James Lawton: Genius of Ronaldinho provides searing exposure of Real's focus on commerce

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One week Ronaldinho again dismantles quite exquisitely the ramshackled galactico football philosophy in its Bernabeu home and the next, it seems a foregone conclusion, he will add the European player award to that of the world. What does it mean? Beautiful poetic justice.

Around about the time Real were signing David Beckham and a sure-fire extension of their commercial growth in the Far East and America, it was suggested to one of their top executives that it might also be an idea to acquire the creative star of Brazil's World Cup triumph. The possibility was brusquely dismissed. Ronaldinho, it was said, was too ugly. How many shirts would he sell? How many women would want to make love to him?

Apparently Ronaldinho is beginning to move quite a number of shirts and nor is the need for female company proving an unassailable problem, but then no doubt in both areas he is nothing in comparison with Beckham, who not so long ago was described as the "new spiritual leader" of Real after playing three successive games at the top of his form and without any disciplinary pratfalls. Barcelona will, you have to believe, take happily the financial shortfall in the souvenir shops as they head towards their second successive Spanish title and Real contemplate a fourth successive season out of the significant silverware.

This, however, isn't a case of either/or in the matter of Beckham and Ronaldinho. Both are what they are.

In Beckham's case this is a formidably gifted player and marvel of self-advertisement who, when his head and his fitness is right, would be a significant asset to any team in the world.

Ronaldinho is a genius. We saw that in the World Cup and in a series of mesmerising performances for Barça, not least in the Champions' League at Stamford Bridge last season when he pulled his team around so magically after a devastating opening burst from Chelsea. His tour de force was eventually wiped out by Ricardo Carvalho's unpunished foul on the Barcelona goalkeeper, but undying is surely the memory of one of the goals he scored: a shot so disguised and so beautifully flighted that it was bouncing around in the net before his opponents and most of the audience had grasped quite what had happened.

He was similarly awesome on Saturday when, with Beckham out of position and largely by-passed in central midfield, he controlled the game so perfectly that the Bernabeu administered the rare honour, for a visiting player, of a standing ovation. Had it happened at the nearby Plaza de Toros they would probably have cut ears, hooves and the tail for the supreme matador, though the ladies, supporting the reservations of the Real executive, possibly would not have thrown on to the sand various items of intimate apparel, as they did when El Cordobes was doing his stuff.

Ronaldinho is one of that small breed of the most precious footballers: a fantasy player whose instinct is as hard as an assassin's. He does it all, he runs like an ungovernable wind - remember the lacerating dash that set up Rivaldo's equaliser against England in Japan three years ago? He shoots from all angles - remember the free-kick, no, don't let us get into that - and he can give the twisted blood to defenders that Pat Crerand said was the most deadly gift of George Best. But still Real didn't like the look of him. It means, as Zinedine Zidane grows old and Ronaldo puts on another spare tyre, and Robinho is perhaps not all that some thought he might be, that it is impossible to evince a scrap of sympathy for the misplaced dream of the former kings of Europe.

Madrid have been guilty of the ultimate football heresy. They have believed that merely assembling hugely talented players, without the discipline and insights of an outstanding coach like Jose Mourinho, was enough to guarantee success. Some thought Roman Abramovich was moving down the same road. But he moved for the Special One, and Makelele, the defensive linchpin and conscience of Real's midfield, was also snapped up when Madrid made another huge error in their failure to understand that no team can survive at the top without a balance between virtuosity and both individual and team commitment.

That was a principle Sir Alex Ferguson enshrined with his signing of Roy Keane, the competitive conscience of Manchester United through their most dominant years in the Premiership. Now you have to feel for the United manager in the wake of Keane's exit and the growth of Ronaldinho's reputation.

Ferguson earmarked Ronaldinho after the sale of Beckham to Madrid and he believed he had him when he handed over the details of the deal to the celebrated football executive Peter Kenyon, as he had those of the much-courted young Dutch winger Arjen Robben. Both moves collapsed and it is not a subject lightly embarked upon with the master of Old Trafford. Plainly the signing of Ronaldinho would have swept away a multitude of errors of omission and, perhaps, distraction. Recently, in one of his frequent bursts of self-congratulation, Kenyon was telling us the reason for his decision to join Chelsea, apart from the incidental hugeness of his salary. It was that Abramovich wanted to build a club rather than merely throw around his roubles.

This brings us back to the question, in this age of huge commerce and its army of businessmen, how best you build a going football concern in the absence of a patron groaning with the profits of his country's mineral wealth. It is by an investment in the finest talent. Barça did this when they moved for a player they considered the most talented available. Real didn't when they put a greater emphasis on shirt sales and glamour. Real Madrid 0, Barcelona 3, was the story of the brilliance of the world's best player. It was also a football morality tale of the most telling quality.

Umpires forgot first principles over Inzamam

As we saw yesterday in the disgraceful dismissal of the Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, technology in sport can take us only so far. However, its value should never be dismissed. It can correct, quite effortlessly, so much potential human error.

Unfortunately, it cannot enhance human wisdom. We saw that when Steve Harmison, in an act that could only be described as crude, even brutish frustration, threw the ball at a wicket obscured almost completely by Inzamam's generously shaped body. Inzamam, for his own safety, avoided the ball and moved, momentarily, out of the crease. Perhaps he had remembered the law that said a batsman cannot be given out for leaving his ground while avoiding injury. You would expect that of one of Test cricket's most experienced players.

Still more, you would demand it of three of the world's best umpires. Referee and umpires often like to play God. But first they must read the scriptures.

Keane still offers football vintage to be savoured

Were you surprised by reports that Juventus had made a £7m offer for the short-term services of Roy Keane, that despite his now fragile physical resources, the Italian giants might be willing to put him in the same dressing-room as his old rival Patrick Vieira? You shouldn't have been.

Though both parties have denied the reports, they still make a degree of sense. Disentangled from his claustrophobic relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, Keane remains the most fiercely committed performer in any corner of European football. Juve would use him sparingly, but always on important occasions. They would know they were buying more than the last gulps of a ferocious vintage. They would be investing in a way of playing, of thinking, of fighting.

Best's surgeon gives a clear lesson in the dignity of life

Anyone who has a loved one trapped in that agonising territory between life and death would wish to have on hand the kind of values and style represented by George Best's surgeon, Professor Roger Williams.

As our minds race back over the troubles and the glory of George, when some of us even get involved in the debate about whether he should have received the gift of a new liver, Professor Williams reminds us that the great player hasn't become merely a point of argument. He remains a living presence, flawed no doubt like most of us, but also one we can think of with gratitude for his astounding deeds and his wonderful youth along with concern for the ravages of a perhaps misguided life.

Each day Professor Williams tells us how it is with George. There are no platitudes, no sentimentality, just an honest account of where the painful matter stands. He also makes it clear that as far as he is concerned what is left of Best's life remains infinitely valuable. Much of the medical profession, whatever their other merits, in this perhaps have a pressing need to learn from the man who fights for a single life which, for all its celebrity, is no more valuable, or discardable, than any other.

Comments