Unpeeled… a Ronaldo sans blame!

Over 12 months, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid superstar, displayed a precision in front of the goal that will be remembered for years. Some would say it’s appropriate that Ronaldo got the award days after another Portuguese goal-machine, Eusebio, passed away, writes Priyansh.

For once, only the innocent Cristiano Ronaldo was on display. The Ronaldo who always dreamt of becoming the best player in the world. The Ronaldo who had been frustrated by Lionel Messi over the past four years; who found himself relegated to the second spot on the biggest awards night in the football world time and again. The Ronaldo who could not hold his tears back upon receiving the Ballon d’Or prize.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about the Ronaldo we saw on January 13 in Zurich. For some reason, a lot of the talk about the Portuguese superstar revolves around the perceived gray shades of his personality. There was the diving Ronaldo. Too-many-tricks Ronaldo. Impish Ronaldo. Selfish Ronaldo. If Sepp Blatter is to be believed, I-care-more-about-my-hairstyle-Ronaldo. Messi-hater Ronaldo and what not!

It’s fair to say that the all-consuming media and publicity industry has created a few illusions that seem self-perpetuating. Even while displaying robotic efficiency on the pitch, Ronaldo has never been considered anything more than human.

The same cannot be said of Lionel Messi, perhaps. The Argentine has forever been portrayed in the media as the good boy who came first. There’s little slander expressed towards him. In fact, recently, when charges of tax fraud were revealed against him, there was much disbelief to be found. It has been a tough year for Messi — he has struggled with injuries while Barcelona’s vulnerability has been discovered — but it should not force us to make deeper assumptions on his abilities. The Argentine remains a genius but we would do well to realise that he’s human too.

It’s a pity that not even the most positive mention for Ronaldo goes without a nod to Messi. But that’s the kind of challenge Ronaldo faces every year. A test so imposing that most professional footballers don’t even get anywhere near the qualification requirements. Creditably, Ronaldo has tried to surmount this challenge every year and become the better player for it. This is not to say that the 28-year-old was obsessed with the Ballon d’Or prize. The award just served as an incentive as he carried out his demolition of opponents.

Sure, there are people who doubt whether he deserved the prize. Some say Franck Ribery, who eventually finished third, should have received the award in a year that saw him lead Bayern Munich to the treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA Champions League. There was a strong case to vote for the Frenchman but should the best player from the most successful team always get the prize?

Ronaldo and Messi’s excellence over the years has produced benumbing stats but let’s look at the relevant stats from 2013. In terms of goals in competitive matches, Ronaldo scored 66 in 56; Messi grabbed 42 in 45 but Ribery finished with only 22 in 52. This seems to have tilted the odds greatly in the Portuguese’s favour. To score more than a goal per game, after all, is borderline insanity.

The case for Ronaldo is strengthened when one considers that he attempted 296 shots (160 on target) in 2013 as compared to a distant second Messi with 146 (87) and Ribery way behind at 92 (56).

The Frenchman, though, had a clear advantage under the percentage of matches won column. Bayern won every time Ribery featured for the Bavarians. Ronaldo finished 2013 with a 71.42 win percentage while Messi stood a poor third with 57.77.

However, the assists section doesn’t separate the three distinctly. With 18 goal creations, Ribery just had three more than the tied duo. Defensively, though, the Frenchman gained a bigger lead with a significantly higher number of tackles made and percentage of tackles won. It’s not a surprise that Ronaldo’s defensive numbers are not as good as Ribery’s since the Portuguese’s defensive weaknesses have been well-documented. But in 2013, Ronaldo performed (33 tackles made and 84.8% of them won) distinctly better than Messi (26 and 76.9%).

Strikingly, Ribery’s 45 interceptions were 13 more than what Messi and Ronaldo put together throughout the year. Hence, you may be moved to ask with much justification, why did the Bayern playmaker not receive the prize at the gala ceremony in Zurich?

The ergonomics of football worked against Ribery. Goals, an area the Frenchman has failed to master, count for much more than anything else. Some say they are overrated. But goals are the ones that decide matches and goal-scorers dominate headlines.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that the set precedents for this award will mostly dictate that players like Ribery will be less valued. But this in no way devalues Ronaldo’s achievements.

Over 12 months, the Real Madrid player displayed a precision in front of the goal that will be remembered for years. Some would say it’s appropriate that Ronaldo got the award days after another Portuguese goal-machine, Eusebio, passed away. Ronaldo deserves to be named in the same breath as the ‘Black Panther’.

Interestingly, the forward didn’t give his year-defining performance in a Real Madrid shirt. Rather, Ronaldo arguably touched the limits of his ability during the World Cup play-off against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden. The pre-game talk centred on the possibility of Zlatan trumping Ronaldo in a major clash. One of the two geniuses was not going to make it to Brazil.

It finished, Ronaldo 4 Zlatan 2. Portugal won the first leg at home 1-0 and took the lead in Sweden as well. But Zlatan roared to put his side 2-1 up. The next goal was to be decisive. But there wasn’t just one.

Ronaldo scored twice to book his team’s ticket to Brazil. After scoring the second leg winner, Ronaldo ran to the sidelines with his arms aloft. He was soon mobbed by other members of his team. There was a wide smile, an unqualified joy not often seen on his face.

The joy was there again as he received the Ballon d’Or prize on January 13. Only this time, he choked. Ronaldo had won the prize in 2008 but there were tears, still. They rushed out from the eyes as a long-lost friend returned to Ronaldo’s life.

* * * How it happens

All national team captains and managers and a group of eminent journalists vote to select the winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or. Each voter names three players with the first choice getting 5 points, the second earning three while the third accrues only one.

The process attracted controversy as FIFA extended voting by two weeks since insufficient votes had been cast until the original deadline. Some believed this helped Cristiano Ronaldo as the extension meant that his virtuoso performance against Sweden in the World Cup play-off was taken into account.

Remarkably, Ronaldo and Argentina skipper Lionel Messi didn’t vote for each other. The Portuguese captain chose Radamel Falcao, Gareth Bale and Mesut Ozil while Messi preferred clubmates Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Neymar.

Franck Ribery was the preferred option for 80 of the 173 eminent journalists but only 48 chose Ronaldo in first place. However, the Portuguese player earned the primary mention from 53 coaches while Messi and Ribery had to make do with 39 each.

Portugal coach Paulo Bento raised eyebrows by naming Falcao and Arjen Robben behind his team’s skipper. French manager Didier Deschamps thought Messi didn’t deserve a mention but Argentina’s Alejandro Sabella named all three finalists with Ronaldo in third.

Club and national loyalties held sway for others as well. Poland coach Adam Nawalka named Robert Lewandowski as his first pick. Spain’s Chris Coleman and Italy’s Cesare Prandelli followed suit by selecting Xavi and Andrea Pirlo as their first options, respectively.

Though Luis Suarez missed 20% of 2013’s matches owing to suspension, he was still clubmate and Slovakia captain Martin Skrtel’s first choice. Steven Gerrard was Skrtel’s third.

What about the selections made by India? The national side’s captain Sunil Chhetri named Ribery, Ronaldo and Iniesta, in that order. India’s Dutch coach Wim Koevermans nominated Iniesta, Robin van Persie and Messi.