James Lawton: The gods of football, and the mortals at Barça, would not have been impressed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Those who believe that almost everything Real Madrid have come to stand for makes a travesty of sport as we have always known it and respected it and, yes, loved it, are unlikely to be too reassured.

However, the fact is one of the leading guests at this week's celebration of the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo represented not the power of money to buy any success, flatten any possibility of vaguely level competition, but, well, God.

Not that this did the very reverend and very important Manuel Monteiro, Papal Nuncio to Spain, much good when Ronaldo and his owner, Florentino Perez, were swept into the Bernabeu to the thunderous applause of the sell-out 80,000 crowd.

The Nuncio was in the middle of an interview with Real Madrid television, one that was being transmitted around the stadium, and, it was widely believed, about to give the whole enterprise his blessing when the director announced "cut". It was fair enough when you think about it. What is a circus, after all, if it doesn't move along at a good lick, and what was Ronaldo if he wasn't the greatest possible blessing to the club who used to dominate Europe, who played sublime football, who apparently couldn't stop winning but who last season were outclassed by Barcelona and twice humiliated by Liverpool?

The Nuncio, for the purposes of the ceremonials, was edited out the moment Ronaldo was handed a ball and asked to keep it up in the air.

Who needs God's blessing, who needs anyone or anything, when you have Ronaldo and Kaka and a president who swears that he will keep stockpiling the best available talent?

This, I'm reliably informed, was the overwhelming conviction in the Bernabeu which once used to celebrate great deeds and great players – the greatest in the world everyone agreed, and better still, the greatest team in the world – not in anticipation but in the reality of seeing them happen, seeing Alfredo di Stefano and Francisco Gento and Ferenc Puskas play football of a quality that many still insist will never be surpassed.

It is here that we touch upon the truly grotesque in the recent history of Real Madrid. They are so hungry, so desperate for success they cannot wait for it to arrive. So they make a show of their obsession and they cheer the extent of their investment. So hello, finally, anti-sport.

Of course they can buy whom they like. If they have the money, they have the right, but when they parade Ronaldo, the greatest symbol of power and their wealth, they are saying that they have managed some kind of sublime short cut to what it is that every player, every coach, every fan aspires to somewhere along the road.

Real Madrid rip away any pretence that they have any connection with such yearnings when they indulge in triumphalism that is not yet, and may well never be, confirmed on the field. Who knows what will happen on the field, but in the meantime, look at our slaves, see how strong they are, what skills they have, and we have bought them for you. What is it indeed Real have been celebrating? It is in the crudest, crassest way not achievement but the means to make it easier for them than anyone else.

There is, of course, the possibility, and we have to believe that it is one being considered with immense eagerness by the Barcelona club who have set such stunning examples to the rest of football – not just in the way they play, but in the way they handle themselves and define their purpose – that none of this vulgar parading will come to anything of substance.

Someone who knows both clubs well, and who happened to be in the Bernabeu earlier this week, believes that Lionel Messi, the great player of last season, would have taken one look at the proceedings, seen his rival Ronaldo being required to behave like a performing seal, and would have immediately headed off to the hills.

"Messi and most of the other Barcelona boys would have run a mile," says my man in Madrid, "because they are really old-fashioned footballers in that fundamental way that the game means so much to them, and that they are rooted in their community. In a very real way Barça belongs to its people. In Madrid this week, you sensed something quite different. It was a great commercial enterprise, a circus, and really it was quite nauseating." Certainly it was hard to avoid that impression even at a distance. You could remember what the Bernabeu always meant, and the stupendous achievement it has seen, and the wonderful atmosphere that was created when Real had a team, a real team, and then consider the implications of Ronaldo, who has not yet kicked a ball for the club in hot blood, obliged to play keepie-uppie, not very successfully by all accounts, for the amusement of the fans.

Of course Ronaldo plays the game, goes along with the stunts and the hype. He believes he has inherited the world and the need to perform a circus act is not likely to dissuade him, not with the trinkets of Rodeo Drive and the company of Paris Hilton so fresh in his memory.

Sitting together, with expressions which could only be described as non-committal, as the cabaret rolled on, were Di Stefano and Eusebio, two of the finest players in the history of the game.

At the best of times, Di Stefano was never likely to win any amiability awards. He once lambasted Puskas ferociously because he believed he had delivered much less than his best in a friendly match at Old Trafford. What some who know him best guess is that though obliged to attend as honorary president of Real, Di Stefano inwardly recoiled at all he saw and felt.

He knew well enough as a young man the need to move and build his livelihood. He travelled from his native Argentina to outlawed Bogota and then to Madrid. He was a football mercenary long before anyone could dream of Ronaldo's salary of £183,000 a week, but he never shed his ferocious pride in who he was and what he could do.

You may ask what is the difference then between the young Di Stefano and Ronaldo? Though their personalities are plainly at odds, no doubt it is the worlds they inhabit.

In Di Stefano's world you didn't pre-empt glory. You didn't think it came pre-ordered the moment the cash was put down, and certainly that would never have been a reason to celebrate. You didn't fill a stadium because of the amount of money that had been spent. You did it with a team that had been shaped by the finest players and had grown into something brilliant and moving.

You went to see a team like today's Barcelona who played beautiful football, a team who put themselves beyond price. Or the one that Florentino Perez's legendary predecessor Santiago de Bernabeu, an old player, made from his knowledge of great players and how they might become a team.

Di Stefano, we can be pretty sure, had some such reflections this week when he looked upon the circus and remembered how it used to be in the stadium which responded so joyously to the work of himself and his team-mates. He might also have wondered at the meaning of some of the words of Ronaldo he read in his morning newspaper, not least the declaration: "When I was a child I said, 'I want to be famous one day'. Now I'm famous I say what a weight this is, but it's been like this for years and I've accepted it. I am happy with myself, and that's why I will not change a thing."

When Di Stefano was a boy in a poor district of Buenos Aires he dropped from a bridge on to a moving train that would take him past the Boca Stadium, where he jumped the gate to see his heroes play.

That was the spur of the old man with the walking stick who this week speculated, along with quite a few others, to what extent the club to which he had brought so much honour had gone mad. Meanwhile, the club had someone sing "Nessun Dorma", which ends with the words, "Set the Stars! Set the Stars! I will win! I will win! I will win!"

Yes, of course, Real, we heard you the first time.

Comments