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Old 3rd February 2008, 13:53   #1
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Default Ronaldo: The best is yet to come

The best is yet to come

Paul Wilson looks at what Manchester United's wing wizard Cristiano Ronaldo must do be considered a true great

Sunday February 3, 2008
The Observer

There is little doubt Cristiano Ronaldo is the Premier League's greatest entertainer. Cesc Fábregas, Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres are his only rivals for flair and, with 27 goals already this season, Ronaldo is way ahead in the striking stakes, never mind all the counterattacks, dribbles and stepovers he also provides.

The debate about the usefulness of stepovers and tricks, along with Ronaldo's well-publicised penchant for going to ground a little too easily, have combined to obscure his outstanding contribution to English football in the four-and-a-half years he has been at Manchester United. It is easy to admire Fábregas for his cleverness, Torres or Emmanuel Adebayor for their finishing, Rooney for his skill or Didier Drogba for his persistence, but no one likes to see a show-off or a cheat.

Ronaldo has been perceived as both in his time, sometimes not without reason, and, though he has cut out most of the unnecessary frills now, he will probably never be as popular outside Old Trafford as he is with Manchester United supporters. Comparisons to George Best are entirely valid - Ronaldo is equally good-looking with a complete range of skills, great balance and an eye for goal, as well as the ability to beat people with the ball at his feet - but break down over public perception. Best was adored by the whole country. Ronaldo, if he is ever going to manage that level of affection, is going to have to recover from a bad start.

That said, if he continues to improve at his present rate and carries on scoring such spectacular goals, there seems little Ronaldo cannot achieve. His free-kick against Portsmouth was as good as anything Roberto Carlos ever produced, and his strikerate is better than that of the Brazilian, who became notorious for hogging all the set-piece opportunities, then wasting them. In terms of football intelligence and the ability to run a game, Ronaldo may never delight the purist as much as Kaká, Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi, and he may not be such a forceful figure in front of goal as Samuel Eto'o or the original Ronaldo, yet his goalscoring prowess allied to his pace and willingness to go past opponents make him a formidable all-round proposition.

Best's heading ability was a surprise because of his relatively slight stature. Ronaldo is more than 6ft tall and strong and brave with it. You won't see Messi or Ronaldinho scoring as many headers from corners or free-kicks. Even if Ronaldo could not play on the wing or strike a dead ball so effectively, he would still make a more-than-useful centre-forward.

None of this was obvious when he arrived from Sporting Lisbon, as Sir Alex Ferguson recently admitted. It was quickly apparent that Ronaldo possessed all the pace, poise and personality to replace David Beckham, but the goals were an unexpected bonus. As was his confidence at switching wings, drifting inside or striking from set pieces. Largely thanks to Ronaldo's contribution, United were able to do without Ruud van Nistelrooy or any other recognised centre-forward for much of last season, and though Rooney is supposed to run the attacking show for England he is often reduced to a supporting role at Old Trafford.

Just about the only thing resembling a gap on Ronaldo's CV is that he has yet to make as big an impression on Europe as he has in England. He has the stage, playing for United in the Champions League and Portugal in World Cups and European Championships, and he will not be fully recognised around the whole of Europe until he turns in a match-winning performance at the top level. The biggest players are the ones who stamp their personality on the biggest matches, and Ronaldo was as quiet in last season's FA Cup final as he was when a tired United went out of the Champions League with a 3-0 semi-final defeat to the eventual winners.

Ferguson says United are stronger this season, however, and it certainly looks as though that is true of Ronaldo. So it should be. He celebrates his birthday this week, and it is almost a surprise to discover he will be only 23. Even if it is too early to talk of another Treble, it is reasonable to suppose Ronaldo's best is still to come. All United have to worry about is how to keep hold of him.

The early years

Cristiano Ronaldo was born in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, on 5 February 1985. The Atlantic island is as far from Lisbon as Iceland is from Scotland and has a population of about a quarter of a million. In a locale this small, Ronaldo's talent was likely to be noticed quickly and, after he started out at the small club of Andorinha, where his father was kitman, by the age of 10 he had attracted the attention of Nacional, one of the island's two largest teams. A year later, Sporting persuaded his parents to allow the boy to move to Lisbon.

His life on Madeira had not been easy - the family home was a cramped tin-roofed shack and his father was a heavy drinker who would die as a result at the age of 52, in 2005. The move to one of Portugal's big three was something of a dream on the surface, but Ronaldo struggled to settle in Lisbon, often phoning his mother to ask if he could come home. He reacted badly when classmates teased him over his accent and, when a teacher made a similar remark, Ronaldo reacted by picking up a chair and throwing it at her - as a punishment, he missed out on a youth-team trip to his home island.

He progressed as a player, winning awards, but was still short on confidence when first asked to train with the full squad. 'I was nervous,' he says. 'I asked myself what a little one like me was doing amid such big players. It wasn't easy overcoming my internal struggle. I had to believe in myself.' He succeeded in this, chipping a brilliant winner in a friendly against Real Betis in the summer of 2001, then scoring twice on his league debut, aged 16-and-a-half.

He attracted more and more attention and made his full Portugal debut as an 18-year-old in 2003. That same year, he moved to Manchester United. Carlos Queiroz, who had been Sporting's coach for two years in the mid-1990s, had become Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant the year before. Though Queiroz himself left Old Trafford in 2003 for an ill-fated spell at Real Madrid, Ferguson acted on the advice of his once and future colleague and signed the winger for just over £12m.

The comeback

As the England fans in the stands and the media cast around for scapegoats after the team's 2006 World Cup exit to Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo was the number-one choice for abuse. 'Police fears may force Ronaldo to go on the run to Spain' one headline read. True, it appeared in a tabloid - but the tabloid in question was The Times

Ronaldo had remonstrated with the referee when Wayne Rooney stamped on Ricardo Carvalho's groin, then winked at the Portugal bench after his clubmate was sent off. The News of the World coined the 'winker' moniker straight after the game, while on the BBC Alan Shearer said: 'I think there is every chance that Wayne Rooney could go back to the Man United training ground and stick one on Ronaldo.' Papers claimed that the striker had had to be prevented by England colleagues from going to Portugal's dressing room to confront his clubmate.

But despite reports the winger would flee the criticism to play for Real Madrid, Alex Ferguson backed him and said the storm would blow over. Rooney was supportive, too, as reports claimed 'it's absolute bollocks that Wayne wants Ronaldo out... he still regards him as a mate'. United's fans, many of them far from keen on England, took the Portuguese's side and were rewarded when he inspired a first United League title since 2003.

He was named footballer of the year by journalists, was players' player of year and, in another PFA poll, was voted the fans' player of the year, 10 months after being the target for jeers and worse from so many.

The scandals

Off the pitch, Ronaldo is a tabloid dream. With the input of his PR team, he's a mix of cuddly and wholesome:

· 15 January, The Sun: 'Cristiano Ronaldo admits he loves tucking into tasty treats on his way home from training. "I like the English cake shop with the cream cakes. I must confess that sometimes, after training, I weaken and have something that is very bad for me!"'

· 30 January, Daily Star: 'Cristiano Ronaldo is hooked on a new game - bingo! The wing wizard says: "It can be very exciting!"'

But without the PR team, it's all a bit more lively. Among Ronaldo's most famous tabloid appearances so far:

· 2 September 2007, News of the World: 'I turned Ronaldo on with my Tesco knickers! Two of the five hookers who romped with United ace Cristiano Ronaldo and pal Anderson at Ronaldo's £3m mansion said the players had "no morals". "I've slept with 200 clients," said Tyese, 18, "and I've never been treated with such little respect!'"

· 13 January 2008, News of the World: 'Prostitute loving soccer ace Cristiano Ronaldo is up to his old tricks - jetting off for a sleazy orgy with TWO Rome vice girls. "I didn't like him," said one of the girls. "He was a bit, how you say, stuck-up."'

· 18 January 2008, The Sun: 'THE WINGER AND HIS MINGER'. Soccer wizard Cristiano Ronaldo paid £400 for sex with this hooker... and she ain't much of a looker...'

Additional reporting by Philip Cornwall, David Hills, Victor Vago and Sam Herbert,00.html
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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