23 June 2006
So he’s back. I know he’s not proper back, but the match the other night with Japan was such an immense relief to me. See, I’m not the biggest football fan, and I’m certainly not an expert. But when I get attached to a footballer, I really like them.
The strange tendency among football fans that I have noticed is that they are ever so slightly hypocritical. I know, we all are, but this is why football fans are hypocritical this time round.
Much is made in the football community about not being a “glory supporter”, and rightly so. Back in high school (the dark cultural days of the mid-1990s), many of my peers were Scum fans (sorry, “Manchester United”), and that was only because they won the Premier League constantly. Home being Leeds, the Scum Glory supporters were castigated, and with good reason.
Football fans are known for doggedly supporting their team til the bitter end, whether they be the best in the world (Barcelona), or the lowlier likes of Merthyr Tydfil. Such loyalty in this age of instant fix, celebrity and vicarious existence is refreshing.
However, I have noticed recently that such courtesy ends at the team; there appears to be widespread glory support when it comes to the players themselves.
The example I will use, and the reason for this preamble, is none other than that most frustrating of heroes, Ronaldo. And I mean the proper one, not the young Portuguese pretender to the throne.
A few years ago, Ronaldo was the talk of the town. The greatest player in the world, he could do no wrong. Then comes injury, followed by less inspired playing. Talk before the current world cup was about how much Ronaldo weighed. “He looks a little heavy to be leading Brazil to victory”, many mused.
Brazil head coach Carlos Alberto Parreira tried reassuring concerns, suggesting that Ronaldo is well aware of how important the tournament is, and he will lose the weight. Were this concern not enough, the hype machine was generating plenty of noise about those players younger and more exciting: Ronaldinho and Robinho. The former is arguable the world’s current greatest player, the latter apparently the icon of the future.
Our man Ronaldo was somewhat lost in the shuffle. I’ll stand by my favourite footballers, and like I have with Zidane, I got stick for supporting Ronaldo in the oh-six. Early world cup performances this year did the erstwhile Greatest no favours, especially when substitute Robinho did a lot to increase the pace of an overall disappointing Brazil side.
I was told that this was it for Ronaldo; that he was not going to start any more games as long as Robinho was on fire. Then came the Japan match.
Watching BBC just before the match, I saw Portugal (and ex-Brazil) coach Luiz Felipe Scolari being interviewed by Leonardo. Asked his opinion on the hot topic of the cup, Big Phil remarked that you should play Ronaldo, even if he is at 60% - he’s still better than most players.
I was surprised to see both Ronaldo and Robinho in the starting line-up, this past Thursday. Surprised and relieved that my favourite had another chance to shine. Yeah, he was mocked for his supposed lack of mobility by the likes of Alan Hansen, and he is far from the Ronaldo of old, but he performed.
There was a hunger to his performance I hadn’t seen from him in ages. He wanted to score, not just to confirm Brazil’s superiority of their group, but to send a message to all those who would doubt his skills.
From early in the match, he fired off shots, and good shots at that. For a while, it seemed as though Ronaldo was destined to be denied by a combination of the fates and an excellent performance from Japanese keeper Kawaguchi.
Thankfully, the duck was broken right at the end of the first half. After a breakaway Japanese goal, Ronaldo was on the end of a Cicinho header, directing the ball goalward with his own cranium. Brazil had equalised, but far more important was that Ronaldo had sent a message to his detractors: he is still a danger.
Inspired by a first half performance that saw little in the way of running but some fine shots, his second half was even better. Great interplay with Ronaldinho was unfortunately denied, but in the eighty-first minute, Ronaldo found his way into the record books, equalling the most world cup goals scored by anyone with a wonderful strike.
In prime position for a cross, Ronaldo received a pass from the excellent Robinho, pivoted on the spot, and blasted the ball – with his head down and an almost sixth sense – straight past Kawaguchi.
And so the match ended, 4-1. Brazil were back to their artistic, dominating ways (though not yet at their best), and Ronaldo was back to scoring. Two goals in one game, and 14 in the world cup tournament as a whole (a feat only equalled by Gerd Muller).
Big Phil and his “60%” theory were right, the glory supporters wrong – for now. Overweight? Yep. Done? Not for a while…