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.

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Ronaldo at Madrid

As I write these words, huge chunks of stone from the coliseum roof are crashing down all around me; tall pillars are buckling into each other like dominoes; the ground is shaking; in the distance, through what seems to be several discrete layers of smoke of varying thickness and opacity (within which, at different depths, the silhouettes of the bewildered survivors stagger), an eerie orange glow emanates from what must be the spot where the meteor hit—whether because the collision started a fire or because of some radioactive property of the rock itself, I’m at a loss to say. Either way, there’s a weird, shrill hum in the air, as if all the insects on earth were dying at once. It’s pretty clearly the end of the world.

Well, whatever. The sentence I had just finished typing when the heavens tore open and the comets started raining down was this: Cristiano Ronaldo deserves more attention. I realize he gets a certain amount of attention already. I am aware that there are entire districts of China in which the entire populace does nothing but airbrush photographs of his hair for mass consumption. I have read that political conflicts between the various hereditary castes and clans within some of these prefectures may well curdle into intra-regional warfare if the Glisteners can’t reach an understanding with the Mussers. It’s not lost on me that the last time he tweeted an image of his belt buckle the economy of New Mexico accidentally collapsed.

Nevertheless, he deserves more attention, or at the very least he deserves a different kind of attention. Ever since he left Manchester United, he’s essentially been filling the role of predesignated unworthy losing rival to Messi—the mercenary face of the mercenary team whose joyless accumulation of superstar talent makes them the ideal foil to Barcelona’s spontaneous natural genius. We all know he’s playing brilliantly, but come on. He’s so impeccably written for the role of sports-movie bad guy—can his collars even un-pop?—and strikes such an antipathetic chord in most fans, and has minced his way so helplessly through all those devastating losses to Barça, and presents such an obvious contrast to the Messi style of play (Messi an elegant glide at an angle nobody thought of, Ronaldo a churning dust cloud plowing straight ahead) that whatever praise you offer Ronaldo seems fundamentally beside the point. He’s become a kind of casual hate figure, a semi-acknowledged moral whipping boy.

The problem is that using Ronaldo as an emotional tool to reinforce the justice of Barcelona’s greatness has made us—me, certainly, all too often—overlook the fact that he is playing absolutely brilliantly. His vicious hat trick against Villarreal yesterday not only pulled Madrid through a legitimately dangerous match and kept them within slipstream distance of Barcelona, it made another entry in the increasingly routine catalog of crazy Ronaldo heroics. That is, it was the sort of the thing he does for Madrid all the time, has been doing all the time since he got there (63 goals in 62 games doesn’t lie), and hasn’t quite been getting full credit for doing because he has hair gel and Messi scored even more over the same period.

I want to be precise about this, because the characterization of Ronaldo is subtle enough that it’s hard to think about clearly. It’s not that he’s a greater player than people say: He probably is, but then, people do say he’s a great player. It’s that there’s a vague, implied “but” that seems to accompany every description of his greatness, a sort of barely perceptible cultural echo that says, “but his greatness doesn’t count, because he’s easily caricatured by the English media and he got Rooney sent off in Germany.” That’s what I’d like to eliminate. He’s not a great player, but; he’s just a great player.

[Coincidentally, just as I was finishing that last paragraph, that red glow in the distance started flashing violently and a series of wild subsonic shocks started pounding through the surface of the earth, as though a dance club had been buried alive.]

What I kept thinking about during the Villarreal game yesterday was the way Ronaldo’s development has been guided by the Madrid transfer—another way in which his career contrasts with Messi’s. That is, Messi has spent his entire career at Barcelona and has flourished there by subsuming himself within the existing culture of the club and gradually rising within it. That worked beautifully for him because he was more or less perfectly suited to the culture of Barcelona, which is in any case a culture in which that kind of rise is fostered and encouraged to an extraordinary degree. At Manchester United, Ronaldo was the best player, but he was also working for a manager who has always been hostile to superstars, being covered by a media that more or less hated him, and playing a weird role in which he was essentially forced to be the main guy at the club while simultaneously existing within the fiction that there was no main guy at Manchester United, or else the main guy was the manager, or else the main guy was everyone else’s sincere extrapolated loyalty to Ryan Giggs’s living legacy.

At Madrid, Mourinho or no Mourinho, Ronaldo has thrived as the unambiguous center of the team, somewhere between its engine and its tuning fork. Like Cristiano himself, Madrid sometimes seem to be a hyper-energetic assemblage of charging, awkward parts. Like Ronaldo, they can’t just score, they have to work themselves up into a screaming cardiac frenzy of berserk despair and then score. Ronaldo is always the eye of that hurricane (which is obviously a super-intense evil hurricane in which the eye is the part that churns fastest) as well as whatever is making it spin. And (except possibly and damningly against Barcelona) he hasn’t backed down from the pressure but charged at it with clockwork fury and his most indescribably petulant pout. It’s not the most uplifting form of soccer to watch, but it’s one of the most visibly awesome, and it deserves to be feared and appreciated.

[Woah—the shattered ground just tore open a little way off and a vast, sprawling tentacle unfurled out of the crack. The air seems to be chanting in Latin. I’m going to make some lunch.]

The comparison always makes me think of that André Previn quote about Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton: “Stan Kenton stands before a hundred reeds and brass, makes a dramatic gesture, and every studio arranger in the audience knows just how it’s done; Duke Ellington lifts his little finger, three horns make a sound—and nobody knows what it is.”

When I wrote “hasn’t quite been getting full credit,” by the way, a flaming boulder the size of a VW bus landed three feet from my desk.


Ronaldo at Madrid

by Brian Phillips · January 10, 2011

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