Sunday 23 July 2017

Stephen Hunt: Ronaldo the unlikely hero showing youngsters it's not all about money for top footballers

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

One of the most important pointers for what happens in football in 2017 might well have come in the last few days of 2016. I was very impressed with Cristiano Ronaldo's decision to turn down an astronomical deal to go to China. Even if there was an element of PR behind it, I think it sends a very loud message and sets a significant example in what is likely to be one of the biggest stories of this year.

It was easy for him to say no to the offer, of course, but it would have been just as easy for him to accept. He's won it all, and is in his thirties. It also seemed like Real Madrid might have been willing to sell at that kind of money. Instead, he's still chasing the dream. He still wants to achieve at the highest level possible.

That's a good example. Any time I am dealing with young players I tell them to chase the dream, not the money. As soon as you start chasing the money, you don't play with the right emotion, the right application. But if you chase the dream - the glory of the game and everything it represents - the money and the good deals will come. Ronaldo himself is an example, if an immensely talented one.

From my experience, many more players care about the dream than some people might think, but it's good Ronaldo crystallised this - that he set an example. One of my wishes for 2017 as a former pro is that players follow that.

I wouldn't worry all that much about the money being offered to play in China. I don't think we should be so arrogant as to dismiss it - obviously, given what they're trying to build there and the money they have to do it. But the Premier League should be confident in what it has. For the moment, too, it seems like the Chinese Super League mostly has a relationship with Brazilian football. It still doesn't have the status to go beyond that. Ronaldo's statement, however, really helped football massively. It was almost setting the tone for so many stars and emerging talent not to move just for the money

Fair play to him. You can see it really is about his legacy.

One thing that I'm really looking forward to about the new year is to see where the next exciting player will come from - either Irish or internationally. It's one of the great things about the game. For all the coverage, and all we know, it is still exhilarating when a player comes from under the radar to suddenly take charge.

And I have to make an admission here. I was probably disrespectful to Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he came to Manchester United, thinking that his goal rate at that age was down to Paris Saint-Germain being so far ahead of the French league. But I've grown to love him.

What I love most about him is how players celebrate with him. You can tell a lot about how popular a player is by what happens when he scores a goal; how quick players are to celebrate with him. When Ibrahimovic scores, you see Phil Jones in there doing a karate kick. That means there's banter, there's camaraderie, there's a good feeling.

Proper celebration is something I'd like to see more of, actually. This may seem a very trivial thing, but I think it matters. I was watching some of my own celebrations over the last few weeks, and I was often out of control when I scored, didn't know where I was going. I do think that helped me connect with the fans though. I'd like to see more players just let go.

To keep the human side of the game, though, I am one of those who would not like to see the authorities bring in video technology. For one, the conversation it creates is a key part of the game, but I also think it should be down to the referees.

I have been encouraged with how physical the game seems to have become again. It does feel as if there is more contact, and referees are letting tackles go. There were a lot of physical challenges at the Euros. I've mentioned the 'pressing' of the likes of Jurgen Klopp a fair few times here, but I think that's been influential in this too. Referees are now aware it will mean players get close to people, that there's going to be more physical contact. There's one referee, however, I'd like to see more respect from. You can probably guess who it is - Mike Dean. He's the most arrogant referee going. In fact, he's probably the most arrogant man I've ever met on a football pitch. At least you could have banter with players, no matter what they were like. I've come across some big players in my time and there were times when you'd be thinking, 'I can't believe he's said something like that', but, even in that context, Dean takes the cake. He just won't talk to you. He dismisses you like you're a piece of dirt.

I know there's a lot of talk about respect for referees and all of that, but there's a human temperature to a football game that has to be acknowledged, and I think calmly talking to a player helps in that aspect.

Dean won't do that. He goes the other way and seems to have no respect for players. Even his facial expressions reveal a lot. I'd say he drives managers bananas.

How many of my games did he referee? Too many to mention. He drove me to the wall. Even when he comes on the TV now, I can barely look at him.

I suppose I'd like to see a change from him in 2017 in that respect - but he must get his decisions right, since he's still refereeing. As much as some might hate him, it's his style.

For 2017, I'm still not changing from my prediction that Liverpool will win the league. I know Chelsea's run would make you believe they're going to be champions, but I think something has to crack with them soon. You can sense the optimism around Liverpool, but I hope Jurgen Klopp keeps it constructive in the way that he has so far.

You can sense the optimism around Ireland, too, and it's obviously great we're in such a good position in the World Cup group. Martin O'Neill has done extremely well, but I would still look at it with a degree of caution.

We're going into the second half of the campaign now - give or take a game or two - and two halves are very rarely the same. Things can change and I wouldn't talk too brazenly about qualification just yet.

At the same time, I reckon O'Neill himself would want to keep it low-key, in the hope that we can explode decisively late in the campaign. That's what we did last time.

You would also hope some of the other League of Ireland clubs are inspired by Dundalk. As much as anything, Stephen Kenny's side have given dreams to the League players. They've shown you can make dazzling memories.

That, I would hope, is what the game remains about in 2017.

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