Ronaldo takes aim at teammates
MADRID — Cristiano Ronaldo accepted the invitation to talk, let the microphones crowd around him and spoke very deliberately. There were “facts”, he stressed, “that needed to be said”. Names were named, including his own. Ronaldo referred to himself in the third person once he turned hostile towards a media he supposed were undervaluing him.
He addressed reporters for just over six minutes on his way out of Real Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by Atlético Madrid, a setback, he acknowledged, that means the La Liga title is “practically lost,” with second-placed Atlético four points ahead of Real, and Barcelona an even wider stride in front of Atlético.
His half-dozen minutes were pregnant with frustration, and explicit doubts about the capacity of several of his colleagues to perform at the standard required to chase major prizes.
“If everybody was at my level, we’d be top,” said Ronaldo, checking himself with a quiet “perhaps” at the end of that startling declaration.
“Whoah!” exclaimed one of his questioners. Ronaldo was in deep now, his words ripe for taking as evidence of a preening egomania his compatriots in the Portugal national squad have witnessed regularly over a decade but which, in his six years at Real, has seldom been articulated so brazenly.
He had already listed team-mates, comparing them unfavourably with the quartet of colleagues who, he said, he prefers to see orbiting around Real’s brightest star. “I’m not going to lie,” Ronaldo said, “I like Karim (Benzema), and when Karim’s not there, it’s harder.
When (Gareth) Bale, Marcelo and Pepe are not there, it’s harder.” The latter three missed the derby with fitness problems and Benzema withdrew injured at halftime, with the game still goalless.
A trio of players recently elevated from the youth team had been used by Real’s novice head coach Zinedine Zidane as substitutes. Ronaldo name-checked two — Jesé and Lucas Vázquez — and Mateo Kovacic, the 22-year-old signed from Inter Milan for almost €30 million in the summer. “I don’t mean Jesé or Lucas or Kovacic are not good players, they’re very good, but... well.”
When it was put to him that Real have an expensive and deep enough squad to manage three or four absences, Ronaldo answered: “That’s your point of view. I have my point of view. I repeat: when the team plays without its best players, it is hard to win a long competition.”
Ronaldo, who tends to be frugal with his public utterances when there is no commercial impetus, has been unusually garrulous lately. He performed media duties for Real ahead of the first leg of the Champions League tie at Roma a fortnight ago. That was no study in self-deprecation, either. He marched out of the press conference after answering a question — Why had he not scored an away goal for two and half months? — with a question: “Show me a player who has scored more away goals than me since I have been in Spain?” He had a point: there are none. Ronaldo had further points to make about Ronaldo on Saturday. “The press say, ‘Cris is having a bad season’. It annoys me. Look at the statistics. The statistics never lie. I can’t see anybody close to me in the Champions League.”
In that competition where, according to Ronaldo, Real now feel “more enthusiasm” given their domestic shortfalls, his statistics are these: his goal in the 2-0 win at Roma was his 12th in seven games. But here is a stat within those stats: half those goals were scored across two maulings of Malmo, whom Real put 10 past without reply.
CR7 has had a tricky 2016. The Ballon d’or is no longer his, as of last month; last weekend, he had a penalty saved at Málaga, costing Real league points.
He trails Barcelona’s Luis Suárez in the chase to be La Liga’s top marksman. Unusually for him, he has fewer goals than league appearances.
He turned 31 three weeks ago, a career threshold where the number of future contracts start to look finite.
Euro 2016 in France this summer may mark the last major international tournament in which he plays at the peak of his physical powers; France, and Paris StGermain, looks like the likeliest place he could extend his career on the terms he is used to at an elite club, if he were to leave Real in the next 18 months.
His comments after the loss to an efficient Atlético were resonating even as he revved up his engine to go home. He had barely driven out of the gates of the Bernabéu past a thicket of peeved madridistas, some of them jeering players as ‘ mercenaries’, when various Spanish media were contacted on his behalf to backtrack, to be put straight on what he really meant by his earlier statements: simply that injuries had affected the team, that no criticism of any colleague had been intended.
The likes of Lucas and Jesé will have to weather being told they are not as sophisticated at creating the kind of space Marcelo, Benzema or Bale open up for Ronaldo to thrive in.
But Zidane, whose status as a popular, if inexperienced, head coach suffered with his first home defeat, would be entitled to wonder if his leading player is now telling him who to pick.
Pepe, cited by Ronaldo as one of the worthy, is far from guaranteed a start, once fit, given his central defensive position is occupied by Raphaël Varane, whom Zidane helped bring to Real, and captain Sergio Ramos.
Likewise, club president Florentino Pérez will be forgiven, after a day when sections of the crowd chanted for him to resign, for wondering if Ronaldo, his bestpaid player, is sneering at his recruitment.
James Rodríguez, who played in Bale’s position against Atlético, cost €80 million; Danilo, deputising at full-back for Marcelo, cost over €30 million.
And when Pérez hears the most powerful man in the dressing-room suggesting only a side with 11 Ronaldos would come top of a league Real have won once in eight years, it must sound chastening, as well as immodest.