Aston Villa 0 – 0 Manchester United
Villa Park, November 22nd, 2008
Let’s get all the obligatory stuff out of the way quickly so we can get down to elaborating on this article’s purposely inflammatory headline.
There was a lot talk around how Aston Villa would take it to Manchester United in this game. Villa have had a good season so far; Villa are ready to break the hold of the big four on the four Champions League places; Villa finally had the players, and in Martin O’Neill the manager, to do one over the Champions and make themselves quite comfortable in the upper echelon of the Barclay’s Premier League, thank you very much.
None of that happened.
In fact, all that did happen was a maybe-maybe-not penalty claim for the impressive Gabriel Agbonlahor towards the end of a high-tempo match, low on technical excellence but high on physicality. Villa didn’t get the penalty. The match finished 0-0.
But the more interesting sub-plot was, unsurprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo. Let’s be clear now: this is not a rant about what a wanker (or winker, if you still will) Ronaldo is. His silver short-shorts fiasco was enough to settle that issue in the summer. This is no unsubstantiated strop. The evidence for this indictment was supplied by Ronaldo himself when he was subbed off by Sir Alex Ferguson around the 70 minute mark. And the comment is this: Cristiano Ronaldo is not a footballer, and that’s why we hate him.
We hate him because he uses the game of football to keep the bubble in which he exists, permanently inflated. Football to Ronaldo is but a buxom masseuse; just a reason to style his hair. To him, football is a mere plaything. And that’s why we’re right to hate him.
There is no doubting Ronaldo’s supreme talent. But if he’s not a footballer, what is he? Frankly, he is just a player of the game. A player. Not a footballer. And here is the difference: in all great footballers (as in all great athletes), skill is entwined with those intangible qualities that set the best men head-and-shoulders above their peers. Honesty; the willingness to muck in; an awareness of the bigger picture; graciousness for a highly-paid but ultimately frivolous life. Ronaldo lacks them all. Players showboat; they whine about what they didn’t get; they graze until they find greener pastures; they bite the hand that feeds them. In these aspects, Ronaldo is in surplus.
What will not be questioned here is his fitness, pace, close control, goal-scoring prowess, and appetite for destruction. But what must be questioned are his qualities as a man. For football at the highest level is a ruthless expose of a man’s soul and if they are left wanting in the analysis, 50,000 people are on-hand to witness it.
And Ronaldo was exposed at Villa Park. The window into his soul was opened wide as he made his way down the tunnel. Limping off, his leg as bruised as his ego, he felt compelled to remind the Villa fans close by that he, not them, was ‘number one.’ That he, not them, was a superstar. That he, not them, was stinking rich. That he, not them, was allowed to speak. He did it by pointing at himself, then pointing skywards, then pointing at himself again. You got that? I’m number one. Me. Not you. Me. Fuck you. And shut up. (He signaled that by holding that same finger to his pursed lips).
Ronaldo thinks that he is above the searching examination that is a football match. Ronaldo supposes that his skill, so sublime as it is, would not, could not, dare be usurped by some lowly tackler; someone who relies on sheer tenacity to win the ball, and the game. Ronaldo believes he is beyond all physical contact. That he is literally untouchable. Hence the little hands-on-hips tantrums he throws whenever he has adjudged himself to be wrongfully touched.
Aston Villa dealt with Ronaldo this time around. They dealt with him the way all players in opposing teams should deal with Ronaldo. They tackled him. They hassled him. They weren’t afraid of him. They denied him the freedom of the pitch. They ignored the hype. And yet it was always fair. Meaty, yes. But fair. And so every time Ronaldo went down under a challenge, which was under every challenge, referee Chris Foy saw no reason to halt play. No foul had been committed. So the players continued. They didn’t kick the ball out of play so he could receive treatment. They knew that there was nothing wrong with him. They refused to bow to his whining. The paying hordes knew there was nothing wrong with him. So they refused to give him the adulation he craves when he was replaced by Nani.
Instead, they jeered him. They jeered him because when they peered into his soul, they saw that there was no footballing character there. They saw that there was no character, full-stop.
If you could tap the collective consciousness of the Manchester United support, you may find they view Ronaldo as the kind of guy who finds a way to skip out on rounds when you’re at the pub, but is let off because he gets girls. They may never admit it, but United supporters must know Ronaldo fancies himself as bigger than the club, bigger than the game of football and, most crucially, bigger than all of them. But football and its fans were there before Ronaldo, and they will be there long after he has gone.
A word of warning to United fans: do not dare think that Ronaldo would not do the same to you should he feel the need to remind you of the pecking order he believes exists: him at the top and everyone else beneath him. He already did it over the summer in what amounted to the most drawn out public handjob in the history of transfer windows. But this is the nature of mere players.
Perhaps I have overlooked the flip-side of this argument: that all the world’s top footballers have the belief that they are somehow ‘better’ than everyone else. And what’s more, that they must cling to that belief in order to stay at the very top of the game. So let’s take a look around at the best players in the world at the moment and see if I stand to be corrected.
Javier Mascherano reluctantly accepted the Argentine captaincy, despite open endorsement from his new national boss, Diego Maradona. Xavi recently pointed out that he ‘is nothing without his team-mates’. The former is an Olympic champion, the latter is a European Champion. Meanwhile, it’s the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Joey Barton who have professed to being ‘better’ than us mortals. The former is a prolific waster, the latter is a mediocre footballer at a mediocre club.
No, for now the argument stands. The game-player may succeed at the game for a time, but the footballer will succeed at life, because he can see beyond the goalposts and beyond the stands. Ronaldo cannot see past himself. And for that reason he will remain merely a game-player, and never be a true footballer.