The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Yes, Ronaldo deserved the Ballon d’Or. There have been some reaching attempts to make the award seem controversial, a few of which started months before he even won it: he was too arrogant, he was a flop in big games, he didn’t do enough for his national team, he was a sulk on crutches all summer. But none of this was really very serious. Ronaldo was so clearly ahead of the other top contenders for the award, Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres, that writers who wanted to disparage the outcome ultimately had to venture into the esoteric, as Paul Doyle did on the Guardian Sports Blog yesterday when he argued that Al Ahly’s Mohamed Aboutrika, a wonderful player who barely played a match against top-quality opposition last year, would have been a more deserving choice.
Part of Doyle’s point is that soccer awards are stupid because it’s impossible to dissociate individual players from their teams, and that’s probably true on the plane of abstract justice. But within the colloquial context in which the awards actually operate, it’s not really that complicated. You can sift through last season in any number of different ways—statistics, individual highlights, significance of competitions won, etc.—and determine that, if you’re going to take the impure step of handing out awards at all, Ronaldo fairly obviously deserves to win a lot of them. I don’t mean to single out Paul Doyle, whose piece was smart and entertaining; but if a winger whose personality everyone liked had scored 40 goals, taken his team to a major domestic title and won the Champions League, I think some of the concern for the theoretical legitimacy of individual honors might have been easier to live with.
But that’s the trouble with Ronaldo: it’s too hard to separate his personality from his play. I’m not a great fan of his style, but in a strange way, I think that’s the mark of his importance. For one reason or another, he touches a raw nerve with a directness that’s made him, fascinatingly and uncomfortably, the embodiment of football on Earth. I don’t mean he’s the best player, and I don’t mean he’s the best-known player; I mean he’s the player on whose actions the most always seems to be riding, the player in whom the characteristic intensities of the modern game are most acutely mixed. Whether we like it or not, everything he does is blazing with significance. He leaves headlines behind like the bodies of moments he’s killed.
That’s something deeper than celebrity; it’s a kind of transcendence, only the problem in Ronaldo’s case is that he doesn’t seem to transcend the game into anything in particular. Like a few players in every sport, Ronaldo seems to mean more than the game he plays, but where other great players accomplish this transformation in such a way that it would be possible to describe in approximate terms the meaning they represent, Ronaldo’s meaning seems to dissipate the moment it comes into being. Even David Beckham, a player who never had anything like Ronaldo’s ability on the pitch, turned vanity and stylishness into something resembling a concept. In Ronaldo those qualities seem uncommunicative and self-contained. It’s as if a sentence caught fire in the middle of the page of culture, and burned away a hole only to reveal beneath it a man pouting in a pink dress shirt.
That may be maddening, but in some ways it would be hard to devise a better emblem for football at the present moment. If Ronaldo were slightly worse—and thus slightly less insistent as a phenomenon of culture—I think fewer people might have minded his Ballon d’Or win, and if he were slightly more concrete as a despicable personality, I think more people might even have celebrated it. As it is, he’s searingly trivial and ambiguously antiheroic; he’s hypnotism without a memory or a message. He’s an uncanny convergence between the technical artistry and the social vacuity of the modern game.
I hope he’ll be more than that someday. But in the meantime, the fact that he’s hard to like is a sign of how much he deserves to be recognized, not how little.
by Brian Phillips · December 3, 2008