Friday, November 13, 2009
Ronaldo absence good for Portugal progress
Finally, the Cristiano Ronaldo injury saga is over. On Tuesday at 6pm Ronaldo re-boarded Florentino Perez' private jet for Madrid, after spending just two hours and 26 minutes in Lisbon in the company of Portugal's medical team. It was an anti-climatic end to a tortuous tale that's rumbled on for more than a month, but it's no less a welcome end for its sudden denouement.
Ever since a hefty challenge from Marseille's Soulemayne Diawara all but deposited the world's most expensive player into the first few rows of the Fondo Sur at the Bernabéu in late September, Ronaldo has been out of Manuel Pellegrini's side and the ultimate club versus country row has been brewing. If Diawara's tackle (for which he expressed the sort of remorse usually reserved for bludgeoning Bambi in cold blood) laid the foundations, then the ground floor of the dispute was bricked up, wired and carpeted by Ronaldo's appearance in the World Cup qualifier against Hungary on October 10.
Clearly unfit, he lasted all of 27 minutes before being replaced by erstwhile Manchester United team-mate Nani. It was an avoidable disaster that would have made Sir Alex Ferguson's head redden and boil to the point of bursting had the £80 million man still been on the books at Old Trafford.
Real Madrid's sporting director Jorge Valdano wasn't exactly turning cartwheels either. He had warned against Ronaldo going out to join Portugal, but would have taken no pleasure at being vindicated so comprehensively. When Carlos Queiroz - not exactly Mr Popular on the Avenida Concha Espina since presiding over the implosion of the galácticos mark one - called up Ronaldo into the squad for the play-off matches with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Valdano was understandably piqued at the prospect of his star attraction relapsing again.
One must feel sorry for the player himself in the midst of all this, but it was always going to be thus, even if Real Madrid's arrogance had prevented them from seeing it. The Portuguese love it that (arguably) the world's greatest player is one of their own, and the feeling is entirely mutual. His pride in playing for his country has not been dimmed by the riches gained by his exploits at club level, and Real should have known that.
Ronaldo is not a callow 20-year-old who can be pressured to fake an injury in order to stay fit for next Saturday, and the double-header against Bosnia is no meaningless friendly, but an all-out battle for a prized World Cup place. His injury didn't dull his desperation to be part of it, with his spirits lifted by an encouraging, if insufficient, few days of training at the Valdebebas training centre.
Fortunately, Portugal's medical staff quickly sussed the nascent nature of Ronaldo's recovery and sent him back to Spain to recuperate - an early decision good, not just for him, but for the team. They will miss him of course, but they can finally get on with preparing for a difficult tie without media frenzy, doubt over their own places and the team's shape. Keeping open Ronaldo's chances of playing even a peripheral role might have given Miroslav Blazevic's Bosnia something to think about, but it would have also increased national pressure on Queiroz to use him.
Besides, Portugal got on just fine without their star for the last two play-off matches, both home wins, against Hungary and Malta. Simão flourished in a more central role, scoring three times over the two games, Liedson continued his fine start in international football and the often-underwhelming Nani excelled. Deco's Chelsea form (reprising his excellent Euro 2008 which got him his club move) has given him the confidence to be the side's schemer-in-chief again.
Though perhaps not notable for the quality of opposition vanquished, these victories were significant in being the first two that Portugal had managed at home in the qualifying campaign, more than a year after it had begun. This stat alone tells us much about the failure of both tactics and personnel up to this point.
Queiroz' reputation may have been significantly augmented by Manchester United's 2008 Champions League win, but it was largely demolished in his homeland in a few short months, which saw Portugal snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Denmark in Lisbon, before failing to so much as find a way to goal versus Albania. Seeing a man previously lauded as a tactical mastermind fly into the panic which led him to play four up front for the last 30 minutes against the Albanians, and create less than they had in the previous 60, was enough to convince many that Queiroz was completely unsuited to the role of head coach.
Keen observers of Portuguese football will know that this is slightly unfair on Queiroz. He has made mistakes, but is really paying the price for the failure of the next crop - the likes of Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho and Nani - to develop at the rate necessary to replace the previous 'Golden Generation' of Figo, Rui Costa and João Vieira Pinto.
The rot began in the reign of Luiz Felipe Scolari, with the lack of depth exposed in defeat to Switzerland in the Euro 2008 dead rubber. Scolari's team had struggled to clinch a place in the tournament from a group containing the likes of Poland and Finland. A tense goalless draw against the Finns in Porto finally saw Portugal through but attracted media criticism, leading to Scolari's infamous, and much-lampooned, post-match outburst ("I'm a donkey! Is that what you want me to say?") and press conference walkout. The Brazilian was frequently frustrated by the limited talent pool in a nation of 11 million, being used to that of his homeland (190 million people and counting).
If Portugal do overcome this talented Bosnia side, with their attacking talent to burn and nothing to lose, making an impression in South Africa will require steep continuation of the progress made in recent months. And the problem of assimilating the irresistible, and versatile, talent of Cristiano Ronaldo will raise its head again.