Trapped on ‘Planet Cristiano Ronaldo’

Trapped on ‘Planet Cristiano Ronaldo’

They still tell a fun story at Swansea City about the subtle toughness of Roberto Martinez. Those aren’t terribly hard to find, but this tale traces to his first job in management and involved the handling of a player who had grown miffed with his circumstances.

That was Owain Tudur Jones, a Wales international frustrated about how often he was on the bench in League One. It would have been around 2008 and, in time-honoured fashion, Jones marched to Martinez’s office to deliver a speech he had rehearsed with his dog.

He was ready to demand answers to a few blunt questions and when he left, 10 minutes later, Jones was buzzing. Martinez’s message from the moment the door opened was that he could be better than Sergio Busquets and what a joy, a privilege, it was to see every day on the mud. Jones felt a foot taller when he got back to his car, only to then realise something – he had failed to give any of his grand speech and received no assurances whatsoever.

A fair amount has changed since then for Martinez – surroundings, personnel, stakes and takes. But the alchemy of sweet talking the talent remains the same at any level, because whatever else is said about systems and structures, so much of management is still about acts of pacification.

But is Martinez capable of pacifying Cristiano Ronaldo? Is there a big enough dummy in the world for the biggest ego in all of sport? And can Martinez achieve the full potential of this luminously great Portuguese team at the Euros with Ronaldo in it? I very much doubt it on all three counts, which is a point we are going to revisit.

The task is for Roberto Martinez (left) to pacify Cristiano Ronaldo and get the best out of him 

I very much doubt that he can - Ronaldo is unwilling to embrace his limitations and accept that he is not the hero anymore

I very much doubt that he can – Ronaldo is unwilling to embrace his limitations and accept that he is not the hero anymore 

What Ronaldo gives must be balanced against what he detracts from the collective effort, writes Riath Al-Samarrai

What Ronaldo gives must be balanced against what he detracts from the collective effort, writes Riath Al-Samarrai

First, let’s talk about complicated feelings, because I imagine many of us are caught in a strange place when we watch Ronaldo these days. I was there a week or so ago in Dortmund for Portugal’s game against Turkey game and it will always be a fine thing to watch him in the flesh, even now, when he is 39 and one tournament on from when we mostly agreed his bell had been rung. To see him play on today, on this stage, is magnetising, inspiring, infuriating, baffling; an experience that is a bit great and a bit ludicrous.

It can seem like we have been invited to the party of one man’s delusion and the only person not in on the secret is the fading legend we are looking at.

I would hope that doesn’t sound cruel, because actually there is a beauty in it, as there is in all elite performers who refuse to let go. I’ve written before about Andy Murray and an admiration that is deeper now that he has been shredded by his mileage than when he was performing at his peak. I will be drawn to his matches at Wimbledon for that very reason. 

By the same line of thought, I have found Tiger Woods more fascinating on one leg and playing off hunger and fear as when he was winning majors.

The greatness of these athletes, or more precisely the force of will that made them great, is often only revealed when their physical gifts have been taken away or eroded naturally.

We are seeing that with Ronaldo at this European Championship, of course. We are seeing what built him. What drove him. The depths of obsession that made him one of the very best to ever do it. Some switch off those traits more easily than others, but those who refuse tell us more about where it all came from.

We might add here that Ronaldo hasn’t had a bad tournament by any stretch. Not great, but not at all poor by any standard other than those he set. Do Portugal, with sufficient quality to win the Euros, have a better finisher in their squad? I wouldn’t say so.

But there is a different discussion to be had around whether Ronaldo should be in the side. It is different because raging against the dying of the light is admirable and beautiful when athletes are beholden only to themselves, but what Ronaldo gives from here on in needs to be balanced against what he takes from the collective.

Seeing Ronaldo play is magnetising, inspiring, infuriating, baffling, both great and ludicrous

Seeing Ronaldo play is magnetising, inspiring, infuriating, baffling, both great and ludicrous

His performances have touched on desperation with a litany of countless shots from distance

His performances have touched on desperation with a litany of countless shots from distance 

Martinez is talented at sweet talking but will be tested to the limit to traverse this late stage of Ronaldo's career

Martinez is talented at sweet talking but will be tested to the limit to traverse this late stage of Ronaldo’s career

So far, his appearances in Germany have shown a player not willing to embrace his limitations and unable to accept he is no longer equipped to be the hero. Rather than lean on his team-mates, to support and enhance the brilliance of, say, Bernardo Silva, he appears trapped in a mindset where every act must still be performed in service to himself. If there is a match to be won, he must win it, as he was once able to do so often.

We have seen that manifested in each of his performances through the group stage. It has touched on desperation and has yelled out with his countless shots on sight, irrespective of distance and angle, against the Czech Republic, Turkey and Georgia. 

It screamed louder when he berated Joao Cancelo for not giving him a better chance to score as the second went in against Turkey. When Ronaldo later assisted Bruno Fernandes for 3-0, Martinez was so surprised he described a routine, sensible pass as ‘something spectacular’ – a psychologist might call that enabling. They might say the same about the team-mates who acquiesced to Ronaldo’s request to celebrate that same goal with him and not the scorer.

That is simply the way he has been for years, as it has been for those in his orbit. If you live on Planet Ronaldo you obey the customs and respect the cultures of the land. Just ask Martinez’s predecessor.

But it is considerably more jarring now that Ronaldo is so far from being the best player on the pitch. Now that the 35-yard free-kicks against Georgia don’t go in. Now that what little enthusiasm he ever had for pressing from the front has totally gone, leaving Martinez without a defensive option that is proven to work rather well in tournament football.

He assisted Bruno Fernandes' goal against Georgia but expected players to celebrate with him

He assisted Bruno Fernandes’ goal against Georgia but expected players to celebrate with him

Ronaldo likes numbers and his numbers will stand the test of time as well as his trophies – 895 career goals is a tally of sustained excellence and wonder. But he hasn’t scored in Germany, nor has he made an interception or tackle. He has simply looked older and more frustrated in that way that happens to everyone and even the greats.

It might be time, with such glorious possibilities in his reach, for Martinez to remind everyone of his subtle toughness. He won’t find Owain Tudur Jones in front of him, but it is an opportune moment to show he is the manager, even if he might need to rehearse the conversation with a particularly terrifying breed of dog.

 

Spiky Raducanu seeking vindication

Emma Raducanu has found some form prior to Wimbledon and it is great to see. 

No one of sound mind will have taken pleasure from her difficulties, but there was something oddly spiky about a message she shared last week. 

It was after she crushed Sloane Stephens at Eastbourne and wrote ‘My own pace’ on a camera lens, which was a retort against those who have rightly queried or criticised some of her decisions in recent years. I hope she achieves vindication, but it was never going to be found in one good week in a warm-up event.

It is great to see Emma Raducanu doing well - but vindication against her critics comes at Wimbledon, not Eastbourne

It is great to see Emma Raducanu doing well – but vindication against her critics comes at Wimbledon, not Eastbourne 

 

IBF heavyweight belt is effectively meaningless now

Anthony Joshua and Daniel Dubois will compete for an IBF belt that is effectively meaningless

Anthony Joshua and Daniel Dubois will compete for an IBF belt that is effectively meaningless

It took 25 years for heavyweight boxing to crown an undisputed champion and five weeks for the sport’s brainless politics to fragment the belts again. 

With the IBF forcing Oleksandr Usyk to vacate the belt, Anthony Joshua and Daniel Dubois will fight for a prize that has effectively been declared meaningless.

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