Sunday 19 January 2020

Eamonn Sweeney: Cristiano Ronaldo showed us the difference between true greatness and mere excellence

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his side's third goal against Wolfsburg
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his side's third goal against Wolfsburg
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I was carrying one side of a Gaelscoil banner in the St Patrick's Day parade when the man on the other side leaned across to me. "Wouldn't it be great to be LeBron James for a day," said the NBA fan in question, "just to walk around and know what's going through his mind."

I knew what he meant. The world's top sportsmen sometimes seem as remote from our lives as Marvel Comics superheroes. It can be hard to imagine them as human beings who have their own emotions and thoughts, fears, desires and goals. Yet they have them all the same.

So you'd wonder what was going through the minds of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Tuesday afternoon when they were just hours away from matches which seemed pivotal to the future of their clubs. For one thing both players would have known they pretty much held the fate of their respective managers in their hands.

Paris Saint-Germain's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

The owners of Paris Saint-Germain have pumped enormous quantities of money into the club in recent years. The goal has been to break into the elite of European football and one consequence is that PSG have moved ahead of their domestic opposition to an almost absurd degree. They are million dollar heroes in the five and ten franc store of Ligue 1; 28 points clear at the top and with a goal difference of plus 65 they clinched the league long ago. The Champions League is where they have to measure their real worth.

Going into Tuesday's match, having only drawn the first leg 2-2 at home to Manchester City, PSG had been knocked out in the quarter-finals three times in a row. Initially this had been proof of progress and even last season it appeared to show that the team was on the verge of taking the next step. Lose a fourth quarter-final on the trot, however, and it seemed likely that the owners might run out of patience and decide Laurent Blanc wasn't the man to lead them to the promised land after all.

Patience has never been a virtue at Real Madrid. Rafa Benitez already bit the dust this season, despite a record of 17 wins from 25 matches, after Barcelona opened up a lead over their rivals in La Liga. But Real have proved unable to overhaul Barca with Zinedine Zidane at the reins and when they lost their quarter-final first leg 2-0 to unfancied Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg, there was speculation the inexperienced legend might be under pressure. He is, after all, the club's 14th manager in as many years.

Both Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic would also have known that they had possessed the potential to influence the game more than any of their team-mates, or indeed any other player on the pitch. True, there's no such thing as a one-man team but the very best players can sometimes make it look like there is. With great power comes great responsibility, as the man says.

Cristiano Ronaldo completes his hat-trick from a freekick. Reuters / Sergio Perez

On Tuesday night Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic reacted to the demands of the occasion in almost diametrically opposite ways. It told us a lot about the difference between both players and in particular about the difference between true greatness and mere excellence.

At the Bernabeu, Ronaldo was simply irresistible. He grabbed hold of the game and shaped it in his own image. After 15 minutes he arrived at the far post to sweep home a cross from Dani Carvajal. Two minutes later he soared at the near post to glance a header past Diego Benaglio from a Carvajal corner and level the tie.

With just 13 minutes left and Wolfsburg having come back into the contest as Madrid's momentum stalled, Ronaldo, as though he were completing a set, took on a free-kick 30 yards out and sent a dipping shot into the bottom left hand corner of the net. Not a one-man show, perhaps, but as near to one as makes no difference. This is what great players are supposed to do.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, Ibrahimovic was mooching around the place, his lassitude seeming to infect his team-mates as they turned in a listless performance and made as tame an exit from the competition as you could imagine against a scarcely fearsome City side. When they needed him most, Paris Saint-Germain's star player gave them nothing.

What happened on Tuesday was to a large extent in keeping with the careers of both men. Ronaldo's tour de force was exhilarating, but there was a certain inevitability about it. Ibrahomovic's no-show was disappointing, but it wasn't exactly a surprise.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, center, runs with the ball between Real Madrid's Toni Kroos, left and Casemiro Photo: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Cristiano Ronaldo is in the odd position of being the undisputed number two in his field of endeavour. He is Mick Mackey to Lionel Messi's Christy Ring, the Rolling Stones to his Beatles, the Heffernan to his O'Dwyer. No-one would put him as low as third but the top position will never be his either. Had Ronaldo come along any time between the decline of Maradona and the apogee of Messi, he'd have been the best player in the world. Weah, Figo, Ronaldinho are as nothing beside him. Even Gullit and Van Basten are trotting behind the man from Madeira.

Tuesday's match-winning free-kick was strikingly similar to one Ronaldo sank in the second leg of the 2009 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal at the Emirates, another night when he seemed to take the responsibility for victory upon himself. He hit the winner when Real beat Barcelona in the 2012 Clasico at the Nou Camp, which effectively decided the title, and the deciding goal in the same fixture earlier this month, breaking the aura of invincibility which had surrounded the Catalans. He's scored at a rate of a goal a game or better for six seasons in a row, a rate which seemed impossible in the modern game till Messi and Ronaldo redefined possibility.

Ibrahimovic's figures are impressive too, but he's always been more impressive to hear about than to see in action. It's been a fine career but judged by the very highest standards, there's been something lacking.

There is no European trophy for one thing. In 2010, when Ibrahimovic was at Barcelona and surrounded by the best company of his career, he failed to make any impact in the semi-final against eventual champions Inter Milan and was subbed after just over an hour in both legs. In PSG's four losing quarter-finals he has scored just two goals, one of which was a freakish deflection in the first leg of this year's tie on a night when he also missed a penalty.

Closer to home, Ibrahimovic was a virtual passenger on the Swedish team which drew at home to Ireland in the last World Cup qualifiers and while he picked up a bit in Dublin, it's stretching it a bit to say, as some did, that he masterminded that victory. In the same campaign, Ronaldo, finding himself in a classic 'wet evening at Stoke' scenario as Portugal struggled in Windsor Park against Northern Ireland, responded with a 15-minute hat-trick. The qualification play-off between Sweden and Portugal was billed as a shoot-out between Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic. In Lisbon Portugal won 1-0 with a Ronaldo goal, in the return leg they won 3-2. Ibrahimovic got two, Ronaldo got three.

I don't mean to be unduly harsh about Ibrahimovic. He's a brilliant player but the suggestion that he's in the same class as Ronaldo overvalues one and undervalues the other. One Ibrahimovic achievement we're always being reminded of is his four-goal haul against England. The fact that it was in a friendly seems telling.

So does the lionisation of the Swede after he published an autobiography which was much praised for the candour and panache with which he told his story. Most of the journalists coming up with this guff would have been well aware that these biographies are always ghost-written and that what panache there is usually belongs to the hack involved. This turned to be even more the case with the Ibrahimovic tome as the author, David Lagercrantz, admitted to making up most of the quotes.

Yet the notion of Ibrahimovic as some kind of bohemian free spirit continues, perhaps because the goatee and ponytail combination makes him look like some hipster turning up on the RTé News to complain that he's been forced to emigrate because we don't value our social media entrepreneurs.

Poor old Ronaldo, on the other hand, doesn't get much media love. He's regularly derided for 'egotism' despite the fact that few of his peers are likely to be winning a modesty competition any time soon. My own theory is that this derives to a certain extent from sexual jealousy among male journalists perturbed by the fact that the Real striker, not content with being unusually handsome for a footballer, rubs it in with the corrugated stomach and the fact that he always appears to have dashed in from a GQ photo shoot. Had he not been a footballer, you can easily imagine Ronaldo as the hero of Portuguese action movies, an Iberian Dolph Lundgren.

There are even some people who still hold it as a point of national pride that the Gibranphy conglomerate 'saw through' Ronaldo, though at this stage denying the player's greatness is a bit like suggesting 9/11 was a hoax or that vaccines give children Autism. You might think you're being open-minded but everyone else thinks you're nuts. Don't believe the hype is a slogan well worth heeding. Don't believe the evidence not so much.

Chances are that Ibrahimovic's next stop may be the Premier League. In which case he'll be the best striker in it. But he'll still be more likely to get four against West Brom than to pull out the winner in a title six-pointer.

In other words, he's no Cristiano Ronaldo.

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