Flesh and cloth

25 Jul

I’ve witnessed some painful sights in my time. Grown men beat-boxing. People who say “Brangelina”. And the slow, ticking realisation of a Leave voter, to name just a few. But none were more painful than the sight of Bolton’s Nicky Hunt walking off the field of play on August 16th, 2003.

The Wanderers were playing Manchester United, so Hunt might reasonably have expected a tough day at the office. Quite how tough came as a shock to all, as with 29 minutes to go, Alex Ferguson summoned his new signing from the bench – a pockmarked £12.2million teenager from Portugal. Having had previous for birthing fledgling talents into the English game, the claret-drenched Knight of the Realm seemed to be at it again.

It was as though the future had arrived. As with all depictions of the future, it had a terrible haircut. Cristiano Ronaldo danced past Hunt again and again with a brand of skill we simply hadn’t seen before. There were stepovers, yes. But not of the “are-these-ever-going-to-lead-anywhere” Denilson variety. These were sharper. More chopped. It didn’t matter how side-on Hunt made himself, he and Ronaldo were vessels in the night. Except that Ronnie was a speedboat. A dancing, spaghetti-haired comet trail was all that Hunt saw of the Madeira kid that day.


Ronaldo was everything the modern footballer should be. Fast. Muscular. Orange. The stage was his and his alone. It is said that each player averages a mere 53.4 seconds’ possession during a 90-minute game. That may be true in most cases, but Ronaldo wouldn’t consider it a day’s work unless he’s had a fully-fledged quarter of an hour on the ball.

Yet despite being head, shoulders and trapezoids above everyone else, Ronaldo was not adored by the common man. Vanity is a difficult trait to warm to. Roy of the Rovers, for instance, might not have inspired quite so many budding young footballers if he’d spent the first four or five pages of each magazine flexing endlessly in front of a mirror. But then, on the other hand, who cares? If niceness got you on in life, Gareth Southgate would have won the Balon d’Or.

Deep down Ronaldo knew exactly what the public wanted. And if that meant performing ball tricks in front of jeering Chelsea fans rather than doing a proper pre-game warm-up, so be it. These people had paid their money.


Meanwhile, unbeknown to the young Ronaldo, fate was busy manufacturing him a polarity. Across the English Channel, in a soon-to-be-forgotten place called mainland Europe, another talent was prospering. Except this one didn’t behave like a randy ski instructor with immense ball control. This one was short in the leg and scruffy in demeanour. Unassuming, almost to the point of shyness; if you had to blind guess what he did for a living, you’d have probably gone with roadie for a commercially unsuccessful indie band. Perhaps more jarringly, this other guy didn’t even seem to actively want to be on the cover of Men’s Health.


Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were destined to be locked in an eternal grapple. Opposition teams just a phoney war backdrop, as the two defined themselves not by the eleven players they faced each week on the pitch, but by what the other was doing. It became the great duel of our time.

Adidas, Barcelona and every commentator in the world tried to characterise it as Good versus Evil, or humility against hubris. The spirit of the game versus a preening dickhead. But time has shown this narrative to be misplaced. For one thing, and it might sound trivial, but Ronnie actually pays his taxes. For another, despite all the sulking Ronaldo does on the pitch, he’s the first to turn up to major tournaments and he’s absolutely desperate to be the last to leave. Nobody wanted to win Euro 2016 more than he did. Messi, in contrast, has decided that, aged just 29, international football is no longer his thing. His legacy has become stained by evasive practices, both fiscal and footballing.


So forget “Good versus Evil”. The moniker is too simplistic, and probably just wrong anyway. The contextual layer that really separates the two is how much more earned Ronaldo’s brilliance is.


At first sight, the temptation is to view Messi as the underdog between the two. Diminutive stature, growth hormones as a child, too ugly to get a bird at school, etc. The Argentine might be praised as the one who overcame the greater battle. But like Leo Messi’s Dad and a self-assessment form, not everything’s quite adding up here.

The reality is that Messi is simply not of this earth; blessed with a supernatural talent beyond others’ contemplation. He has a balance that defies the frailty of man sprinting upright on two legs, and a dribble that cannot be reproduced. To watch Leo Messi is to admire a beautiful uber-human who has probably never broken a yolk and never known the trauma of sending a box of cocktail sticks flying. It’s an existence which no amount of training can replicate.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, is completely man-made. He is a miracle of achievement, rather than simply a miracle. God-given talent doesn’t get you four feet off the ground when a whipped cross comes into the penalty area. You get that way through Herculean conditioning. God-given talent doesn’t get you more tricks than any other player on the planet. You have to learn them the same way Michael Gove learnt politics. One deceitful turn after the next.

People praise Messi’s calm and condemn Ronaldo’s petulance. You’re damn right Ronaldo’s angry when something goes wrong. Do you have any idea how hard he’s practiced to get things right? The floor gets thumped and the skies cursed, because an awful lot went into the process.


It’s this distinction between the two that makes recent events so compelling. Ronaldo has finally got the piece of silverware that has long eluded Messi, an international tournament winner’s medal. The human has bested the immortal. Better yet, he did it a matter of days after Messi flounced off from the Argentine national team vowing never to return. Messi’s retirement has therefore made this win a defining factor. A factor which, unless Messi reverses his decision, will always distinguish the two.

Will this force Messi’s hand into returning, just to keep up with his sworn rival? If so, how much more painful will it be if he continues to fall short? It’s not like Messi can blame a lack of support staff; he plays for one of the big beasts of international football, for heaven’s sake. Ronaldo has just dragged a team of lunatics, nearly men and no-hopers to glory.


Domestically, at least, the battle between Ronaldo and Messi will continue to run. Chances are both will eventually retire with the world still torn on who was better. But this victory strikes me as one worth celebrating. This summer, the gods were humbled. Messi was humbled. This summer, a man armed with nothing more than a lifetime of practice got his nose in front of superman.

It was a triumph for Ronaldo, but in a very real way it was a triumph for all of us. Because there’s actually nothing that separates us from Ronaldo other than supreme dedication, extraordinary application and some unusually white teeth.

It’s hard to love Ronaldo, I know. So I won’t ask you to. But when your mind wanders to the pantheon of true greats, remember that almost all have an international trophy to their name. Garlanded Hall of Famers, such as Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Charlton, Platini, Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Matthaus, Gullit and van Basten. They’ve all got one.

Now standing beside them – looking for all the world like a butler in the buff in shinpads – is Ronaldo. He’s in the club, too. Lionel Messi, unless he fancies a rethink, now never will be. International failure looms over him like a suspended prison sentence. A feeling one suspects he will be all too familiar with.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).


“Any chance of the shirt staying on today, Ron?”

5 Responses to “Flesh and cloth”

  1. Spunky August 4, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    This made my eyes piss

  2. Elton John August 7, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    Hope you die of AIDS

  3. Anonymous August 18, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

    Eat shit

  4. Anonymous August 20, 2016 at 8:56 am #


  5. Asif September 28, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    Bum me Daddy

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