Messi-ng with Ronaldo's mind
Going into these Euro 2012 championships there was no bigger star than the Portugal captain and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
Every tournament demands a collection of stars and perhaps one or two bigger stars. With the exit of those prima donnas from the Netherlands it has been left to Ronaldo to carry on. With three goals in his last two games he has been doing his bit but one gets the feeling that there is more to come from him.
I first saw Ronaldo playing for the Portugal Under-21 side in autumn of 2002. I think it was against England. He was on the left wing while Ricardo Quaresma was on the right. Together they gave England a torrid time on their way to a comprehensive aggregate victory.
I thought he was good but I must confess that Quaresma caught my eye more. Later, in the summer of ’03, he was in the Sporting Lisbon team that tore strips off the Man United back line in a friendly in Lisbon and I started to think there just might be something there.
While Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger were wasting time and twiddling their thumbs on the offer, Sir Alex Ferguson swooped and paid £12.6m for the winger. Many – including me – felt that Peter Kenyon, then United’s chief executive, made sure of the deal after he had blown the Ronaldinho deal that saw the Brazilian move to Barcelona from PSG.
Ronaldo made an instant impact as a replacement for the departed Beckham on the right side of Manchester United’s midfield in his first game, with some dazzling footwork setting up two goals against Bolton. The ban of Rio Ferdinand, the rebuilding work at the club, the resurgence of Chelsea with Abrahmovic’s millions and a very powerful Arsenal, made sure that United finished a distant third in that first season. The honours did eventually start to flow.
There are many who might dislike Ronaldo. However, there is not an intelligent human being who will doubt his ability on a football field. The man started out as a mazy, tricky, dribbling winger with frightening speed and bravery. England’s Ashley Cole seems to be the only full-back who is comfortable dealing with Ronaldo in his best form – but only just.
From there he has morphed into a proper goal machine. He strikes the ball with such power and swerve to match the strongest of hitters in the game. He is also very powerful in the air. He is such a phenomenal athlete that not many footballers can reach the heights he gets to from a standing position when he jumps.
Back in the summer of 2005, when Manchester United returned for pre-season games in the Far East, I watched Ronaldo and I made two observations to a friend. I said that in four years he was going to win the World Player of the Year Award and that a bit further on he would become a centre-forward like the original Ronaldo of Brazil. He won the award one year earlier.
By the ‘08/09 season, Sir Alex had started to use him more as a central striker in key Champions League matches and tough away grounds in the league. Now, these two points form the fulcrum of this my write-up on Ronaldo.
Since his win of that world player title, Lionel Messi has won it in the preceding years. Ronaldo has a huge ego. That is what makes him the special player that he is. That is what pushes him to work extremely hard at his game and get better each season.
The staff and teammates at Old Trafford used to marvel at his work rate in training and he himself once remarked in an interview that he trains so hard so he can be the best in the world. He has always had the natural ability, but he still puts in the hours to get better.
So it must rile him that Messi of Barcelona keeps getting these awards. Unfortunately, in my view, it has reached the point where Messi is now messing with Ronaldo’s mind and in his head.
Fans also seem to know it; witness the Danish fans chanting Messi’s name during the Euros and Ronaldo being naïve or silly enough to respond to it in the press conference after the match. It was a needless response and adds fuel to the feeling that Ronaldo now lives and plays ONLY to outdo Messi.
I count myself part of a unique generation in that we have two players of the qualities of Ronaldo and Messi at the same time. There was a generation where there were good players like Platini and Zico until Diego Maradona came and blew both out of the water. During King Diego’s reign the European press tried and failed spectacularly to sell Ruud Gullit as Maradona’s equal – frankly the Dutchman’s touted abilities were as real as the Y2K Bug!
After Diego exited the stage, the original Ronaldo took centre-stage with a type of centre-forward play never seen previously, with Zinedine Zidane hanging to his coat tails. In fact, when Ronaldo’s knees broke down in Kiev and kept him out of football for four years, the Frenchman took centre-stage and reigned. Then, Ronaldinho at Barcelona took over. So, for the first time we have two different but fantastically talented players laying claim to the best in the world. They both play for two of the biggest football clubs in the world. It is very possible to enjoy both together. It is not compulsory as observers for us to choose one over the other.
Sir Alex at Man United saw Cristiano Ronaldo finishing as a central striker. I think that he has lost his silky dribbling style of previous years and is now more of a one man wrecking ball such is his speed and power these days. Each time I see him lately I see him being the closest to Ronaldo Lima and thus he should play centre-forward more. Certainly, at this Euro, Portugal need a proper centre-forward, as Helder Positga has been a waste of a valuable shirt.
Ronaldo has all the qualities needed for a central striker’s role and more. He already has a phenomenal goal ratio for clubs and is getting better with country. He has speed and strength and, just like his Brazilian namesake, he does not need to play with his back to goal. He can run the channels easily and as he is already proficient on either. As a wide man he offers little protection to his full-back with his dislike for tracking back, so why not stay up front and run into the spaces. Messi started out as a wide man but is now in the centre for club and country.
A Portugal win at these championships and he will have his hands back on the World Player of the Year Award again. He will have deserved it.