James Lawton: Pray Ronaldo avoids the dark slide of football's most troubled geniuses

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Flowers will next week be laid at the resting place of Manuel Francisco dos Santos in the working class district of Pau Grande in Rio de Janeiro on the anniversary of his birth 76 years ago. Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, Cristiano Ronaldo will be advised, realistically and legitimately or not, to heed the story of a man whose memory still inspires cult-like fervour and millions of regrets.

In Brazil, as always, graveside tears will be shed because if the life of the man better known as Garrincha – "Little Bird" – was one of the greatest glories of football, away from the field it was also a tragedy that has few rivals in the history of the world's most popular game.

Garrincha was folklore long before he died 26 years ago in an alcoholic coma and the streets of Rio were filled with mourners as his funeral cortege wended from the Maracana Stadium back to his first wild roots. But when the flowers go down on Wednesday and an old banner reading "Obrigado, Garrincha, por voce ter vivido – Thank you Garrincha for having lived" is lifted once again, his tortured denouement will indeed be raised as a caution against the future of the most glittering and contemporary of his successors.

For Ronaldo this is not a gypsy warning – but the considered opinion of a Harley Street psychoanalyst. In a new book, Winning at All Costs, Ian Williamson and his co-author Paul Gogarty assert that Ronaldo, so resplendent in his self-belief as he takes over the hero's role with Real Madrid, is the prime candidate for the experience of a Garrincha, a George Best, a Paul Gascoigne or the man who is currently teetering most publicly on the edge of breakdown, Diego Maradona.

You may say the theory is custom-made for a batch of book-selling headlines, but what cannot be denied is that circumstances in the lives of Garrincha and Best, who both had alcoholic parents, bear some striking comparison with those of Ronaldo, who according to his mother had a father whose great ambition seemed to be to drink himself to death.

According to the authors, now that Ronaldo has broken with his "surrogate father" Sir Alex Ferguson and is suffering a rare bout of injury: "In Madrid, he may claim the adolescence he has up to now been denied in the same manner Maradona did in Barcelona. The question is whether Cristiano seeks similar consolations to those employed by Maradona [who suffered brutal attention when he arrived in the Spanish League as a teenager and suffered one three-month lay off] to stave off depression."

While the authors explore the broader question of the two halves of a great footballer's life, the fulfilment of supreme achievement in the first, the potential void of the second – and we know there are no guarantees in this matter among even the most stable of professionals – the suspicion here has to be that Ronaldo may well be buttressed against the worst possibilities.

If, like Best and Garrincha he had a parent who suffered alcoholism, he shows little sign of inherited vulnerability. Indeed, there are rare occasions when he displays even a hint of reluctance to take on the world. Those of us who railed against his often poor sense of team discipline could never begin to doubt the authority of his talent – or the serenity of his belief that it was the equal to any challenge.

What happens when the talent is spent? Some men need only the merest intimation of their greatness to make it a life-long possession. Ronaldo surely elected himself to their number some time ago. Pele is another, a man who is always fashionably late in the certainty that the world will wait for him all these years after the peak of his glory.

Maradona, for all the supreme ability that in 1986 took him closer than any other footballer, even Pele, to winning a World Cup single-handedly, never displayed such self-assurance off the field. He strutted, as Ronaldo does of course, but he always carried a certain tension along with an ever-lengthening entourage. At Barcelona it was estimated his hired cronies numbered as many as 19, including a personal barber and confessor. When Gascoigne entered his long and tragic decline his manager at Tottenham Terry Venables recalled how many times his haunted expression reminded him of the Maradona he inherited at Barça.

"I feared for Gazza as I had feared for Maradona," Venables said. "The only times they are truly at peace with themselves is when they have a ball at their feet. Football is easy. It was the other part of life that was difficult, and you had to fear for both of them when they could no longer do the thing they did best."

But if fears for Ronaldo are exaggerated when compared to the flawed natures of Maradona and Gascoigne – and the fact that Best's own compulsive nature was beginning to take hold at a time in his life when Ronaldo still seems to have a great reservoir of achievement stretching out before him – they are most extreme when set against the hand the Little Bird was served.

Ronaldo was born strong and beautiful. Garrincha was small and had crooked legs, one six centimetres longer than the other, and a deformed spine. He was such an unlikely star he did not sign professional forms with Botafogo until he was 20, by which time he had acquired a wife and the first of an estimated 14 children. Yet when he played he was mesmerising and a brilliant dribbling star of the World Cups of 1958 and 1962 and was variously known as the "Little Bird", the "Joy of the People" and the "Angel with Bent Legs".

He had a child-like nature and drank Brazilian rum as ferociously as his father had done before him, along the way marrying again, a samba dancer. His first half was dazzling, Fifa declared him the best Brazilian player after Pele, while some of his compatriots rated him, in terms of natural talent, even higher. His second half was the hopeless void which is one theme in the book that casts doubts about the ability of Ronaldo, for all his gifts and the buoyancy of his nature, to ride home free of the demons that have beset so many of the game's most luminous figures.

What is indisputable is the extraordinary nature of the journeys made so often by the greatest of footballers from backgrounds of grinding poverty and personal despair. Certainly few can argue with Gogarty and Williamson when they declare: "The threatening emotions they (the football magicians) feel trapped by off the field are transcended on the field where their weakness is transformed into their strength.

"Football, with its simple rules and physical boundary, becomes a kind of containing parent for the magicians. Here they find clarity between on- and offside, a clear role in the extended family of the team, and with their massively over-developed compensatory physical skills, they also discover they can express themselves like nowhere else."

Malcolm Allison, who scaled the peaks as a coach if not a centre-half for West Ham United and was once offered the Juventus job along with the services of a private plane to fly in his West End friends each weekend, said the same thing in a rather different way. "Playing the game was always such a joy to me because it gave me absolute release. I might be weighed down by debts, bookmakers might be looking for me, but once the game started I used to think: 'No one can touch me now. This is my island.' It was the most glorious place, the least complicated place. You had only to play, you didn't have to worry about anything else. You never wanted it to stop and, of course, you can imagine how I felt when a doctor told me I had to have a lung removed and could not play again."

Ronaldo, free of debt and with a talent for the ages, has every reason to believe that he will avoid such darkness. You look at his strength and his beauty and his swagger and there is no earthly reason to believe that he has to reflect upon the grievous faltering of the flight of the Little Bird who will be remembered next week. At least it is comforting to think so.

Winning at All Costs by Paul Gogarty and Ian Williamson, hardback, JR Books.