The halo around Cristiano ronaldo

With his silky skills and spectacular speed, Cristiano Ronaldo is firmly entrenched at the heart of the world’s oldest pub debate. Is he the world’s current best player? Over to Ananth Krishnan.

When Cristiano Ronaldo broke George Best’s record for Manchester United of scoring 32 goals in a single season last month, the English press went into overdrive. They didn’t just stop with comparisons between the Northern Ireland legend and United’s latest find: surely, they crowed, this 23-year-old had to be the best talent the world has ever seen.

Many of the football world’s most respected voices purred their approval. Johan Cruyff said Ronaldo wasn’t just the world’s current best player, he was even better than George Best. United’s veteran manager Sir Alex Ferguson claimed Ronaldo was “the best player of his era” — even better than Eric Cantona, who almost single-handedly led the Reds to four English titles in just five years. Paul Scholes, ever present in the United midfield for much of the last decade, said Ronaldo was the best he ever played with — better than Robson, Keane, Beckham or Giggs.

It is easy to see, with his silky skills and spectacular speed, why Ronaldo is now firmly entrenched at the heart of the world’s oldest pub debate. But is Ronaldo the current best player in the world, and more importantly, is he also one of the best of all time, as the likes of Cruyff and Ferguson would have you believe?

FIFA will find it hard to look past Ronaldo when they answer the first question at the end of the year, when they announce their annual award. 2008 has been the Portuguese’s annus mirabilis — he has already scored a remarkable 38 goals this season, unheard of for a winger. Ronaldo’s case will also be helped by the fact that there are no other real contenders to the crown. Ronaldinho and Henry are on the wane, while Messi and Fabregas, not unlike himself, are still raw talents. Kaka, still officially the world’s best, had a quiet season by his high standards, not helped by an aging Milan side. So the smart money will be on Ronaldo this year, and for many, winning FIFA’s recognition will confirm that he is indeed one of the best the world has ever seen.

Will that be the end of the debate, and will the award deservingly place Ronaldo alongside the likes of George Best and Diego Maradona? Not if you scratch beneath the surface for a second. Look at the 38 goals Ronaldo has scored this season, and you undoubtedly have a strong case for him. Look at who he’s scored those goals against, and you might want to reconsider. In the games against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool this season, Ronaldo has been conspicuously anonymous. It is surely no coincidence that in 30 games against these sides, Ronaldo has only scored three times! He has never scored against Chelsea. In three seasons in Europe, he has only scored 11 times. Seven of those goals came this season, five of which were in the inconsequential group stage games against Sporting Lisbon and Dynamo Kiev.

There is no doubting Ronaldo’s skills. He may well be the world’s most skilled football player, but it would be a gross mistake to assume that makes him the world’s best. His sheer audacity on the ball makes it very easy to look past the chinks in his armour, chiefly his inability to perform against the very best sides when he is closely marked and not given the space he needs to show off his skills. Chelsea, in particular, has repeatedly shown that when you get under the Portuguese’s skin, it’s easy to knock him off his game.

Ronaldo may score buckets-full of goals against the Fulhams and Boltons of the Premiership, and even spectacular ones at that, but surely a player has to be judged by how he performs against the best. Ask a United fan what George Best’s greatest performance in a Red shirt was, and most will tell you it was the European Cup final against Benfica in 1968. What made George Best stand out from the other many talented players of his generation were his performances against the very best sides in Europe. Best almost single-handedly drove United to its first ever European Cup triumph, scoring the only goal in the semifinal first leg against the mighty Real Madrid and then scoring again in a final he dominated.

Best instilled fear in his opposition, so much so that the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was once driven to telling his petrified right-back in the tunnel that he had seen the United winger drinking in the parking lot before kick-off, and that he was so tipsy that he couldn’t possibly play. As likely as that might have been given Best’s famously wayward lifestyle, Shankly made that up just to give his nervous defender some much-needed confidence. That was the aura Best had, even among the world’s best sides like Liverpool.

Ask a United fan what Ronaldo’s most telling contribution in a Red shirt has been, and he will probably go back to United’s trip to Fulham last February. Ronaldo’s goal was significant in the context of the title race, but with all due respect to West London, Fulham is no Madrid. Strikingly, Ronaldo’s performances against better teams have been average. A case in point is last season’s Champions League semifinal tie against Milan. Alex Ferguson grudgingly admitted after the game that was one of Ronaldo’s poorest performances in a United shirt. United were outplayed and outclassed and needed a hero in Milan, but all they got in Ronaldo was the incredible sulk — he chose to spend the evening sulking under Alessandro Nesta’s close attention and complaining about the lack of service from midfield.

The Champions League semifinals give Ronaldo a glorious opportunity to finally grab the European stage, but until he does so and leads United to their third European Cup, he will not merit a place alongside the likes of George Best. Ronaldo may well be one of the most skilled players the English league has ever seen, but until he fulfils his potential and transforms his skill into the kind of performances that are woven into legend, he can never be better than Best.