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Cristiano by a Mile
by Paul Gardner, December 4th, 2008 7AM

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We now know that Cristiano Ronaldo is the best soccer player in the world. The annual poll conducted by the esteemed French magazine France Football gave him victory by an almost insultingly large number of points -- 446 to 281 -- over his nearest challenger, Lionel Messi.

I don't have a problem with any of that, I love to watch Ronaldo play, I revel in his marvelous skills -- and, since you ask, I don't give a damn about his so-called penchant for diving, though the fouling and crude tackling that he has to put up with does concern me. He's a player, a real soccer player who can light up a game with his electric talent. I can't believe that any other player can match the marvelous season that he had last year with Manchester United.

This award used to be limited to the best player in Europe, but such is the overwhelming dominance of European money on the soccer industry, that it's now been enlarged to include the whole world. Which makes no difference -- it is inconceivable that the best player in the world would be playing anywhere other than in Europe.

Having come up with a strangely reductive definition of the word "world," I can now puzzle over the word "best." You can be quite sure that all the people who voted for Ronaldo did not do so for the same reason. One man's best is another man's mediocre. Ronaldo the best dribbler? Possibly, but for plenty of people the mere idea of dribbling is abhorrent, so that would be a negative for them. And so on. But the one thing that the huge majority of points does show is that Ronaldo's various talents evidently spread themselves wide enough to convince almost all opinions that this is one hell of a player.

If that isn't convincing enough for you, bear in mind that Ronaldo has also won the FIFPro World Player of the Year trophy this year, plus the two most important "best player" awards in England -- that presented by his fellow pros of the Professional Footballers Association, and the Football Writers award.

All that -- and Ronaldo is only 23. Just two years ago he was in line to win the Best Young Player award at the 2006 World Cup. It came down to a straight fight between him and Germany's Lukas Podolski. In a decision that didn't look too good at the time, and looks considerably worse now, the judges decided in favor of Podolski. Things were not made any better by the fact that this German-organized tournament was about to end with Germany having won nothing -- until Holger Osieck, the German chairman of FIFA's Technical Study Group, announced to a press conference that Podolski had won the trophy. Sitting alongside Osieck on the dais was another German Lothar Matthaeus, who was described as "patron" of the award. Trying to explain the highly questionable decision, Matthaeus referred, obliquely, to Ronaldo's behavior: "I admit we were critical of this. We had a number of criteria, but we have to admit players of that age do have their weaknesses and are not fully developed." But Podolski got the nod anyway -- he was the "best."

The subsequent careers of the two players merely underline that a colossal error was made -- an error evidently based on values other than those of soccer skills.

None of this, of course, reflects badly on Podolski, but the episode does dramatically highlight the distortions that can creep into awards where it ought to be only the soccer skills that register. This is particularly true with the modern tendency to allow fans to vote on line. In 2003 the MLS Goal of the Year award should surely have gone to the MetroStars' John Wolyniec for a truly extraordinary goal - but concerted voting by Chicago Fire fans steered it instead to Damani Ralph for a much less remarkable goal.

Maybe none of this matters. There are now so many awards that they have obviously been devalued. Trophies come and trophies go, it seems. For the first 12 years of MLS existence the champion team has hoisted the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy -- named to commemorate the man who was seen as the true creator of the league. But you can now officially forget Alan Rothenberg. This year we have a new piece of silverware -- the Philip F. Anschutz trophy -- named for the man who single-handedly prevented the league from going under in its mid-life crisis years. There will be another Rothenberg trophy, we are told, for being best at something else in MLS.

Not winning the young player award in 2006 has clearly not harmed Ronaldo, while winning it has not been of much help to Podolski. I mentioned above the difficulty of defining the crucial words "best" and "world." The quandary involves a lovely paradox -- best revealed in a gentle joke: A New York tailor puts up a notice in his window: "Best Tailor in New York." His rival, right opposite him, responds with a bigger notice "Best Tailor in the United States." A third tailor just down the street caps them both with an even bigger notice reading "Best Tailor In The World." In the middle of this trio of fiercely competing shops, a fourth tailor puts up a small notice that says "Best Tailor In This Street."

 



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