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Friday 21 July 2017

Tommy Conlon: Avalanche of stats cannot bury every inconvenient fact about Cristiano

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after completing his hat-trick against Atletico Madrid at the Bernabeu. Photo: Reuters
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after completing his hat-trick against Atletico Madrid at the Bernabeu. Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

First a river, then a flood and finally an avalanche: the sheer overwhelming quantity of his goals has swept aside all doubts about Cristiano Ronaldo's historic stature in the global game.

A hat-trick against Atletico last Tuesday, five over two legs against Bayern a few weeks previously, he continues at 32 to build a statistical edifice that began in his teenage years and which will dominate the skyline for all time when it is complete.

Real Madrid claim that his third against Atletico was his 400th for the club in 389 games. The sentries of the record books claim it was his 399th. It doesn't matter. Raul, his predecessor as Real's all-time record-holder, scored 323 in 741. Their venerated predecessor in turn, the late Alfredo di Stéfano, scored 308 in 396. These are towering achievements and yet Ronaldo has obliterated them.

His overall tally rises to 593 when his goals at Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United and for Portugal are added.

These figures brook no argument. He is not just one of football's all-time greats, he is among the greatest of the great.

For those teens and 20-somethings who have grown up in his era, there has never been any question about his greatness. For older generations, their resistance has been pummelled into submission too. But it lingered long and it lingered deep, mainly because their definition of greatness centred on character not statistics.

Great players carried themselves with a sort of moral authority that was inseparable from their feats on the field. They had the bearing of statesmen. They possessed an innate dignity, an intelligence and maturity that singled them out as leaders and commanders of a team. They would perform at the highest level under the most extreme pressure. They would carry the team if they had to; they would give of themselves totally; and they could play. They could produce match-changing moments in conditions of maximum stress.

Roy Keane stands as the emblem of these qualities in this country. Elsewhere the list would range from Bobby Moore to Franz Beckenbauer, Franco Baresi to Lothar Matthäus, Zinedine Zidane, Fabio Cannavaro and Andrés Iniesta, among others. Serious men, going about their work in a serious fashion.

Ronaldo is widely admired but seldom taken seriously. When he was a boy wonder he behaved like a child. As an adult, he behaved like a teenager. As an elder of the game now, he still hasn't grown up. He has always been the butt of various jokes, from his showboating stepovers at United to his hysterical theatrics when lightly tackled; from his petulant moods, to his physical vanity and undisguised ego. As recently as last March, the bronze bust unveiled in his honour at Madeira airport was widely mocked.

In fairness, the teasing is leavened with affection these days rather than the more mean-spirited derision of those early years. If he hasn't grown up, he has grown on people. They see that a lot of his vanity is a form of naiveté. Yes, he's a prima donna but essentially he comes across as a bit innocent, if anything.

And he has honoured his extravagant natural talent. By all accounts he has never taken it for granted. He has looked after his fitness impeccably. He has trained hard and consistently. He is rarely injured. He has shown up game after game, season after season. He has amassed a remarkable 850 games in senior competition.

But still. If there is one remaining argument against his true stature in the game, it comes back to character. Those prodigious numbers cannot entirely wash away the reality that he has gone missing in major games for club and country. At World Cups and European Championships, in Champions League knock-out games and big Spanish showdowns, he has disappeared. Not always, but often enough. And sometimes, having been invisible for long periods, he would pop up with a goal.

There is no more prestigious or demanding criterion for inclusion in the hall of fame: performing on the biggest stage against the best opponents under the most stressful pressure. It is in precisely these circumstances that players of historic greatness have put a team on their back and carried it to victory.

The lingering caveat about Ronaldo is that he has the instincts of a flat-track bully. In Spain, he has filled his boots at a rate of more than one goal per game. It is a monstrous strike rate. Against Barcelona, however, the percentages are much less flattering. He has played them 27 times in all competitions and scored 16 goals. In La Liga games his stats deteriorate further: played 16, scored eight - five from play, three penalties. And some of these Clasicos had the Spanish title on the line. Meanwhile, against habitual cannon fodder like Getafe, he has plundered 20 goals in 12 games.

It remains an oddity that for all the goals and glory, Ronaldo has won only one league title with Madrid in his seven completed seasons there. He has done wonders for his team, without ever being fully a team man. This counts in the long run too. It counts over the 38 games of a league season which is the ultimate test of team unity.

He will always get you a goal, will Cristiano, but not always when it's needed most. He is a remarkable sportsman. But the avalanche of stats cannot bury every inconvenient fact about his storied career.

thecouch@independent.ie

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