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Old 14th April 2007, 12:02   #1
TanyaT
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Default Ronaldo: The best since Best?

Ronaldo: The best since Best?

In just one season he has gone from being a self-indulgent show pony to someone hailed as the world's greatest footballer. As Cristiano Ronaldo commits himself to Manchester United and the English game, Sam Wallace assesses his progress - and his potential

Independent 14 April 2007


Word has it there has recently been a new Bentley in the car park at Manchester United's training ground with an "07" on the personalised number plate and driven by the man who seems to be on his way to achieving what was once thought impossible: eclipsing the players who wore the club's No 7 shirt before him. Eric Cantona and David Beckham were, in different ways, and at different times, the standard of excellence at Old Trafford - Cristiano Ronaldo looks set to outshine them both.

It is a mark of his current standing that Ronaldo's new five-year contract, announced yesterday by the club, will be viewed by many as a triumph for English football and not just Old Trafford. He is the footballer whom every big club in Spain and Italy would like to sign just as much as he is the man every luxury car dealer in Cheshire would like to see wander on to their forecourt. Ronaldo, the epitome of the modern game: sleek, brilliant, fast, flash, young, good-looking and loaded. At 22 he has accumulated a personal history of heroism and - for some - villainy that most do not achieve in a lifetime.

The boy from the hillside overlooking Funchal on the Madeira Islands is still a bit of a mystery to the English public. He does not do many interviews, apart from the occasional tightly controlled magazine number which his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson approves, and he has a reputation for being a touch standoffish, perhaps a legacy of the child prodigy years. Ronaldo's background tells you much about the man, but first to the most immediate question: can he legitimately be called the greatest footballer now playing in the world?

It was a premise put to United's officials by Ronaldo's management company in the process of negotiating his new contract, estimated at 120,000 a week, and the argument was hardly undermined by their client's performances. Patrice Evra weighed in with the view last week that "at this moment, Ronaldo is the best player in the world. He is unbelievable. He can do the same job as Maradona or Pele or Best. He can be like all of them." Those were big claims, but no one rushed to mock them, certainly as Ronaldo had just led the way in a 7-1 demolition of Roma.

If Ronaldo is to achieve that kind of status, then he will do so more on the terms of a fellow winger-cum-striker like Ronaldinho than a playmaking No 10 like Zinedine Zidane. Ronaldo's game may have developed immeasurably since his arrival at United for 12.24m in 2003, but there remains an immaturity about him that is sometimes overlooked in the driving runs and jinking dribbles. He still plays like the most skilful kid in the playground, direct and greedy, and his anguished reactions to near misses tell a story. All those pained stares at the sky and fingers dragged down his face are the sign of a young man who knows the camera is on him and desperately wants everyone to see how much he cares.

He remains the archetypal winger, which is the position in which every young starlet - like Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry - begins before they mature into a role in which they do not have to suffer the periods of inactivity that are the fate of all wide players. But then Ronaldo is no ordinary winger. Christian Panucci, the Roma defender with 48 caps for Italy, described the ordeal of marking Ronaldo thus: "If he starts off with the ball at his feet, you can't catch him. It's like he's Valentino Rossi [seven times world motorcycle champion]. If you give me an engine, maybe I could keep up with him."

And that is the problem with marking Ronaldo: most of those up against him know what he is about to do; they are just powerless to prevent it. Everything is done at bewildering speed and the stepovers which were the source of some mockery when he first arrived are pared down now. In fact, his most effective trick is a skip forward that puts him in position to clip the ball inside with the inner heel of his outside foot - which in turn allows him to cut infield from whichever wing he is attacking. He pioneered it two seasons ago and now every winger worth their salt is trying it.

He is influencing a whole generation of players with a style that is innovative and brave in a football environment that is ever tighter and tactically more rigorous. "I would have to say Ronaldo is the player I admire most," Aaron Lennon said recently. "He is the best player in the world. The way he plays week in, week out is unbelievable. He's improved so much in the last couple of years. I do look at how he has changed his game."

But it takes one of the few men who can also claim to be a United teenage prodigy to define what makes Ronaldo special. Norman Whiteside was 16 when he made his debut for the club and he picked out a quality in Ronaldo that Ferguson himself often identifies in the player.

"When I watch him he gets kicked so many times but he always gets back on his feet and asks for the ball again," Whiteside says. "I like that in his character. A lot of people were thinking, 'He's a young kid from a sunshine country, let's see what he's like in the winter when he comes out with the gloves on'. He has dug deep and come through.

"It is great news he is staying at United because he has had the confidence to try new things and he can do skills that no one else can. His footwork is amazing and you would hate to be a defender against him. He does get kicked a lot and that happened to me when I was younger. Everyone said I got too many yellow cards when all I was trying to do was hold my own against men. It's the same with Ronaldo."

So is he the best in the world? Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, even Roy Keane, have all lined up this season to lavish that kind of praise on him. "For me he is outstanding and he has all the attributes," Whiteside says. "He has fantastic pace, and he is tall, strong and nimble. But I always remember one of my coaches saying years ago: 'It's not two or three years. You have to do it over a long period of time to be an absolute world superstar. When you have played 500 games and a couple of World Cups, then come back to me.' But he will be up there for all the honours this year, that's for sure. Even European footballer of the year."

Ferguson, it seems, is in agreement with Whiteside. "At 22, Cristiano's got the same skill factor as Pele and Maradona but you've got to remember Pele at his peak," he said yesterday. "He played in a World Cup final at 17 and scored something like 1,300 goals in his career. Maradona was an incredible player who played in the final of two World Cups and was the undoubted player of his era. He was ahead of any other player of his generation. Pele was too, although he played in an era full of fantastic players like Di Stefano, Puskas and Eusebio.

"Cristiano at 22 has definitely got to the level of the best player in the world. Thereafter it will be up to the people and coaches around the world to decide if he is as good as Maradona or Pele, but that has got to be the challenge for him now. That has to be his goal."

Ferguson was effusive yesterday about the way in which United had developed Ronaldo since he tore their defence apart in a friendly against Sporting Lisbon in the summer of 2003. The United manager also divulged how he and United's chief executive, David Gill, had met the player for dinner in Portugal soon after last summer's World Cup and assured him that the vilification he had received in some quarters for his part in Wayne Rooney's red card was not to be taken seriously. "We explained to him what had happened to David Beckham," Ferguson said. "We told him that it would be another seven-day wonder. He's got the nerve to handle it."

He has certainly proved as much in the past. Ronaldo was brought up in the district of Santo Antonio on the steep hills that overlook Funchal's luxury resorts in a bungalow so small that the family's washing machine was kept on the roof. Until his death in 2005, Ronaldo's father Jose Dinis lived on Madeira. He was divorced from Maria Dolores, Ronaldo's mother, and Ronaldo was the youngest of four children. A football prodigy from the age of five, he was transferred to Nacional, one of Madeira's two professional clubs, from his local side Andorinha for two sets of kit. By the time, he was 11 he was was too big even for Nacional.

It was then that Ronaldo moved to the mainland to join Sporting Lisbon's academy, an apprenticeship that was not always simple. His heavy Madeirian accent marked him out as a target for mickey-taking and his mother spent time in Lisbon to help him settle.

"We were on the case of Cristiano when he was 15," Ferguson said yesterday. "Such was the acceleration of his career that Real Madrid, Arsenal and Barcelona were all after him, so we felt we had to act."

It will be interesting to see where Ronaldo goes from here as United's highest earner at just 22. He is potentially a footballer who could prove as lucrative for the marketing men as Beckham, and his management company, Gestifute, is planning a strategy of endorsements that involves just three high-profile brands, including Nike, the Portuguese bank Espirito Santo and one other. His profile in Asia is significant - during the last World Cup, Coca-Cola built its entire campaign in China around him and he met the vice-president of Indonesia during a visit to the country. There is a book coming out later this year and his sister Liliana has not done badly out of him. Her singing career in Portugal has been boosted no end by her brother's success - she certainly makes no secret of the family connection with the stage name "Ronalda".

The diving is now less of an issue, although it was raised again after the FA Cup defeat of Middlesbrough. It is still there, although you would have to admit he is very good at it compared to the ludicrous theatricals of, for example, Arjen Robben.

Has there ever been another like Ronaldo? "Certainly in my era there is no one who comes close, skills-wise," Whiteside says. "Maybe Glenn Hoddle, he was magic on the ball but he didn't have the tricks - Ronaldo is a different breed."


http://sport.independent.co.uk/footb...cle2447654.ece
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