THE SECRET FOOTBALLER: Zizou and Ronaldo: A love story born of humility

The Secret Footballer watched the Champions League final with a group of fellow English professionals. They produced punditry gold and even a little wisdom.

In the Hollywood version the sky is umber and gold and the twinkly old conductor of the small orchestra out on the terazza nods knowingly to his musicians. Magically, they strike up something heartbreakingly lovely.

A bluebird lands on the perfect linen of the table where the couple are sitting. The little bird seems to wink but in their happiness neither of them even notices the bluebird and it’s blessing. 

Some passing angels high five, Cupid takes voluntary redundancy and the director of First Dates starts a heroine habit. Nothing can ever be this perfect.

At the table the white wine hasn’t been touched. A plate of Steak Haemorrhage sits cooling in its own blood across from a plate of carrot batons which have been barely nibbled.

In close up two beautiful brown eyes well up and a single tear escapes just as a hand frantically fans the lovely face in an attempt to summon some composure.

“Say it again for me. Just one more time. Please.”

A smile. Two gazes locked for infinity. Slowly he says the words again.- You are a better player than I ever was.

It is too much. Cristiano runs to the toilet to splash water on his face before he faints. He texts his mother from a cubicle.

“At last. Somebody who gets me.”

At the table Zinedine Zidane texts his wife.

“He bought it babe! Just like you said.”

And that is how the Zidanes kept their house and kept the big job and won the Champions League. Back to back.

*****

I watched Saturday’s final in the company of some footballers. I tried out the “you are a better player than I ever was’ line on a few of them. They were so lacking in awareness of the game that they just nodded and said: “I know that, mate.” 

I stood out too because I wanted Juventus to win. Footballers aren’t romantic. They view underdogs in the same way they view their dinner. The law of the jungle is that you take a knife and fork to the underdog.

I like to see the underdog win but I appreciate that when the underdog and all its puppies get devoured that I may be living in a remarkable era. It’s what I imagine it’s like to be a Lib Dem. I can’t tell if my philosophy is win-win or lose-lose but it doesn’t matter much anyway.

It turned out to be the Ronaldo Final. Two goals and a winners medal to go with his Euro 2016 triumph. A night that will surely earn him a fourth Balon D’or.

I’m not much of a Ronaldo fan either. The players who made up the rest of the audience play at clubs ranging from Premier League to League One. Nobody from League Two. We don’t go to slums. The League One guys were only there because they won some competition on TV.

Speaking of TV, if the producer of Match of The Day is reading this, just reimagine the following snippets but substitute the word ‘mate’ with the word ‘Gary’.

Premier League Guy: Ronaldo is the best I’ve ever seen. End of. Better than Messi because Messi has played with players that he hasn’t needed to carry.

Me: Mate, there is nothing that Ronaldo can do that Messi can’t do. There is an awful lot that Messi can do that Ronaldo can’t do. Like pass a mirror without stopping, mate.

Premier League Guy: You got me again.

League Two Guy: That game just came down to finishing. It was a masterclass in finishing from Madrid.

Me: If you mean, mate, that Madrid had multiple shots on target and scored four of them including two deflections and Juventus had one half-chance and scored, then I agree mate.

League Two Guy: So true.

League Two Guy: Wow, not even to bring Bale on in Cardiff is a message if ever there was one

Me: There’s Bale just there. Number 11, mate. They’ve already brought him on.

League Two Guy: Or Modric then.

Me: Um... no, there’s Modric too, mate. Modric is the one that looks really like Modric.

Championship Guy: What would you rather do, win this and score the winning goal or win the World Cup?

Everybody (in chorus): Win the World Cup.

We looked around and I was the first to realise something important.

Me: Yeah, but we’re all English, mate.

Now that’s what I call punditry, mate.

*****

What is remarkable about Ronaldo has been his ability to reinvent his game to stay at the top. What is remarkable about Zidane has been his ability to massage Ronaldo’s ego in such a way that he finds that acceptable. 

A lot of managers go to Real Madrid and think they have to be bigger than the club. Jose Mourinho, who wouldn’t be in football if Google Translate had been invented earlier, would never have had the humility to do that. A mark of Zidane’s greatness is the humility he has brought to the task.

Ronaldo can’t take players on as he used to at Manchester United and he isn’t as quick as he once was. He does have a range of finishing that perhaps only Messi can match. Left foot, right foot, heading. From every angle and with every type of technique.

His second goal — a very fiddly half volley reversed into the far corner of the net — was just sublime in every sense of the world. One of those goals where the co-commentator says: “If Ronaldo had scored that goal we’d be saying what an incredible finish it was.” 

Well Ronaldo did score that goal and it was an incredible finish. And he made it look routine.

Through the latter stages of the Champions League, his contribution has been incredible. And it is a mark of some of the clowns who follow big name clubs that a section of the Real following persist in whistling him because he doesn’t do the circus tricks and stepovers any more (It’s also a mark of Ronaldo that he lets the clowns bother him).

Madrid deserved it. So strong offensively, they work as a team when defending. That defines most winning teams. Juventus could win Serie A at a canter conceding just 26 goals along the way but when it comes to the very best they have now been also-rans on two occasions. Serie A’s lack of top class opposition on continues to undo Juve on the biggest stage of all.

As for Little England? In the second half a phone rang. The League One player in the company answered it, because it was his phone. It was a League One manager from another club. 

The player is out of contract. The manager as dangling a contract. Better club and closer to home.

My League One friend reminded the League One manager that the Champions League final was on.

“Oh is it?”

A few minutes later the following conversation.

“Dani Alves is ‘gone’.”

“Yeah. He’s cattle trucked. All washed up.”

“Isn’t he meant to be going to Chelsea next year?”

“Yeah.”

Everybody nodded sadly. Dani Alves going to the plush care home that is the Premier League. Zidane winning with quiet humility. 

The Champions League final was in Cardiff but it seemed a million miles away from England and its football.


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