South­gate does his bit to re­mind us foot­ball is a team game in preen­ing era of Ron­aldo

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - AN­DREW AN­THONY

LAST Mon­day the Best FIFA Foot­ball Awards were held in Lon­don — lead­ing one to ask when can one ex­pect the Worst Fifa Foot­ball Awards, fea­tur­ing YouTube videos of missed sit­ters and the­atri­cal sim­u­la­tion. All the leg­ends were there: Diego Maradona, Ron­aldo (the Brazil­ian one), Phillip Schofield. It was the “big­gest night on planet foot­ball”, as the Sky pre­sen­ter said, full of “ex­cite­ment, glam­our and gos­sip”, mak­ing it sound as though it were an overblown gath­er­ing of prima don­nas on the red, sorry green, car­pet. Which, on re­flec­tion, is an un­err­ingly pre­cise sum­mary of the oc­ca­sion.

The big event of the evening was the Best FIFA Men’s Player award, which was pre­vi­ously the FIFA Bal­lon D’Or and be­fore that the FIFA World Player of the Year and may next year, for all we know, be called the FIFA Sepp Blat­ter Me­mo­rial Self Ag­gran­dis­e­ment Award.

Any­way the short­list was per­fectly blame­less. It fea­tured the three play­ers gen­er­ally recog­nised to be the best in the world: Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, Lionel Messi and Ney­mar. To no one’s sur­prise Ron­aldo won FIFA’s award for the fifth time, equalling his great ri­val Messi, who fin­ished sec­ond in the vote. It was prob­a­bly fair.

Af­ter­wards it emerged that Eng­land man­ager Gareth South­gate did not in­clude Messi in his top three. There is no ac­count­ing for sub­jec­tive opinion. But still, Messi not in the top three! What was he think­ing? Was it that ar­guably the world’s great­est ever player was not re­ally do­ing it for him any more? Or did he feel the 54 goals he scored and the 16 as­sists he made were a case of could have done bet­ter?

Only the man whose foot­balling ex­per­tise has guided Eng­land past the mighty Malta and the lofty Lithua­nia can an­swer those ques­tions. Per­haps in pick­ing Luca Mo­dric and Toni Kroos ahead of Messi, South­gate was mak­ing the point that foot­ball is a team game. Mo­dric and Kroos are Ron­aldo’s Real Madrid team-mates. They play in mid­field and cre­ate the op­por­tu­ni­ties that Ron­aldo so fre­quently turns into goals. Even a player of Ron­aldo’s tal­ents is de­pen­dent on oth­ers.

If that was South­gate’s in­ten­tion it is a sub­tle ar­gu­ment that does not quite trans­mit in the crude win­ner-takes-all com­pe­ti­tion of in­di­vid­ual awards — so sub­tle, in fact, that one can be sure it would be lost on Ron­aldo, a man of such trans­port­ing nar­cis­sism that he seems to pro­duce chil­dren as van­ity projects.

For Ron­aldo is not a nat­u­ral team player. One can see that in his ges­tures and re­ac­tions when a team-mate fails to pass to him or misses a shot at goal. He is a pan­tomime of ex­as­per­a­tion, arms thrown up in the air, his face a por­trait of dis­dain, as though a bum­bling as­sis­tant had just de­stroyed a great artist’s mas­ter­work.

As well as sport­ing per­for­mance, the award is sup­posed to recog­nise the gen­eral con­duct of the player on and off the pitch. Leav­ing aside his melo­dra­matic re­sponse to hu­man fail­ing, the ques­tion to ask about Ron­aldo is whether he brings out the best in his team-mates.

South­gate chose Mo­dric and Kroos, two play­ers who help make Ron­aldo look as good as he can be. But what of his fel­low for­wards, Gareth Bale and Karim Ben­zema? Have they flour­ished along­side him or do they of­ten ap­pear di­min­ished by his preen­ing an­tics, un­der­mined by his de­mand­ing pres­ence? Do they shrink in the shadow of the great man?

Con­trast the way Luis Suárez and Ney­mar ex­celled along­side Messi at Barcelona. No one doubted that Messi was the most tal­ented of the three but they at­tacked as a unit and shared the glory and the plau­dits.

It’s hard to make a case for col­lec­tivism, much less egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, in a sport where astro­nom­i­cal sums are paid to the best. For all their claims about be­ing ‘more than a club’, Barcelona are not shy about buy­ing their way to suc­cess. But at least Messi has the hu­mil­ity to present a sense of all-for-one, one-for-all ca­ma­raderie, even if the team is built around him.

With Ron­aldo, only one side of that equa­tion seems to op­er­ate. It is all for one, all for him. He has to be the lone star, the mar­quee name with a sup­port­ing cast way down in the be­low the-ti­tle cred­its. That is not to say he is any­thing less than supremely gifted and re­lent­lessly mo­ti­vated. And for these qual­i­ties he is justly cel­e­brated. But he has a blind spot and it en­com­passes the rest of the world.

It was al­most touch­ing to see how pleased Ron­aldo was to be given the Best FIFA Men’s Player award. After a cur­sory men­tion of his team-mates he noted he had won in con­sec­u­tive years and that he had “fans all over the world”. He was right on both counts. Or at least he was fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate. But he was tonally all wrong at the podium, just as he is tem­per­a­men­tally un­ap­peal­ing on the pitch. The night, as far as he was con­cerned, was all about him.

I won­der what Mo­dric and Kroos made of it. Per­haps they are suf­fi­ciently grounded to know that life on planet foot­ball tends to favour ego­ma­ni­acs. Or maybe they were just pleased to get into South­gate’s top three.

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