Virtuoso soloist

Published : Jun 20, 2009 00:00 IST

Cristiano Ronaldo, who is poised to complete a record £80m move to Real Madrid, deserves to be bracketed with Manchester United’s Best. The club and English football will surely miss him and his palette of tricks, writes Richard Williams.

You can say all you want about his frequent outbursts of grotesque petulance, his sick-making narcissism and his ability to turn every summer into a tiresome “will-he-won’t-he?” soap opera. The fact is that Manchester United and English football are losing their most original creative force since George Best, which hardly seems like a cause for rejoicing either at Old Trafford or beyond.

Johan Cruyff once claimed that Cristiano Ronaldo is Best’s superior, but we needn’t get into that (and, anyway, Cruyff is probably still sore over the time Best nutmegged him during a World Cup qualifying match between Holland and Northern Ireland in Rotterdam). What counts is the effect they had on opposing defenders, which was identical. Both were virtuoso soloists who, at their best, managed to inspire the entire Red orchestra.

A couple of glimpses of a teenaged Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro in the shirt of Portugal’s Under-21 side was enough to persuade me to suggest, when he left Sporting Lisbon for £12.24m in the summer of 2003, that he would make United’s supporters forget that the recently departed David Beckham had ever existed. The 18-year-old from Madeira was already doing things with a football that had never been seen before.

Certainly he was helped by the evolution of the more responsive ball and the brushed-satin pitches on which today’s players refine their art. But he was the first to make use of the discovery that if you stabbed the ball hard, with an action almost like an old-fashioned toe-ender, it would do peculiar things in flight. Thousands of hours of diligent practice enabled him to harness his naturally percussive ball-striking to this ballistic eccentricity, creating a form of free-kick that left many goalkeepers confused and embarrassed.

There was much more. The exuberant techniques developed during “boxes” — the name given by players in England to those little pig-in-the-middle games of possession that they use during warm-up sessions, and of which they never seem to tire — were refined into a repertoire of feints and passes that could transform the direction and momentum of play in an instant.

He became a specialist in a football version of basketball’s no-look pass, in which the eyes and the body shape are used to disguise the angle at which the ball will be dispatched. It can look flashy, but by throwing opponents off balance it buys the recipient of the pass a priceless half-second. His near-namesake Ronaldinho was pretty good at that trick, too, but lacked the seriousness of intent which, as he matured, the younger man applied to what might otherwise have been nothing more than a conjuring exhibition.

When he arrived in England he was already making frequent use of the step-over, a technique that looks extravagant even when used for a genuine purpose. Ronaldo needed so little excuse to perform double and triple step-overs that he was soon accused of being a show pony — a charge that his high-stepping gait and concern with personal grooming did nothing to undermine. What happened next, however, was that he learnt how to use his tricks economically, so that each one counted.

Gradually he became less prone to the temptation to use them merely to humiliate opponents who had been hacking at his heels or tugging his shirt. He was probably the only man in world football who could link a Cruyff turn and a Zidane roulette in the same fluid move, and make the combination do the damage he intended. Then there was his patented double bluff: that astonishing trick of back-heeling the ball with his left foot on to his right instep so that his opponent, having reacted to the initial gesture, was bamboozled when the ball ricocheted back in the direction in which Ronaldo had originally been moving.

It was the speed at which he did all this that made him so formidable. The runs were spring-heeled, the changes of direction instant, the passes pinged away at all angles with a pace that asked a lot of his team-mates’ ball control. It was a challenge they were happy to accept.

And, of course, there were the goals, 117 of them in 289 appearances for United, goals that got better and better. The first, against Portsmouth in 2003, was a 30-yard free-kick from a wide angle, dipping sharply and bouncing over Shaka Hislop’s dive. In 2008 he produced that hallucinatory instant back-heeled nutmeg against Aston Villa and last season the extraordinary swerving long-range drive in open play that won a Champions League tie for United at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao. And he could leap to meet the cross with the imperious power of one of the great headers of the ball, a Charles or a Lofthouse.

He must have been some player, after all, to have taken possession of the name of a man three times voted the World Player of the Year, with whose career he overlapped and whose gift of originality he shared. There is only one Ronaldo now and inevitably, given his often infuriating manner and his success at a club as hated as it is loved, he has attracted his share of spittle-flecked, slack-jawed loathing.

Perhaps at Real Madrid he will find an answer to the criticism that his influence on really big games seldom lives up to his reputation. In the meantime, congratulations to Sir Alex Ferguson for gambling on his ability, for nurturing his artistry and for completing the cycle by securing a record fee (£80m) that will facilitate a further investment in talent. There was never another Best, and there will never be another Cristiano Ronaldo, but you would not bet against the arrival at Old Trafford, sooner or later, of another player capable of matching United’s expectations.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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