Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
It was last summer’s storm in a teacup — or maybe a shampoo bottle.
“One has more expenses for the hairdresser than the other,” Sepp Blatter told his audience at the Oxford Union, as he did an attempted mime of Ronaldo’s on-field strutting “but that doesn’t matter.”
Being ridiculed by Blatter is a bit like being mocked by an oven-ready turkey, but he seemed to have touched a nerve.
Messages bounced back and forth between Madrid and Zurich. Ronaldo did his own mock salute to Blatter after scoring in his next game, and it took until January for the Fifa boss to sort the spat after Ronaldo was presented with his second Ballon D’Or award.
How times change.
One year on Blatter is in disgrace, banned from football at the age of 80. His favourite Messi —“the good boy that every father and every mother would like to take home” — has been branded a criminal, along with his father, after receiving a 21-month sentence for tax fraud.
And Ronaldo has picked up his third Champions League medal and is now clear favourite for a third Ballon D’Or as well.
The only little thing that’s missing is to do what neither he nor Messi have achieved — win a title for his country.
In reality that’s quite a big thing. Messi was in despair last month when he missed a penalty and Argentina once again lost out in a major final. The World Cup and the Copa America continue to elude him.
For Ronaldo tomorrow’s final against France is perhaps the last chance he has of winning silverware with Portugal, ending a long wait for success and healing the trauma of 2004 in Lisbon.
It is a tall order against a French side playing at home, bristling with new talent, and riding an emotional wave after their country’s infinitely more serious traumas over the past year.
But two psychological factors may be in Portugal’s favour.
One is that they are underdogs, and that is something the Portuguese thrive on, especially against the French. The other is the burning ambition of their star player.
Ronaldo’s arrogance and personal vanity annoy a lot of people, including some in Portugal. That is why Blatter’s mime raised a laugh.
There have been several occasions when he’s fallen flat on his face in big matches, among them a Champions League final and a semi-final. That silly strut was back at the end of the shoot out against Atletico Madrid in this year’s final, but it could barely disguise a performance during the game that was below par to put it kindly.
It has been the same in this tournament. He scored a towering headed goal against Wales in the semi-final on Wednesday, when mercifully the strut was buried by his team-mates piling on top of him. But the group stage match against a feeble Austria three weeks ago brought the house down for all the wrong reasons.
After his snooty dismissal of Iceland’s efforts this was karma with a vengeance. Miss after miss, and above all that missed penalty, had some neutrals in the Parc des Princes rocking with mirth.
Portugal and Ronldo have underperformed, despite the promising talent of Renato Sanches and Joao Mario.
Even against Wales they were fortunate Aaron Ramsey was suspended. Otherwise, it would almost certainly have been a closer contest.
But is the popular view of Ronaldo — arrogant, selfish, disagreeable — justified? And even if it may be (sometimes) justified, does it detract from his ability?
There was a telling incident a year ago in La Liga, with Real Madrid and Ronaldo once again about to finish second to Barcelona and Messi.
It was a routine win against Cordoba, who were about to be relegated. Ronaldo was through on goal, but as if from nowhere Alvaro Arbeloa intercepted the pass and put the ball in the net himself.
Deprived of a score Ronaldo kicked out at the ball in frustration and the hostile response from the media was inevitable. Selfish, egotistical, he always wants to be the star… and the carping continued even after the next game when Madrid went to Sevilla and won 3-2, with their champion hitting a hat-trick.
It took Arbeloa to put things in perspective.
“I am not upset about Cristiano’s gesture,” he said. “It’s normal that he should be angry, he didn’t score and his ambition is always to score. He’s making a big effort to beat Messi and end the season as La Liga’s top scorer and we want to help him, his ambition makes him the best player in the world and that helps the team.”
Ronaldo’s misfortune, if we can use such a word about a phenomenon, is that he’s been competing head-to-head with Messi. And up to now the Barcelona goal machine, and marketing machine, has edged the competition.
Perhaps football shouldn’t be like that. It’s a team sport after all. The CR9/CR7 publicity understandably rubs people up the wrong way. Likewise ‘El Clasico’, which has been overhyped for commercial reasons. But we all love a good duel: Just wait and see what happens with the Manchester derby this coming season.
However, Ronaldo also deserves more respect as an individual.
Because of the glamorous, superstar image people overlook his past. Portugal is not a wealthy country, and some of its poorest people come from the island of Madeira.
To outsiders, Funchal is a prosperous resort, capital of a beautiful sub-tropical island, a stopover point for cruising liners. To a lot of the locals it is somewhere to escape from.
Ronado’s upbringing was tough. His father Dinis suffered from alcoholism — not unusual on the island — and there was very little money coming in.
He had only a limited opportunities at school, which made the barbs directed at him by Jose Mourinho back in 2007 — “not showing maturity and respect, maybe a difficult childhood, no education” — additionally unpleasant, especially considering Mourinho’s privileged background. The relationship between the two of them has always had an edge to it.
When the young Cristiano moved to the mainland, he was the constant target of jokes. The Portuguese they speak in Madeira is almost a different language from the Portuguese of Lisbon or Oporto. His emotions constantly got the better of him as an adolescent: He was nicknamed Crybaby, and it took a long time for him to shed it.
The tears that flowed when Portugal lost to Greece in 2004 were shared by most of the nation, but the nickname is still there in the background.
The test is what his managers have said about him.
Forget Mourinho in this particular case. As Ronaldo has commented “what he says is not important”.
For Carlo Ancelotti, and above all for Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo’s outstanding quality is his dedication.
“Cristiano trains constantly,” says Ancelotti. “He could stay behind at Valdebebas (Real Madrid’s training centre) as late as three in the morning taking ice baths, even if Irina (his ex) was waiting for him at home.
“He’s not obsessed with money, he doesn’t think about that. He simply wants to be Number One.”
Ferguson goes further: “He has everything. He can shoot with both feet, head the ball, he’s as brave as a lion, and here’s something else people overlook. During my time at Manchester United I was lucky enough to have a lot of people who put in countless extra hours to get better.
“Gary Neville turned himself from an average footballer into a wonderful one because of his work ethic, as did David Beckham, but Ronaldo used to completely exhaust himself, and still does. He just wanted to be the best in the world.”
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