When Ronaldo Morphed
In keeping with the festive cheer, this writer brings to you a retelling of a seminal moment in the history of football – the Christmas gift of being privileged to watch on in awestruck wonder as a scrawny young man from Madeira steadily reshaped himself to become a ‘monster’, a whirling torpedo of dizzying footwork, unbridled pace and what he has now become synonymous with – goals.
It was the night of the 23rd of December that year. Aston Villa played hosts to Manchester United at Villa Park, the site of historical moments in the club’s history. How fitting that it welcomed a Ronaldo on the cusp of glory. Sitting first, the visitors started well, Ronaldo flitting from wing to wing in his white out boots. About 15 minutes in, he saunters off the pitch, motioning for a change of boots. White for black was the switch as Ronaldo went for pragmatism over beauty. In many ways, the evolution was captured in that moment – it is perhaps a stick used to flog his near disregard for the more beautiful facets of the game in favour of application yet this is what is required.
This writer once had the privilege to engage in some twitter discourse with the esteemed Jonathan Wilson (currently digesting the nuggets, no, the buffet of information that is his award winning ‘Inverting the Pyramid’) about the essence of professional football. Having climbed down from a position that this writer ashamedly accepts was erroneous, there is no doubting the competitiveness and the quest for results that professional football is about. No, not enjoyment and entertainment – if you want guaranteed gleeful gallivanting, attend the ballet. It is the score, the victory, the silverware; the pride in knowing “I am the best”. Ronaldo, in many ways began to realise that and it was this month that this writer regards as that in which he truly started to become the goal per game forward he is today.
That day, as boos ferociously rained down from the stands, the Portuguese winger set about doing his business. A few runs here and there were enough to keep the Villa defence on their toes. After all, they were playing the league leaders with the most recent Barclays Player of the Month in their ranks and certainly looking in the mood. His first of the night showcased everything about the new Ronaldo – direct, powerful, ruthless and most of all, decisive. Picking up the ball just inside his half, he set off on a trademark dribble, breezing past one player before coming up against the fast backpedalling defence. Jinking to his left, he unbalanced them, feinted to shoot thus creating space for a shot before unleashing one just in the ‘D’. The low shot blocked, the rebound fortunately fell to him on the edge of the box and he duly dispatched an arrow into the right corner of the net. Having given us the lead, he wrapped up the victory with a tap in at the far post, showcasing a poacher’s instinct which has rapidly brought him goals beyond what any ever could have imagined.
So what changed? A lot of things did. The season before, Ronaldo had suffered another inconsistent season, displaying his undoubted talents only in flashes. He scored in the Carling Cup final victory over Wigan, putting in a sublime display but earlier on in the season, was almost held culpable for Manchester United’s early exit from the Champions League (as ever, a collective failure with a scapegoat). Some wondered if it would be better for Manchester United to sell the Portuguese winger, using his perpetual inconsistency as ammunition. As all this talk simmered, it did not help that a bust up between him and Old Trafford darling, Van Nistelrooy, expedited the sale of the popular striker. But the World Cup came around and with that global fiesta taking place, everybody could be forgiven for forgetting the travails of the season gone past. With the pressures of Old Trafford on the backburner, and his unbridled enthusiasm at getting another opportunity to represent his country at a major tournament, ROnaldo led the way for Portugal, maturing game by game on the way to the semi-final. He was eventually knocked out by a Zidane penalty but on that day, there was no doubt who the best player on the pitch was. While legends of the game, including the great Zidane, seemed to fall victim to the pressure of the situation, Ronaldo seemed to revel in the atmosphere, repeatedly driving his team with his direct runs, skilful exchanges and dribbles and persistent desire.
His World Cup experience was not without incident however. In the quarter-final against England, there was no denying the role he played in getting club mate, Wayne Rooney, sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. His wink at the Portuguese bench was as much the signing of his hate warrant as it was an implicit acknowledgement of the blatant gamesmanship involved in Rooney’s expulsion. England (the media) was agog, speculating that Sir Alex would have to sell one of his young stars. Taking the circumstances of the season gone past, if push came to shove, Ronaldo was undoubtedly going to be the man to make way. But Sir Alex is never one to bow to public demand, less so the English public demand. He is a Scot to begin with, ever cynical of the ways of the English media. He is happy to use them to meet his own ends but is patently aware of how quickly they turn against you. Public opinion was already against him with English fans carrying out a voting campaign online to make sure that he did not win the FIFA Young Player of the Tournament award.
Any man would have considered leaving, especially with no public support but there always was. Manchester United, through Ferguson, never wavered in their insistence that he will return to Old Trafford. Carlos Quieroz, then Assistant Manager, was sent as an envoy to convince Ronaldo that Old Trafford was where he was wanted and cherished. And so it proved.
Ronaldo, defiant and resolute, arrived at Old Trafford in mean form. As Gary Neville recently observed, “in walked a man…he had been on the weights all summer and it showed”. Before where there was a wiry thin bag of tricks, in came a pillar of muscle, power and technical skill, a defender’s worst nightmare. That, with the added incentive of playing every day to prove a point, to throw the harsh invective of opposition fans are critics back in their faces steadily built up to that seminal point in December. He had been awarded the Barclays Player of the Month for November, the first ever time he had received it in over 3 years in England. In December, he won it again – only the third player in history to win the awards back to back. In the three matches played over the Christmas period, he scored 6 goals which directly won 9 points over that time. He became a match winner and has continued to be since then.
He returns to Old Trafford, for the first time, in February. This Christmas period holds great poignancy because the player we will welcome metamorphosed at this time 6 years ago. He might play slightly differently, his propensity for grabbing goals meaning he is less likely to be involved in as much all round play as before but his hunger, desire and drive to succeed remain undiminished. If anything, he continues to push the boundaries he and a certa, never ceasing, relentless in his ambition. Recently, Zlatan described the Portuguese captain as a product of ‘hardwork’, although not in a disparaging way.
Gary Neville’s exposé on him – one thing that stands out is the mental strength, drive and hardwork.
He seems aloof, he comes across as petulant but above all, he is an incredible talent that refuses to rest on his laurels and that quality is beyond reproach. A fascinating tie awaits in February.