accurate ball, enabled Ronaldo to close in on it and head inexorably past the keeper, Brazilian Julio Cesar.

Though often involved in confrontations, both with referees and with his opponents, it is surely fair to say that Ronaldo is more sinned against than sinning. As borne out in an earlier Champions League encounter last season, away to a bruising Villarreal team in Spain. “The one pleasing aspect of a barren evening for United was the performance of Cristiano Ronaldo, who recovered remarkably from an ankle injury to show real verve and endeavour. It was a pity his team-mates could not do the same,” wrote a correspondent.

Yet Ronaldo has been accused by at least one columnist of “failing to track back in a red shirt.” This, allegedly distinguishing him from Barcelona’s stars, such as Messi, Iniesta and the rest who excelled against United in Rome. “As outrageously gifted as Ronaldo is,” wrote the columnist, “you sense that this brilliance is delivered in his own interests first. Fantastic when it comes off, but not so good when things do not go his way.”

That night in Rome they indeed didn’t go his way, but how far was he to blame?

Any more than he should shoulder the blame for the surprisingly poor record of the Portuguese national team, which now seems in serious danger of failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals. We saw as much back in the European Championship finals of 2004, played in Portugal who, surely favourites for the Cup, contrived not once but twice to be beaten by the unfancied Greeks, who won the title.

In Madrid, Ronaldo will be adulated. 80,000 turned up at the Bernabeu Stadium to see him introduced.

Big and strong, standing 1.85 metres, weighing a solid 85 kilos, he will never be intimidated. It’s suggested that by the end of his contract he may be earning as much as £5 million a year. Certainly he will do far more.