Cristiano Ronaldo: Overindulgent or simply overrated?

When Real Madrid paid Manchester United a staggering £80m to smash the world transfer record for Cristiano Ronaldo back in 2009, many felt they had bought the world’s best footballer. At the time there were a significant number within the football community that argued that he had more to his game than Lionel Messi. When he swapped Manchester for Madrid, Ronaldo was still the holder of the coveted Ballon d’Or prize, having been a key member of United’s 2008 Champions League and Premier League winning team.

However, just two months earlier Ronaldo had (not for the first time) failed to deliver on the very biggest stage, this time in the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona in Rome. That game more than any other epitomised the flaws in Ronaldo’s game and some would say his character. The final was billed as Messi vs Ronaldo. The battle of the two outstanding footballers of their generation. But it was the diminutive Argentinian that rose to the occasion, not only by scoring the decisive second goal, but for his all-round craft and guile on the pitch, as he and his Barcelona team-mates systematically took United apart. Ronaldo for his part had tried to win the game on his own but his narcissism succeeded in making an already difficult task almost impossible for his team. 

Last Saturday’s El Clásico saw yet another show of egocentricity from Ronaldo to the detriment of his current team. Some are even suggesting that he was so desperate to regain the Ballon d’Or (for which he is on a short-list of three) that he overlooked the importance of the game and the need for his team to steal a march on the current Spanish and European champions.

So is this simply down to sheer overindulgence or is the Portugese forward, with his £80m price tag, the most overrated footballer in the history of the game?

Before Ronaldo’s big money move to Real Madrid there were those that had started to question his credentials as the elite footballing icon he was often made out to be. Many had noticed that when it came to the very biggest games, on the very biggest stage he was often more conspicuous by his absence.

When he first arrived at United from Sporting Lisbon as an 18 year old youth prodigy he was considered a bit of a ‘show-pony’.  Deployed as a winger he often preferred to showboat rather than deliver an end product, much to the annoyance of some of his team-mates. However, as he matured Sir Alex and his coaching staff nurtured his talents and deployed him more centrally. Alongside Wayne Rooney he blossomed and the two of them helped United break Mourinho’s era of dominance at Chelsea.

There is no doubt that Ronaldo is an exceptional goal-scorer as demonstrated in his Ballon d’Or winning year when he bagged 42 goals for Manchester United. He has since gone on to reiterate his goal-scoring prowess at Real Madrid, scoring a staggering 83 goals in just 78 games. This by any standard is quite extraordinary. Real Madrid, like United before them, have adapted their game to suit Ronaldo’s strengths. But it has so far brought them limited success and it has still not helped them overcome this present Barcelona team, whom many believe are the best of all time.

Historically, top players are often judged as such by what they are able to contribute in the really big games when the team and everyone connected to it are reliant on them to step up to the plate and make the difference. Ronaldo has rarely been able to do this for club or country. Indeed one can probably count on one hand the number of times he really dominated top opposition for United or indeed for his current team, Real Madrid. In games against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, who whilst he was at United were their closest rivals, he was all too often rather subdued. He scored in the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea, but that apart offered very little in the game by way of a positive contribution. He missed his penalty in the shoot-out, which could have cost his team the trophy, but for John Terry’s now infamous slip and miss. He shone in the 2009 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal scoring two great goals in the away leg, but badly let himself and his team down when it mattered most in the final against Barcelona.

His career at Real Madrid has so far been a similar story. He is a prolific goal-scorer and a constant goal-scoring threat in games against weaker opposition. However, the La Liga title and invariably any other major trophy, will generally be won or lost dependent on which team excels in El Clásico. Real Madrid and Barcelona, by all accounts, are the two outstanding teams in Spain and in Europe. Ronaldo has now played in ten El Clásico matches, but has only been on the winning team once, in last season’s Copa del Rey final, when he scored the winning goal in extra-time. However, in the games of greater significance such as in La Liga fixtures and the two legged semi-final of the 2011 Champions League, he and his team have generally come second best to Barcelona. To add insult to injury in almost all El Clásico matches in that time, Messi has been the one that has stolen the headlines. More significantly, his own fans at Real Madrid have recently started to turn on him. He has also come in for wide-spread criticism from a number of Spanish journalists for his consistently sub-standard performances in El derbi Español matches.

The comparison with Messi is a fascinating one. For years many have tried to suggest Ronaldo was the better of the two. Both are exceptionally quick, have outstanding technical ability, are explosive over a short distance and are prolific in front of goal. Ronaldo, being much taller is better in the air and is renowned for his heading ability. Messi on the other hand has mesmeric close control and is more adept at going past players and has arguably more ‘game intelligence’. He has learnt to find areas of the pitch where he can receive the ball, run at players, draw defenders towards him and thus create spaces for others to exploit. He is also much more creative than Ronaldo. His sense of creativity makes him as likely to assist than score himself. All of his aforementioned key strengths were evident when he set up Alexis Sanchez’s crucial equaliser last Saturday. This proved to be the ‘game-changer’. It gave Barcelona the impetus to take the initiative away from Real Madrid at a crucial stage of the match. Ronaldo by contrast fluffed his lines when he squandered his big opportunity to put Madrid 2-0 up, which possibly cost his team a hugely morale-boosting victory. This in many experts’ opinion is what sets Messi apart from Ronaldo. Messi is undoubtedly more of a team-player and will not try to win matches on his own, even though he often does by way of his exceptional talent. He has also demonstrated on many occasions for Barcelona that he is a man for the big occasion, consistently proving to be the difference in crucial matches. You will now be hard pressed to find anyone that is still willing to make the case for placing Ronaldo above Messi.

Ronaldo has now appeared in four major international tournaments for Portugal, but has failed to distinguish himself in any of them. He has scored 32 goals in 87 games for Portugal but has yet to make his mark against any of world football’s super powers.

There is no doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo is a prodigious talent and a world-class footballer. But to be considered a true great he surely has to be able to deliver in the games that matter most, against the toughest opposition. Football (like any sport) at the very highest level is won and lost by very fine margins. A sending off, a mistake, a bad decision by the referee or his assistant, or more often than not, by a stroke of genius. The type of genius you would get from the most exceptional players in the history of the game, when the eyes of the world were on them. This requires more than just skill. It requires the right temperament and knowing when and how to put your stamp on a game of high significance, even when singled out for ‘special treatment’. Players like Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian legend), Platini, Maradona, Cruyff, and Pele all understood this. Indeed Lionel Messi currently understands this. The world is still waiting for Cristiano Ronaldo to do likewise.

Wayne Wiggins @Wayne_Wiggins

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