Ronaldo: really the best?

RONALDO has swept the board. Voted in the annual France Football poll best 2002 player in Europe, voted top man in the world by the FIFA poll among international coaches.

BRIAN GLANVILLE

RONALDO has swept the board. Voted in the annual France Football poll best 2002 player in Europe, voted top man in the world by the FIFA poll among international coaches. The right choice? There have been dissenting voices, not least that of the big, blond German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, whom Ronaldo beat so dramatically in the 2002 World Cup Final. Kahn is alleged to have stayed away from the celebratory match in December in the Bernabeu Stadium between Real Madrid and a World XI because he resented the choice of Ronaldo as European top player, he himself having been voted the best player of the last World Cup.

Well, he surely wasn't. The fact is that the poll among journalists was taken before the Final, till when Kahn had played impeccably well for a mediocre German team, which would surly never have gone so far without him. But when it came to the Final itself, it was Kahn's horrible, untypical blunder, which gave the Brazilians a vital goal and arguably condemned Germany to their fate. Had the World Cup poll only been taken after the Final, which it should have been, rather than before it, it is surely unthinkable that Kahn could have come top.

Not long before the European poll results were announced, at a post match Press Conference, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was lamenting the fact that his own star man Thierry Henry, an exciting flying centre forward of dynamic pace, should be an unlikely winner. I suggested that whether it was right or wrong, such choices were almost always decided by World Cup finals. I think I know what I was talking about, since, for many years, it was I who cast the English vote in the France Football poll.

There is, I suppose, a certain logic in this. The World Cup finals are more or less the equivalent of the Olympic Games, the absolute peak of international soccer, just as the Olympics surely represent the absolute apogee of world athletics. Purists could argue that world records should count heavily, but in fact they count for nothing when the Olympics come along every four years. One thinks of poor Ron Clarke, a famous Australian middle distance runner of his day, a runner who set one record after another — between Olympiads. But when it came to the Olympics, what happened? Ron simply didn't have the finishing kick to see off his opponents. He never did win an Olympic gold medal.

On the other hand, there are great footballers, who never took part in a World Cup though such was their shining merits they won the European title just the same. One thinks of Spain's superbly versatile centre forward, Argentine born Alfredo di Stefano, the inspiration of those great Real Madrid teams. He left Argentina too soon to appear for them in a World Cup and though Spain would naturalise and cap him he didn't play in the 1962 version in Chile, insisting, down at Vina del Mar, that he was injured. May be, may be not. He certainly couldn't tolerate his fellow Argentine and Spain's manager, Helenio Herrera.

Then there was George Best, perhaps the finest of all British post World War II players. Because he was a Northern Ireland international, he never did get to the World Cup finals. The Irish did it, gloriously, in 1958 when they eliminated mighty Italy in the preliminaries but they have never had as good a team again and when George was playing, only one team per European qualifying group went through. Since then the Northern Irish have indeed qualified twice, but only because two teams went through from their groups.

Ronaldo's detractors make the point that however well he did as top scorer in the World Cup, over the year itself he did very little indeed. That was hardly his fault, since an appalling series of injuries prevented him from playing for Inter till very late in the season: and even then, he has complained, his manager, Hector Cuper, wouldn't give him the games he deserved. So, the World Cup over, off he went to Real Madrid, but there too he has played very little, thanks again to injuries, though less severe ones, and he has indeed helped them to win the world club championship in Japan.

As for Thierry Henry, I cannot take his claims very seriously. In fact he came sixth in the ranking with 54 points. Ronaldo scored 171. If World Cup finals count, then Henry, who was voted top by Iceland, who put Ronaldo third, shouldn't have had a prayer. You may remember that he got himself sent off the field playing against Denmark, thus virtually condemning France to defeat. He has certainly played some exciting games all year for Arsenal, his acceleration and ball control being often a joy to behold, but he probably had a better claim when he helped France win the Euro 2000 title.

In Ronaldo's favour, meanwhile, it should also be said that in the World Cup final, when he would atone for an early major miss, he played a high part in another Brazilian goal, when he won the ball from a dithering German in Hamann, and went on to make the crucial chance for Rivaldo.

Second in the poll came another Brazilian, in the shape of left back Roberto Carlos, even if his famous, devastating left footed free kicks were not as productive as they have been in bygone years. Roberto Carlos collected 145 points, he and Oliver Kahn, on 114, being with Ronaldo the only three who topped the century. Over the whole year he may have had more of a claim than Ronaldo, for he played consistently for Real Madrid and was a major factor in their European Cup victory.

Germany's incisive goal scoring midfielder Michael Ballack came fifth after Zinedine Zidane with 67 points. Zidane and France would probably have done so much better in the World Cup had Zidane not been injured and reduced to no more than a brief peripheral role. As for Ballack, his choice by so many voters, some of whom even put him first, seems a little strange simply in World Cup terms, since he missed the Final, at great cost to a team which badly needed him, since he had been suspended.

Note that the ever-prominent David Beckham, of whom the Japanese have made a chocolate image, came a lowly equal 27th with no points at all. He was brave enough to play in Japan despite a serious injury to his right foot and cool enough to score the winning spot kick against Argentina. Did he deserve better?