Welcome to the CR7 football highway

Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro has his own set of rules which goes beyond his mystifying mastery of a football. Rich, successful, and with a plethora of individual and collective accolades, he is already supremely decorated and has always, seemingly, cared very little about the world. Or the words of its inhabitants, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Men continue playing a boys’ sport, and hence the cliché rightly goes: Boys will be boys! And surely footballers — running around in mud-soaked shorts, long past their charming adolescence — will rarely grow up to make good statesmen. Despite the multi-million pay packets, designer apparel, signature edition cars and weekend-only work schedule, these men are notoriously slow in growing up and have a penchant for trouble, easily swayed by the sugar-coated jargon of the coterie hanging around their lives. Players are essentially egotistic, and often completely lost in a world of constant paraphernalia. (We respectfully keep the “saint”— like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Andres Iniesta and their kind — away from this list.)

Yet, we are in love with them, despite the eternal closet hatred towards these geniuses for a life that we all dream of but can no way live, conveniently calling it their nightmare.

Essentially, no one is in a mood to grow up, though there’s no point mumbling about that to a deadline-stickler boss or even an extra-sweet (clingy, ever-demanding) girlfriend. (Eventually, they all turn out to be one.)

Thankfully, at least a lucky few can live the dream. And we all can live through their exploits — turning one’s individual brilliance into a source of collective joy.

An errant but prodigiously talented Portuguese has done exactly that. And, now, the world cannot have enough of him. Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro has his own set of rules which goes beyond his mystifying mastery of a football. Rich, successful, and with a plethora of individual and collective accolades, he is already supremely decorated and has always, seemingly, cared very little about the world. Or the words of its inhabitants.

And now Madrid’s CR7 has burst out of the blocks in 2013, averaging more than a goal a game, and helped his team trump twice over bitter enemies Barcelona (winning his personal battle with Lionel Messi) and Manchester United (his former club) in the Champions League. A standout season in 2008 for the Red Devils saw Ronaldo walk away with the Ballon d’Or (the greatest individual player award in world football for the year), but since then the Portugal captain has been overshadowed by his Argentine counterpart.

Though Ronaldo scored in great numbers, Messi always seemed a step ahead, scoring more and, importantly, pocketing the club honours. While Messi ruled headlines and hearts, Ronaldo for a time remained a petulant bridesmaid, always complaining, always jealous and finding it hard to steal the thunder. (Rui Santos, President of Andorinha, Ronaldo’s first club, called him a “cry-baby” in the player’s biography written by Italian journalist Luca Caioli.)

He essentially remained a boy mistakenly born in the age of a modern-day miracle and had all the traits of ending up as a tragic hero, always questioning authority (unlike statesmen) and breaking his favourite toys — Ferrari, in his case — for fun. A character whose true worth was never discerned, a flawed individual who might not get as much space in the annals of sports history as he would have liked to despite giving us immense joy. (Irrespective of his equally successful reign in the ring, George Foreman — 68 KO from 81 fights — is never talked about in the same breath as Ali, 36 KO from 61 fights.)

At United, joining in as a brash 18-year-old from Sporting club de Portugal, Ronaldo dazzled the world and helped himself to 118 strikes from 292 games. He was known from his spectacular run-ins, cheeky dummies, clever step-overs and blistering shots. He often scored the most magnificent of goals, but was also guilty of missing the easiest as he habitually preferred style over substance. After his record-breaking move to the Spanish capital and its glamorous club Real Madrid, the 28-year-old, after the initial disagreements with Jose Mourinho, seems to have settled in well and has scored an astonishing number of 188 goals in 186 matches. He has become more persistent, a footballing machine, who just can’t stop scoring.

Though the showman in him is still alive, Ronaldo has shown signs of maturity and, of late, has been more of a team-man, handling pressure better and thus finding the back of the net more regularly. The high conversion rate from inside the box tells a telling story of his improved off-the-ball movement and better positioning skills. He is now not just a player of all brawn who can only score the unbelievable. He is more consistent and also links up play, a quality that was missing from his game during his United days.

Mourinho rightly says: “We never say that Cristiano is responsible when we lose a game, and we can’t think that he is the only one who wins it. Without the team he isn’t anything, but the team without him isn’t the same.” And his ward from Portugal seems to grasp the enormity of that message at long last.

Completely reinventing the left forward’s role, he starts wide for Madrid and drifts inward and always has a telling effect on the play. The marauding Madrid full backs, Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao, running in at the opposition numbers, draw them out and give Ronaldo the licence to roam. Free of a marker, he is devastating, running into the empty space and more often than not finding the goal. However, injury to the two Madrid left backs for a large part of the 2012-13 campaign stifled Ronaldo’s style of play.

Michael Essien, filling in, was less adventurous, and Ronaldo was often marked out by the opposition full backs — as was the case in Madrid’s Champions League group stage loss to German league winner Borussia Dortmund last October.

But the return of Coentrao has unshackled the champion, and the effect has been devastating (as seen by Barcelona and Manchester United). He has scored the most crucial of goals and in the big games, proving his worth as a player of the highest calibre. While Messi looked almost pedestrian in the latest El Clasicos, bereft of ideas and touch, Ronaldo was Real’s best man, taking the game to the opposition and killing them too with his strikes.

Even in a Madrid team filled with the likes of the precisionist, Xavi Alonso, wizardly Luka Mordic and the subtle Mesut Ozil, Ronaldo remains the enigma.

His supple attacking stab gives the team something extra and even a hard taskmaster like Mourinho grudgingly admits: “Cristiano is the best in the world. I saw (Diego) Maradona a couple times and I’ve never seen Pele, but Cristiano is incredible. This man is the best.”

In admirably handling an emotional return to United’s Old Trafford ground, staying away from the limelight (going against his natural boisterous emotions) and refusing to celebrate after scoring the match-winner, he has been a statesman and won over hearts. Ronaldo looked almost apologetic for the misfortunes falling on his former club and probably for the first time in his career showed signs of being humane, swayed and affected by the love of the millions around. Though hard to admit, true love is all we (boys) and Ronaldo want.