by Hayley Wright
I loathe Manchester United. What could be more loathsome than a club managed by the most odious, hypocritical and manipulative man in football? A club whose fair-weather, glory-hunting supporters only dare to creep out of their Guildford postcodes when there’s yet another controversial victory to gloat about. A club that seems to have the uncanny knack of collecting and breeding players who psychologists believe to be “The most arrogant, whingeing, belligerent tossers in the sporting world” (The Lancet)*. Considering this sensitive issue very carefully, how exactly is it that I came to be an admirer of one of the aforementioned tossers? Thus going extremely self-consciously against every fibre of my being.
At this juncture I should probably confess that my life-long allegiance has been with Arsenal and subsequently my ardent dislike for almost anyone and anything to do with the Mancs is heavily supplemented by an amalgam of bias and bitterness. I am afflicted with an all-consuming envy of their recent dominance of the English game. This has particular bite since there was a point at which I somewhat naïvely thought we would commandeer the top spot while they floundered in their bid to win the league over three consecutive years (2004, 2005, 2006). This minor “blip” coincided with our “immaculate” season and the inconvenient rise of “Buy Your Own League Titles” sponsored by Roman Abramovich. However, it also marked the time when a hitherto unfulfilled Portuguese upstart called Cristiano Ronaldo began his ascendancy to footballing greatness.
It is almost incredible to believe that when people referred to “Ronaldo” back in the day, it immediately conjured the image of an overweight, gap-toothed fellow with an implausibly hot girlfriend who did a few impressive things for Brazil. Little did any of us know that United’s king of the step-over and perpetual mocking fodder for Baddiel and Skinner’s inspired “The Adventures of Cristiano Ronaldo” would turn out to be the most influential, expensive and arguably best player in the world, usurping the original into the dusty cobwebs of memory.
Ferguson should take the credit for making Ronaldo play football. Yes, the showboating will always be a part of his game, but Ferguson made him realise that it should be a means to an end rather than a mere selfish exercise in vanity. Over a period of four seasons, Ronaldo perfected that much coveted but rare art of combining a sublime touch and terrifying pace on the wing with a consistently deadly strike rate in front of goal. At his best, the man is an aesthetic, two-footed phenomenon, equally able to head the ball as he is to deliver a pinpoint cross.
To our detriment, we discovered the true nature of his fully rounded game as it was lucidly exhibited during the Champions League 2009 semi-final. A blistering run to square a flawless ball into Park, an expertly placed free-kick from distance, and an exquisite back heel that would start the famous break away culminating with Ronaldo finishing the move that he started by smashing Rooney’s pass round a flailing Almunia. Having momentarily wrestled with the sheer brilliance of the manoeuvre and the heartbreaking significance of the goal, I stood up and sombrely applauded, braced for the abuse from the Emirates west stand which never came. My fellow Gooners were shocked into inertia. And there he stood. Arms outstretched, head nodding. A wry smile on his smug face.
I think it is fair to say that if I were to take a straw poll of English football supporters, they would unanimously agree that Ronaldo is the epitome of the description, “a bit of a cock”. This is facilitated in part by the notorious wink and the occasional dive, but ultimately because one expects a degree of humility from one’s heroes. It is an unusual occurrence in my sporting psyche for someone who is not viewed externally as being an upstanding moral citizen of the game to transcend the enemy boundary and win my admiration. I know what you’re thinking, and the answer’s no; I couldn’t even have angry sex with him. But if Ronaldo’s crime is being exceptionally talented and knowing it, then it’s something I am able to conveniently forget — in a similar fashion to how one forgets that The Pope is a bit of a Nazi, or that Winona Ryder is a bit of a thief.
Therefore, this is admiration of skill in its purest form. My interest was solely in what this man could do on the pitch and it stirred something deep within — more specifically, a heady conflation of excitement and anguish that left my stomach in knots. The propensity to shout “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!” every time the ball rolled towards him must have echoed in the minds of both the inexperienced and veteran defenders who were continually left for dead. And yet that same masochistic curiosity would always be there. What is he going to do next? As it turns out, what he did was to win every possible accolade and every available title before nipping off to break some records in Madrid. I don’t need my Gooner sense to tell me that we’re better off without Ronaldo in opposition, but at the same time it is abundantly clear that the Premier League is richer for having known him and far less exhilarating since he left.
* This may not have actually been published in The Lancet.
Hayley, when not swearing at perfectly innocent Portuguese people, bakes brownies of sorcerous power and oversees Transsexual Transylvania, a rather wonderful cinema blog. She also reviews film for City AM, writes about football for at Gingers for Limpar, and can be found on Twitter here: @HayleyWright.