Peter Bills: On the trail of Real and Ronaldo

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The Independent Football

It's 20 minutes shy of the midnight hour and I'm perched on a tubular railing on top of a small wall.

There are, as Tiger Woods would doubtless testify, more comfortable places to be at this hour of the night. It's draughty and decidedly cool on a December evening, but the view from my perch beneath the main stand at Marseille Football Club's Velodrome Stadium, is the best to see a circus unfolding below.



It isn't a circus with animals, just humans. All human life is here and segregation with it. We're in what sporting organisations euphemistically call 'The Mixed Zone' and what in reality is a scrum. Not a rugby scrum but one of (chiefly) male human beings demonstrating their most base instincts in their search for the Valhalla, an interview or some words from the star of the show.



Sensitivities are parked at the door here. It's the sort of place where you wipe your feet when you leave.



A couple of lesser Real Madrid players pass by, and cheerfully accept an offer from the mildly interested Spanish and French media to talk. But then, through the door marked 'Exit', enters their true quarry: Cristiano Ronaldo, at £80m the world's most expensive footballer. Bedlam ensues, and Gonzalo Higuain, the Real player, takes the hint and slouches off. No point talking to thin air.



A forest of television cameras and microphones are thrust in Ronaldo's direction. Segregation flourishes under UEFA's charge: TV rights holders are best placed to get first shot at the departing players, TV non-rights holders second. In a doubtful third place are 'Radio'. In fourth, a clear after thought, await representatives of 'The Written Press'.



Me? I was born to break rules. So I transfer myself, not for £80m quid admittedly, but at the small cost of treading on copious toes as I instantly become a TV rights holder. But even this is useless: 15 deep, you can neither see the great man nor hear his words. So I clamber up the wall. Ah, the best view in the draughty corridor.



He looks like the Brylcreem Boy: black hair slicked back, a casual grey sweater and shirt beneath, his only concession to the cool night. A big, sparkly, dark blue stud covers the lobe of each ear of this fresh-faced, intensely fit young man.



He surveys the circus. Youths with nothing to do with the media have infiltrated amid the chaos, thrusting forward their mobile phones in a desperate bid to record some of the interview. As he talks, Ronaldo's eyebrows rise and fall with his facial expressions, like the tormented defenders who have spent the evening trying, in vain, to control him. Two phenomenal goals plus a header that hit a post tell of their failure.



In this strange sporting world, lesser mortals know their place. Take Manuel Pellegrini, Real's coach. A dead ringer for James Coburn in 'The Magnificent Seven', he is tall, angular and would look more at home on a film set as the quiet, deadly gunslinger. Beneath heavy eyebrows and a thick head of hair, much of it greying, his eyes are sunk deep into their sockets. He wears the expression of the gunfighter, calmly resigned to his eventual fate.



For the cruel fact is, if Ronaldo fails at Real, Pellegrini is toast. Even tonight, when his star player has dazzled, Pellegrini is the shoe-shiner to the swaggering star. As Ronaldo talks to his audience, Pellegrini conducts a series of interviews with Spanish radio stations, courtesy of mobile phones. Even his demeanour is that of the servant before the master.



And a master he is. Like all the great artists Spain ever knew who worked in their land, from El Greco to Goya to Hemingway, Ronaldo brushes his own canvas with genius. He needed precisely 4 minutes 54 seconds to underline the point at Marseille this week in the Champions League tie. A whipped, wickedly dipping free kick flew into the top corner of the Marseille net like an arrow. Later, he emphasised another quality: durability.



Chasing a long ball, he collided with a defender and the on-rushing goalkeeper. All three went flying but one was up in a trice. Ronaldo leapt to his feet, spun around and from a difficult angle outside the Marseille penalty area, squeezed a shot into the empty net. Game over. Earlier, he had ghosted into space to head against a post and then sent another free kick full of deceit at a tormented goalkeeper who just managed to get a fist to it as it swerved at him.



Ronaldo at Real proves the old point; in life, you get what you pay for. Others have talent to offer but here is the heartbeat of the Real side. He is the one who holds their ambitions in his palm.



And to be fair, the boy understands the rules of his world. He dutifully talks to every category of media, and then signs some autographs before being whisked away.



Real's costly cargo departs just after midnight, a police escort with sirens screaming despite the late hour, taking them directly to Marseille airport, for a 1a.m. private flight back to Madrid. They land just before 3 a.m., are driven to the training ground to collect their cars and make it to their homes between 4 and 4.30 in the morning.



Long, long before that, the heavy bags under Pellegrini's eyes have darkened still further. But the boy who is really a king, looks fresh-faced to the end of this special night.

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