James Lawton: Ronaldo's potential greatness threatened by the theatrics of his own fantasy game

Will Ronaldo hit the heights of Figo and then last the course so durably?
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The Independent Football

Cristiano Ronaldo was 22 yesterday - not a bad age for a football coronation, and not necessarily premature when you remember Pele was 17 when he had his in a World Cup final in Stockholm and George Best was still just 19 when he was crowned in Lisbon's Estado da Luz. But then this is the point, isn't it?

They announced their greatness with almost everything they did on a football field. Ronaldo doesn't. One moment his talent blazes to the point where you might indeed say he is, give or take a Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney, the most gifted young player in the world. Then he is a football adolescent, a cosmetic creation of his own fantasy game. There is also, maybe, the problem of cheating.

None of this is to bury a kid who has so enlivened the season, who when his instinct is to damage the opposition in the simplest way, with speed and wonderful touch, is utterly devastating. It is just to say that greatness did not accompany the birthday champagne - not yet, anyway.

Did he cheat on Sunday while helping Paul Scholes to destroy Spurs and suggest that Manchester United have indeed found the mood and the balance to win the Premiership again? Tottenham's Didier Zakora thought so, but as an unimpeachable witness to football chicanery he disqualified himself earlier this season with a dive that might only have been bettered by Greg Louganis.

The naked eye saw just enough to suggest that there might have been minimal contact, but the issue here is not whether Ronaldo is simply going along with the ruling amorality of the game or whether his pronounced tendency to go down so easily is, along with the show-pony tricks, indeed inhibiting his development as potentially one of the great players of this or any other age. Pele didn't cheat, nor did Best and if Maradona broke the rule spectacularly against England in Mexico City in 1986, in a different age, it was street-wise opportunism rather than an inherent part of his game, which was brave and combative to the point of madness and could only be sustained by a more less constant reliance on pain-killers.

Sir Alex Ferguson is outraged by any suggestion that his currently favourite son is deeply flawed by his willingness to go down with or without physical contact - a trait which was perhaps most outrageously obvious in an otherwise hugely impressive performance against France in last summer's World Cup semi-final. But then his investment in Ronaldo has been big and inspired, a fact which is being underlined with speculation that the purchase price of £12m would have to be at least tripled if the player follows the advice of his Portuguese team manager Luis Felipe Scolari and agitates for a move to Barcelona or Real Madrid. This intrusion into United's affairs will also, rightly, inflame the United manager. If there is a seed of reality in such a prospect, Ferguson could claim betrayal of the first order.

In the long run the big question is whether aspects of Ronaldo's playing nature will betray the hard core of his talent. Many are now espousing his case as England's footballer of the year, which in this quarter does seem premature, especially when you consider the consistent relevance of his Old Trafford team-mate Paul Scholes and some extraordinary performances from Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas. Certainly Ronaldo's advocates for such recognition do not currently include John Giles, who occupied his position long enough to help United to win the FA Cup final of 1963 before moving on to become one of the great field generals with Leeds United - but that could change.

Says Giles: "Ronaldo is a wonderful prospect and when he is working at his best he has few rivals. I happen to think Wayne Rooney will emerge as the greater player because his game is shorn of all show - he is interested in effect more than attention-grabbing and this is a big difference, psychologically and in real football terms. Pele only played for the effect it would have on the opposition - not the galleries. At this point we can't always say this of Ronaldo. He has too many concentration lapses to be deemed a great player at this time. When Pele produced the most spectacular of his skill it was because he deemed it to have the best chance of doing maximum damage to the opposition. On another occasion he might choose to play a simple ball to an unmarked colleague.

"Like all young players of extraordinary gifts, Ronaldo has to determine his priorities. Does he want to be an entertainer who is devastating from time to time - or does he want to make his talent work consistently for the benefit of his team? He is not short of examples at United, Scholes and Henrik Larsson immediately spring to mind, and in the Portuguese team he could do no better than follow the lead of Luis Figo."

Figo is winding down his career in Italy now with Internazionale. The other night he led a team filled largely with reserves to a 3-0 Italian Cup victory over Sampdoria in Genoa. The home crowd rose to him at the finish. In his 35th year, Figo's application was constant, as it was for Portugal in the World Cup finals last summer.

Will Ronaldo hit the heights of Figo, and then last the course so durably? It is the great challenge facing this magnificently gifted and physically powerful young footballer. He was christened Ronaldo because his father was a fan of the acting abilities of the United States president Ronald Reagan. Some thought Reagan should really have stayed in Hollywood. The birthday wish for his namesake must be that he doesn't linger too long in his own version of that place.

Clubs need more than chickenfeed to stay at top

When Sir Bobby Charlton, Manchester United director and maybe the club's ultimate zealot, had to go out to placate a pack of fans protesting against the Old Trafford takeover by the American Glazer family, it was, he suggests, as difficult as any assignment he had ever faced, including European Cup and World Cup finals.

"I understood their feelings and passion," he recalls, "and all I could say was that the world changes - and such a development was always on the cards from the moment we became a plc. I said that I believed the club would go on to better and bigger things, and so far I've no reason to question that feeling."

When Liverpool, as expected, unveil their new owners from North America, George Gillett Jnr and Tom Hicks, this week they might consider a similar public-relations initiative.

They might enlist one of the players of Bill Shankly's first great team, Ian St John or Ronnie Yeats, to repeat the point made by Charlton. Heaven knows, few could be better witnesses to changing times. When St John, after a glorious decade, was dropped from the first team he was told that he could no longer claim one of the club's larger free Christmas turkeys. He protested mildly to Bill Shankly, saying: "I know it's over because when I went for my Christmas turkey they gave me a budgie."

One reassurance for The Kop is that, as the owner of the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team, Gillett knows all about communal sporting passion. If Liverpool fans want to remain at the top of football, they have to accept the need for big business and a bigger stadium. Otherwise, the Liver Bird might begin to resemble a budgie.

Super Bowl no match for O'Driscoll's natural genius

Staying up into the early hours was rewarding if only to see the vastly dignified Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts become the first black coach to win the Super Bowl. It was a moment of American sporting and social history - it was also memorable for the perfection of Dungy's gameplan in the torrential Miami rain.

That said, the budget of the world's most extravagant sporting spectacle, and the presence of Prince, the artist formerly known as a squiggle, could not deliver the No 1 place on the weekend agenda. Outstripping the Super Bowl, and even the reincarnation of Jonny Wilkinson, was the sensational Six Nations affair in Cardiff.

To win, Ireland's brilliant midfield had to triumph over a weakened but massively motivated Wales side. The flow of the game was bewitching and the try of the Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll was another example from him of muscular genius.

It also reminded us of why the American gridiron, despite the NFL plan to play a regular-season game at Wembley this year, will always be grounded west of the Atlantic. It is because no game so dominated by coaches, even one as splendid as Mr Dungy, can call itself great unless it has at its core the inspired promptings of the finest individual talent. Genius can never be told, at least in every detail, what to do.