Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

James Lawton: Immature Ronaldo is no Pele or Cruyff

So all glory, then, to Cristiano Ronaldo, crowned Europe's best player and assigned by his manager Sir Alex Ferguson, to the company of Pele and Johan Cruyff?

Sorry, no can do in this quarter. The task is made in impossible for two reasons.

One is that at the moment Ronaldo is displaying the gravitas and self-awareness not of great men like Pele and Cruyff, who once beat England at Wembley while hardly crossing the half-way line, but a drastically under-trained pup. The other is that alongside Ronaldo's too often grisly parody of real star quality another kind of show is going on, one that reminds you that football when enhanced by individual brilliance at its best leaves every other team game for dead.

Lionel Messi is the centrepiece of this show. At the weekend he lit up the sky over Seville, where the home team boast one of the most obdurate defences in Europe. Not only did he score two goals in a 3-0 win, he brought enchantment with almost every touch of the ball.

He pretty much did that at Old Trafford last season when he delivered a master class on possession of the ball, one that with some passable support from his Barcelona team-mates might well have shattered United's march to their second Champions League title.

No doubt the overall weight of Ronaldo's contribution to United's massive success last season made this week's award something of a formality, but the point here is that right now football has a supreme and beautiful exponent —- and it is not the superstar who, whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of his eventual dismissal last Sunday, behaved in a way that made a travesty of Ferguson's ultimate praise.

After his brutal tackle on Shaun Wright-Phillips he displayed contempt for referee Howard Webb that came out of the top draw of petulance. He announced that as far as he was concerned he could make his own rules and give himself the benefit even of the most outrageous levels of doubt.

Distaste for Ronaldo's style and conduct can only be deepened by his manager's insistence that he is some kind of football martyr, a victim of forces combining disrespect and envy.

The real martyr at the Eastlands stadium was not the superb physical specimen Ronaldo but someone who might double up as a charm on a braceletthe diminutive Wright-Phillips.

If a United player had been so relentlessly targeted, the chances are Ferguson would have called for intervention by the United Nations.

Messi is small too — and inevitably the object of the most ruthless attention. Remember when he was sickeningly levelled at Stamford Bridge a few seasons ago and Jose Mourinho alleged that he took a dive. Messi didn't dive, he prosecuted his game with courage and wonderful flair.

Now, in the explosion of Pep Guardiola's Barca team, who are rivalling Arsenal as football's most idealistic proponents of a beautiful game, Messi moves from one exquisite performance to another.

Yes, it is right, that Messi has to nail down real achievement — Barcelona have to be involved in the Champions League's shake-up and under the new regime of Diego Maradona he has to shine for Argentina now that he has the chance that was so shockingly denied him by the nation's head coach Jose Pekerman in the World Cup two years ago.

The instinct here, though, is that if Messi does get the kind of stage provided for Ronaldo by United and Portugal he will both conquer it and display a hugely superior reaction to his triumphs.

This, admittedly, is only a guess. The confirmation of ambitions and yearnings doesn't always have a hugely warming effect on the personalities of those who make them come good.

At the moment, Ronaldo is arguably the most wretched example of this process. His body language remains, mostly, sour. He has this season only just got round to celebrating any success achieved by his team-mates. He is happy to dish out punishment but writhes and moans when he is on the receiving end.

In the wake of his magnificent goal — and penalty miss — in the Champions League final in Moscow in the spring, he put on a post-game performance of stunning surliness.

No, he couldn't promise to fulfil his contract to United, no more than he was ready to discuss his emotions when he missed the spot kick that might have denied United the prize that he and his team-mates had pursued with such ferocious effort. "I don't make promises," he said, "not even to my Mum.”

Earlier, when he received the Footballer of the Year award he managed not to make a single mention of his team-mates, his manager or his club.

He is, all in all, a magnificently equipped footballer starved at times of even a modicum of grace.

That he is grouped with such as Pele and Cruyff by a man of Ferguson's weight and achievement says many things, not least the force of the manager's belief that he has the power to re-make football history.

In many ways he has, but on the matter of Ronaldo he still has a huge burden in making his case.

In the meantime, some of us will be content with the prospect of a player of breathtaking talent — and the kind of agreeable nature of all those great performers who have learned to live comfortably and gracefully with their success.

In this respect, Lionel Messi is surely the man.

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