All too often the discussion of the best player in the world is limited to goalscorers. Goalies? No. Holding midfielders? Nay. Stalwart backs? Never. The main complaint that Americans have about soccer is the lack of scoring, and in a similar fashion, the soccer-appreciative world goes away disappointed from a nil-nil draw, while understanding that those score lines are part of the game, and that the game is not necessarily defined by its final tally. The simple fact is that while spectacular tricks and pinpoint long, diagonal passes are recognized for their importance and flair by football fans, goals, with their relative rarity, take on even more importance in a sometimes scoring-starved sport. FIFA, which is charged with the promotion and health of the game, somewhat counter-intuitively rewards goalscorers in their Player of the Year award. Since 1991, only three defenders have finished in the top three. Fabio Cannavaro broke through in 2006 with the only POTY win by a defender, riding a ferocious championship performance in the World Cup. Roberto Carlos and the ageless Paolo Maldini were runners-up after career years.
Even though scorers are favored, many midfielders, invariably of the attacking variety, have won in recent years. Zidane, Kaka, Ronaldinho, and Luis Figo lead the list of recent winners who fit this mold. It’s fair to say that with the most diverse role, a midfielder is a logical pick that represents a well-rounded player, capable of creation, attack, and defense.
I have other criteria for my own selection. I respect players who play with passion. While they may not have the pace, the finishing ability, or creativity of the truly elite player, dogged footballers like Wayne Rooney, Gennaro Gattuso, or Nemanja Vidic appeal to me on a different level. Like the ice hockey defenseman who drops in front of a 100 mile-per-hour slapshot to ensure it does not reach the net, these players are the gutty grinders who sometimes go unappreciated. That being said, none of those three deserves consideration for this award this year, though Rooney (who I’d hardly describe as underappreciated) will have his chance in the future, especially if he can lead England to the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Gattuso has been out of form all year, and is one of the foremost reasons for AC Milan’s slip to mid-table this year, and their inability to defend their Champions League trophy. Vidic is a beast who clashes heads so fiercely, so often, that I’m surprised he’s not a swollen, unrecognizable lump of scarred, misshapen flesh by the ends of most matches.
If you haven’t read my other posts, or haven’t figured it out already, I follow Manchester United as much as possible, even resorting to grainy, stop-action peer-to-peer internet connections to watch the games not televised on American TV. To the best of my understanding, the English population has to pay for all the games, since the broadcast rights are extremely valuable and are held by BSkyB, a pay service. If I could pay a reasonable amount (say $250-$300, which is an amount similar to NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL packages) to see every Manchester United game for the season in high definition, I’d sign a contract tomorrow. I can’t devote all of my life for the Premier League package, nor could I afford the expected exorbitant fee, so I’ll have to make my “best active” judgment based on United’s opponents in the Premier League and Champions League. I see about thirty United matches a year now, between Fox Soccer, ESPN, and the internet. In addition to following United, I watch all the highlight shows on those channels, and I read SI.com and ESPN.com daily for more football news, so I’m certainly not limited to English football. (Why am I so devoted to ensuring my credibility?) I’m going to cheat a bit here on picking my “best right now” selection. I’ll pick one man based on his international play in recent tournaments and friendlies, and I’ll pick the player who has separated himself from the pack in club football.
The only logical choice for club football is Cristiano Ronaldo. If you want to complain about my United bias, now’s the time, but I will say that I thought Ronaldo did not deserve the award last year, and that it fittingly went to Kaka, a player of supreme grace who I was lucky enough to see play live in Foxboro in September. If there is another indication that Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now, it’s expressed through media outlets. No longer is Cristiano Ronaldo referred to as C. Ronaldo to differentiate him from the oft-injured, past-his-prime Brazilian striker just-plain-ole Ronaldo who played such a pivotal role in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win. While Cristiano finished third to Lionel Messi and Kaka last year, this year the race for POTY is not going to be close. It’s Ronaldo and everyone else. Witness the swerving, drunken dead ball (dead drunk ball?) he struck against Portsmouth, a contender for goal of the year. How about the between the legs, blind flick against Villa last month? If Ronaldo gets plenty of credit for his goalscoring, he does not get enough for his ability to change the game by drawing defenders and opening up the pitch for his teammates to find space. It’s fear that leads to that space—fear of being made to look foolish by a trick or a burst of speed. Defenders confront a catch-22: close on him and he may well draw a foul, leading to a free kick that he may put into the back of the net OR give him space and time and he’ll kill you in innumerable ways. Witness Roma’s 7-1 Champions League destruction at Old Trafford in spring of 2007, where the Italian squad chose to give him space. He created Michael Carrick’s opener, then scored a brace himself, and could have scored two more if not for saves from Roma’s besieged goalie.
If I have a complaint about Cristiano, it’s his on-pitch behavior. His pretty-boy looks stand in sharp contrast to my preference for guys who look like bulldogs (Gattuso) and behave accordingly. I was particularly annoyed when Ronaldo, who, to his credit, was playing a very physical game, was cut over the eye after a collision. In the next match he sported a yellowish, painful looking black eye, but did not let it impede him from scoring. It was his celebration after scoring that ticked me off. Realizing the cameras were on him, he covered his black eye and grimaced at the camera because he felt he wasn’t looking his prettiest. It was a second-rate show of callow vanity, and I was surprised not to see Wayne Rooney vomiting on the corner flag at witnessing it. His obnoxious narcissism was also on display when interviewed. He stated, “I will be beautiful once again!” Shut up and play, Crissy. Have you guessed I’m not really a Beckham fan, either?
Lately Cristiano has been criticized by other top pros for his disrespectful arrogance. After a Champions League game, Roma midfielder David Pizarro recently said, “He does certain spiteful things on the pitch. This is the ugliest thing for a player. In the return leg, I will have something to say to him.”
Ronaldo responded, “There are plays that I do for the good of the team and never to ridicule my opponents. I tried to do the best for Manchester United and not to make a show. It’s just a part of who I am.” Uggh. I can’t stand the all too common “That’s just the way I am” excuse for irresponsible behavior. That’s a dismissal and a refusal to change, or to even acknowledge the criticism in the first place. I am a fan of Cristiano. I love that he plays for United. I hope all attempts to pry him away from Old Trafford fail. That said, he is arrogant and disrespectful of his opponents. His goal celebrations lack the pure joy and crowd connection of a Steven Gerrard charge to the corner at Anfield, instead focusing on himself and his “I’m so gifted”, “This game is so easy”, and “You don’t belong on the same pitch” facial expressions and body language. His celebrations are the soccer equivalent of the chest-thumping, choreographed NFL wideout celebration that makes it seem like the player isn’t even playing a TEAM game.
Sir Alex Ferguson apparently has no problem with Cristiano’s behavior as long as he keeps up his form, and maybe that’s a good thing. Cristiano seems petulant enough to have his form decline after a public chastisement, such as Fergie’s famous “hairdryer treatment”. Ferguson had no problem criticizing Beckham. Will things reach that point with Ronaldo’s behavior? It’s a delicate dilemma for Fergie, who has other stars to keep happy, and the need to protect Ronaldo from the very hard tackles he draws. In being sent off and subsequently banned three games early in the season, Ronaldo fell for the bait after a hard challenge. While Ferguson has stated that he respects Ronaldo’s professionalism, he has also criticized the young star for letting himself be trapped. I don’t envy Ferguson the responsibility of balancing Ronaldo’s protection with his professionalism.
That brings me to my other major issue with Ronaldo—the diving. I haven’t seen so much diving and crying since Greg Louganis retired. The scary thing about Ronaldo’s diving is that he has actually reduced his fakery. Compared to his behavior (and the behavior of many of his Portuguese teammates) at the 2006 World Cup, he’s actually at a tolerable level. Add in the fact that English referees are taking a hard line on diving, and not such a hard line on physical challenges, and I redouble my concern about Fergie’s dilemma.
He spends too much time looking for the foul when he could stay on his feet and beat the defender. A player does not necessarily have to hit the turf to draw a foul, either. If he’d only improve to the point of a Rooney, who almost never goes down looking for the foul, my respect for him would greatly improve. Get rid of all the pained expressions and sitting-on-the-pitch pouty posturing and he’s even better off. However, in all fairness, he’s doing a lot better than two years ago, when he and his international teammates looked like a Fosbury flop parody troupe.
That’s all for today. Next time I’ll reveal my pick for international footballer.
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