Sunday 21 January 2018

Richard Sadlier: Ronaldo may be right that team-mates don't have to be pals, but it helps

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

I don't know how or why it began, but a peculiar trend started to emerge during team nights out in the early 2000s. Rather than go to the toilet like everyone else, certain players took to urinating discreetly in near-empty pint glasses close to the bar.

They would then place them somewhere prominent in the hope that someone would wrongly assume it was a pint of lager. Though it wasn't the most sophisticated of plans, and would only work on someone who was hammered, nobody involved in this cunning plot was anywhere near sober.

I can't recall ever seeing someone fall for this trap, but there was a day when it all started to backfire on those behind it. The contents of one of the pint glasses was accidentally spilled on an unsuspecting player nearby. What followed resulted in us all being asked to leave together, but it was days like this that were seen as crucial in building team spirit. The culture at the time, and still the case in many places today, dictated that friendships were essential among a squad that wanted to succeed.

Cristiano Ronaldo put a different slant on things last week. He had been asked if he thought his relationship with Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale has had a negative impact on Real Madrid's performances this season. Most players would probably have rejected the premise of the question and given the kind of answer that wouldn't make headlines. Ronaldo chose instead to give an honest reply.

Firstly, it was a legitimate question to ask. Partly because of the importance attached to camaraderie in team sports, but also due to signs that things aren't great between them. Gestures and glances of frustration aren't uncommon from Ronaldo, particularly towards Bale. When one of them scores, there doesn't seem to be the same sense of joy as when Barcelona's strikers celebrate together. Comparisons between these two great clubs are unavoidable given the rivalry, and Real would be a distant second if team spirit could be measured.

Ronaldo used an example from his Champions League success with Manchester United in 2008 to make his point. He said he was on little more than greeting terms with some of his team-mates and it didn't hamper them. "On the field we fought for the best interests of the team," he said, keeping the focus strictly on the job. "The hugs and kisses don't count for anything. It's not better for Bale to come to my house for dinner or (for me to) eat something at his. We're all professionals."

It's a far cry from the conventional wisdom around the importance of team bonding in football. Autobiographies by former players, for example, are usually laden with recollections of such activities. They're usually similar in tone - meaning alcohol was the central component - but they're also mainly presented as being vitally important. Socialising together, even holidaying together, was central to fostering a bond that was key to their success. For obvious reasons the details are best reserved until after you've retired, but the prevailing culture in football is still the same - you can't get far in a team sport without team spirit.

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It's not necessarily untrue, of course, just because Ronaldo is of a different view. I socialised and holidayed on many occasions with team-mates and it helped a great deal. The closer we all became the more enjoyable it was to play together. The better we played, the more we convinced ourselves of the importance of us all going out. Some might call that rationalisation of destructive and damaging behaviour. Others would say it's what's needed to create a winning team. Either way, it's the approach we took and we were convinced it served us well.

It's very possible, of course, that we would have found it just as beneficial to spend extra hours in the gym or at the training ground. Maybe the time I spent recovering from nights out building camaraderie would have been better spent working to improve my game. If I could do my job in the team to the best of my ability, why does it matter how close I am to the people around me?

I'm sure Ronaldo didn't get his fitness and his physique by spending time getting to know his team-mates better. And when it comes to maximising your performance on the pitch, I suppose there's a case to be made that spilling urine on one another has its limits.

What Ronaldo says is totally against what is promoted in team sports generally, but he's not wrong to say all that matters is what happens on the pitch. When you combine his freakish work-rate in training to his undoubted natural talents, maybe it's ok not to care about being friends with your team-mates. It's a fun thing to do, but being a footballer is a job not a game.

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