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Football's top fashionista

Decoding CR7

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LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE: Cristiano Ronaldo's evolution as a fearsome footballer is triggered by an ambition to be the best ever. There's no two ways to his philosophy

The world sits at his feet. Why then hasn't the marvellous Cristiano Ronaldo still found what he's looking for?

As a 13-year old, he hurled a chair at his teacher in school. No wonder his school-going days weren't prolonged after that. Cristiano Ronaldo is not the product of any school or thought or philosophy. He is the expression of instinct, impulse and extreme emotion that more often than not gets the better of him.

Against Manchester United at his once-favourite haunt, Old Trafford, the other night, the petulant boy from a tiny island named Madeira showed that he has really grown up into a gentleman. After scoring against his 'godfather's team', Ronaldo's muted reaction was almost apologetic, as if he has scored an own-goal. It is on this field and under the glare of Alex Ferguson that Ronaldo's stock soared from a £13m Portuguese talent to the £80m brand named CR7.

Ronaldo, in his dazzling decade-long career, has been in the spotlight despite his team. It is one aspect that separates him from the rest easily and even from his most formidable enemy, Lionel Messi. The world is blessed to see a beautiful rivalry between the Argentine and the Portuguese once Ronaldo shifted base from Manchester to Madrid.

According to a report in the English press, dry statistics sheds light on the race to immortality. "If you look at a breakdown of how Messi has reached 300 goals, the first 80 came in 161 games. In the 204 matches he has played since Ronaldo arrived at the Bernabeu, Messi has rattled in 221, as if to hammer home the point that he is the best in the world. Ronaldo, of course, would never acknowledge that nor would he say that trying to outwit Messi he has taken his game to another level - he scored 118 goals for Manchester United in 292 appearances but, for Real, his tally is 183 goals in 182 matches. " This was just before Real made short work of Barcelona in the second leg of Copa del Rey and a few days later, of Manchester United in the Champions League.

Even if Ronaldo may not be anointed as the best player on the planet as long as Messi runs with the ball tied to his laces, it is their goal tally race which will go on to define the soccer landscape for some years to come. It is so in your face, that if Ronaldo scores a hattrick on Saturday, Messi scores four the next night. However incredible it seems, it has happened. Not once but repeatedly.

The rivalry comes with a baggage of bitterness too. When the Denmark fans booed the Portuguese captain during their Euro 2012 game, chanting "Messi, Messi!", Ronaldo couldn't keep calm. His outburst became folklore. "You know where he was this time last year?" he asked after the game. "Being eliminated from the Copa America, in his own country. That is worse, no?"

Post Euro 2012, as the domestic season kicked off in Spain, Ronaldo suddenly revealed that he is "unhappy" in Real Madrid. The world went into an overdrive of speculation and rumour-mongering which affected Real's league campaign. Jose Mourinho's acumen and charisma somewhat salvaged the situation but the league, that they were supposed to defend, was lost before the winter break.

It, however, didn't bar Ronaldo from scoring and as the season nears the end, he is 42 goals on. Real are still alive in the Champions League and one match away from Copa Del Rey title.

And the reason for Real's current resurgence - which witnessed two resounding back-to-back victories against Barcelona within a week and one over Man United - is none other than Ronaldo. Real Madrid have spent millions in assembling 'galacticos' but never had their supremacy been so branded as it was in February 2013. Of course, one cannot overlook the presence of the redoubtable Mourinho, their Portuguese mentor who was hired to break the Catalan hegemony. Last season, Real denied Barcelona the Spanish domestic title which almost seemed like their birthright. It was Ronaldo's brilliance coupled with Mourinho's astute management that toppled Pep Guardiola's gifted team from the perch. So powerful was the impact of the fall that Guardiola announced his sabbatical even before the last league game was played. Ronaldo also scored the winning goal at the Camp Nou that ensured Real's grasp on the title.

The 60 goals that he scored in all competitions in the Real shirt in 2012-13 season epitomised the ultimate athlete in him. If Ferguson polished Ronaldo from an uncut stone into a sparkling diamond, then it was Mourinho who helped him blend into a rare player, a winger who explodes at the sight of three white sticks with a net at the back. He can score from almost anywhere. He generates dynamite power regardless of his striking feet. He can hang in the air like an NBA professional and still pack his headers with immense punch.

Goalkeepers feel the jitters when he latches on to the ball 35 yards away. He has added a unique style of shooting to his repertoire. He almost kicks at the ground and the ball tends to swerve and dip. Just like a missile hits the target after being given the coordinates on a computer.

Watching him, one tends to unconsciously straighten up from a lounging position the moment the ball reaches the impeccably turned out wingerstriker. The spine is taut in expectation that something is going to happen.

Obviously, the comparisons with Messi arise. Ronaldo by himself can't survive long, it seems. The Argentine, smaller in physical stature, is like an albatross that Ronaldo will carry to his grave.
Messi, being the captain of Argentina, exercised his vote in choosing the player of the year. He had to name three and strangely kept Ronaldo out of his choice. The Portuguese captain returned the compliment, but cleverly. He passed on the voting right to his national teammate Bruno Alves, who in turn, didn't name Messi in his top three.

Contests enhance the mystique and mystery of sport. It happened with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. It happened with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Despite the automobile slump in the US, it still happens with Ford and Chevrolet.

As luck would have it, Messi enjoys the best of both worlds. A graduate from La Masia, football's European equivalent to Sorbonne or Oxford, he works for the most successful club of the 21st century with colleagues he grew up with. A Charlie in the Chocolate Factory scenario, an almost fairytale mix. It has helped Messi's phenomenal talent to flourish and flatter. It doesn't belittle Messi in any way.
Ronaldo's graph moved from a nondescript soccer club in Portugal, as he caught the eye of Sporting Clube's spotters and made it to the first team before he was 18. From there, it all went northward.
Now as the season is reaching a crescendo and Real are making a statement of intent in the Champions League, one may recall Mourinho's words in 2011.

"It's hard to define Ronaldo's role in Real Madrid, " said the Portuguese, "We try to find a position that is most comfortable for Ronaldo. And there is always the debate. Is he a forward? I do not think that he is. I think (his game) is one-on-one against a rival.

"Is he a winger? No, because he is also a goalscorer and when you are a winger, how many goals do you score in a season;half a dozen? I think that he is the mixture of two things. He has everything. "
His recent visit to Old Trafford has renewed speculation about his return to Manchester. Bobby Charlton, one of United's legends, has asked for his return.

Now is Ronaldo's great chance to make a statement that he is not just a star but the moon among the stars. Already in the quarterfinals, Real are five matches away from the Champions League title. The Copa del Rey will not mean much but it will be remembered for the way Real served up a double whammy for Barcelona. Ronaldo and Mourinho made the world's best team look abject and pathetic over two matches.

Ronaldo's craving for the Player of the World title may see fruition if Real can manage to win the Champions League. Unfortunately, Portugal cannot help him. His own efforts helped them reach the semifinals of Euro 2012 where Nani messed up a sitter that ended Ronaldo's forward journey. Unlike the one he joined in 2004, this national team is not good enough to spur Ronaldo's dreams.
Maybe, Mourinho can think of it - having a shot at guiding the maroon shirts with Ronaldo still playing. It would be something to watch out for.

In his flamboyant world, CR7 rules, and rules with impunity, flair and an almost celluloid exaggeration. One half of the world - that does not include the women though - loves to hate him. But there is still the other half which drools over him.

It's time football's top fashionista set a new trend. A Champions League title, maybe?

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