James Lawton: Messi's maturity the true measure against which Ronaldo falls short

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So all glory, then, to Cristiano Ronaldo, widely expected to be crowned Europe's best player and assigned by his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, to the company of Pele and Johan Cruyff? Sorry, no can do in this quarter. The task is made impossible for two reasons.

One is that Ronaldo is displaying the gravitas and self-awareness not of great men like Pele and Cruyff, who once beat England at Wembley while hardly crossing the halfway line, but a drastically undertrained pup. The other is that, alongside Ronaldo's too often grisly parody of real star quality, another kind of show is going on, one that reminds you that football when enhanced by individual brilliance at its best leaves every other team game for dead.

Lionel Messi is the centrepiece of this show. At the weekend he lit up the sky over Seville where the home team boast one of the most obdurate defences in Europe. Not only did he score two goals in a 3-0 win, he brought enchantment with almost every touch of the ball.

He pretty much did that at Old Trafford last season when he delivered a masterclass on possession of the ball, one that with some passable support from his Barcelona team-mates might well have shattered United's march to their second Champions League title. No doubt the overall weight of Ronaldo's contribution to United's massive success last season made this week's award something of a formality, but the point is that right now football has a supreme and beautiful exponent, and it is not the superstar who, whatever you think of his eventual dismissal last Sunday, behaved in a way that made a travesty of Ferguson's ultimate praise.

After his brutal tackle on Shaun Wright-Phillips Ronaldo displayed contempt for referee Howard Webb that came out of the top drawer of petulance. He announced that, as far as he was concerned, he could make his own rules and give himself the benefit of the most outrageous levels of doubt.

Distaste for Ronaldo's style and conduct can only be deepened by his manager's insistence that he is some kind of football martyr, a victim of forces combining disrespect and envy. The real martyr at the Eastlands stadium was not the superb physical specimen Ronaldo but someone who might double up as a charm on a bracelet, the diminutive Wright-Phillips. If a United player had been so relentlessly targeted Ferguson might well have called for intervention by the United Nations.

Messi is small too – and inevitably the object of the most ruthless attention. Remember when he was sickeningly levelled at Stamford Bridge a few seasons ago and Jose Mourinho alleged that he took a dive? Messi didn't dive, he prosecuted his game with courage and wonderful flair.

Now, in the explosion of Pep Guardiola's Barça team, who are rivalling Arsenal as football's most idealistic proponents of a beautiful game, Messi moves from one exquisite performance to another. Yes, it is right that Messi has to nail down real achievement – Barcelona have to be involved in the Champions League's shake-up and under the new regime of Diego Maradona he has to shine for Argentina now that he has the chance that was so shockingly denied him by the nation's head coach Jose Pekerman in the World Cup two years ago.

The instinct here, though, is that if Messi does get the kind of stage provided for Ronaldo by United and Portugal he will both conquer it and display a hugely superior reaction to his triumphs.

This, admittedly, is only a guess. The confirmation of ambitions and yearnings doesn't always have a hugely warming effect on the personalities of those who make them come good.

At the moment, Ronaldo is arguably the most wretched example of this process. His body language remains, mostly, sour. Only this season has he got round to celebrating any success achieved by his team-mates. He is happy to dish out punishment but writhes and moans when he is on the receiving end.

In the wake of his magnificent goal – and penalty miss – in the Champions League final in Moscow in the spring, he put on a post-game performance of stunning surliness. No, he couldn't promise to fulfil his contract to United, no more than he was ready to discuss his emotions when he missed the spot-kick that might have denied United the prize that he and his team-mates had pursued with such ferocious effort. "I don't make promises," he said, "not even to my mum."

Earlier, when he received the Footballer of the Year award he managed not to make a single mention of his team-mates, his manager, or his club.

He is, all in all, a magnificently equipped footballer starved at times of even a modicum of grace.

That he is grouped with such as Pele and Cruyff by a man of Ferguson's weight and achievement says much, not least the force of the manager's belief that he has the power to remake football history. In many ways he has, but on the matter of Ronaldo he still has a huge burden in making his case. Meantime, some of us will be content with the prospect of a player of breathtaking talent, and the kind of agreeable nature of all those great performers who have learnt to live comfortably and gracefully with their success. In this respect, Lionel Messi is the man.

Real life at times is just not cricket


The dilemma of England's cricketers as they contemplate, or not, a return to the cockpit of some of India's most turbulent days, has rightly been accorded much understanding.


However, it does not help that some of their number have been uttering public statements of mind-withering fatuity.

It has to be said that the cries of shock from Steve Harmison that terrorist outrages involve blood and carnage did not, perhaps, create major surprise. Whatever his virtues as a fast bowler, when his head and his heart are in the right places, he has never leapt out as somebody equipped to take much of a look at the world from somewhere beyond his own immediate perspective.


Harmison said: "The carnage is unimaginable. Like a horror movie. I'm sorry, but whatever is expected of us in the next few days, the idea of going back there is the last thing on my mind. It's all very well people back home saying we should carry on with the tour, but none of what has happened has anything to do with cricket."


However, Kevin Pietersen is the captain of England – the man there to provide a degree of tough-minded leadership. Whatever the strength of that leadership proves to be in the next few days, some of his remarks can only increase the sense that many sportsmen, and especially this current group of cricketers, regard themselves somehow separate from the rest of embattled humanity.


Here is Pietersen on the ordeal of the team after the news of the massacre in Mumbai: "Some of the lads have used up two batteries in their mobiles calling home. They heard things like, 'Are you all right, daddy, when are you coming home?'" For Pietersen it was all particularly shocking because a few weeks earlier he had "walked down those very steps with some mates on the way to a boat ride".


The great Caribbean writer C L R James once asked: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"

Still less, it seems, do they know of the realities of life.

Blame game sure to backfire on Scolari


Luiz Felipe Scolari would be a lot better advised launching an inquiry into what happened to Chelsea in the second half on Sunday than his theory that referee Mike Dean was part of a conspiracy against his team.


No doubt Robin van Persie's first goal was clearly offside, but the Mourinho-style rant was still deeply disappointing. It smacks of a failure to address a much more fundamental issue. Chelsea played some beguiling football in the first half, against Arsenal of all people, but their later collapse was something you almost never saw under Mourinho.


The subsequent evasions betrayed the image of Big Phil (left). He is the man who in the past faced, triumphantly, the wrath of most of the Brazilian nation. He is famous for his self-belief. But now he is saying referees are killing his team. It is the first whine of those who cannot live with defeat, however deeply self-inflicted. By uttering it, Scolari, of course, turned the spotlight on no one more intensely than himself.

Comments