As we prepare for the 14th edition of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, The Footy Pie has gone on a mission to collect snippets from some of the best profiles, reports and tidbits about the tournament. In the week preceding opening night on June 8, we will post three snippets per day from journalists, players and coaches. Free from the shadows of Lionel Messi, can Cristiano Ronaldo finally steal the spotlight? Anthony Lopopolo thinks so.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Such is the intensity between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two stalwarts on La Liga’s annual scoring charts, that the actual results of the league in which they play become secondary to the fireworks of their individual rivalry. They matched each other, stride for stride, goal for goal, record for record, throughout the entire 2011-12 season. At times, Ronaldo defers his greatness, tips his hat to Messi; more recently, he jokingly put himself ahead of his 24-year-old counterpart.
But the debate between the two’s vices and virtues has not so much pushed the game to evolve; rather, it has left the game behind. Their statistics speak louder than they do, louder than their clubs’ standings, results and financial debt. Figures and facts, not style and words. Indirectly, they engaged in a numerical tug-of-war. Ronaldo broke the La Liga scoring record, which he had set just a year ago; Messi ensued. Back and forth, they scored. Ronaldo finished with 46; Messi with 50. Ronaldo became the quickest player in Spanish League history to score 100 goals; Messi became Barcelona’s leading scorer of goals.
For once, they are separated. Ronaldo is participating in a competition in which Messi has no say. The 2012 European Championships provide a rare chance for Ronaldo to steer clear of his weekly arms race with Messi.
There’s much to do for Portugal. In a team that had previously been split, busted and negative, new coach Paul Bento has restored a sense of levity. The Portuguese camp was restricted and cramped within the stiff grasp of former manager Carlos Queiroz, who followed up a Round of 16 exit in the 2010 World Cup with a couple of bans — one from FIFA, one from the Portuguese Football Federation. Queiroz forced his Portugal to play conservative football. He asked Ronaldo to step out of his favoured position as a winger and play as a centre forward. He got on the nerves of his players, like someone overstaying their welcome. A loss to Norway in Euro qualifying made way for Bento, a benevolent leader and the youngest coach at the competition with little experience — and, finally, someone with the guts to take charge and command respect.
The players responded to the changeover of reins in 2010 with eight wins in Bento’s first 10 games. On the blueprint of the former Sporting Lisbon manager, too, was the construction of a formidable friendship with Ronaldo, who has since vocally supported his coach in the truest and most opportune of ways: in the heart of a potentially mutinous controversy. When Bento sidelined Ricardo Carvalho, he of 75 appearances with Portugal and a teammate of Ronaldo at Real Madrid, in favour of Pepe and Bruno Alves in the heart of defence, the 34-year-old threw a fit, decried the new coach as a mercenary, and, in the face of all this trouble, Ronaldo calmed the storm. “Nobody has a guaranteed place,” he told reporters. “It is the coach who decides and we are all behind him.”
The mutiny is no more. Now, they have only their mentality to worry about. Portugal has only won once in their last six games, albeit an important 6-2 rout of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a Euro playoff match. Portugal fell 3-1 at home to Turkey on Saturday after a flurry of chances — and one penalty from Ronaldo — went unconverted. Without a true centre forward, their ability to score against top opposition — they are, after all, in the supposed Group of Death with the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark — will be tested. On this point, Ronaldo will have the biggest responsibility of his career.
From FourFourTwo magazine: “With the huge responsibility of being both creator and goal scorer, Ronaldo simply must be on form in order for Portugal to progress from their Group of Death. Hopefully there will be a little less winking and a little more delicate dinking from Europe’s best player.”
So badly, he wants Portugal to succeed. Sometimes, he overreaches. After Greece broke Portuguese hearts in 2004, he broke down and cried, recalls Duncan White in The Telegraph. But he is exponentially important to the Portugal equation — he scored in seven of eight games in qualifying. It is a tricky formula to perfect, one that has chemically combusted in the faces of his countrymen time and again. For once, he will not have to worry about Messi. But the greater enemy may be himself.
Franck Ribéry, France
Over the past three years, he’s been accused as one of the biggest floppers in the game and a cheat. Franck Ribéry was branded a mutinous leader of France’s discombobulated World Cup campaign, which resulted in a swift exit, the firing of coach Raymond Domenech, and a three-game suspension to Ribéry in the aftermath of Nicolas Anelka’s expulsion from the roster in South Africa in 2010. Ribéry, too, along with teammates, reportedly slept with an underage prostitute that same year.
When Laurent Blanc assumed the coaching responsibilities, he swiftly dropped the entire 23-man roster from the World Cup and, though he lost his first game in charge to Norway, he set a stern warning to players like Ribéry, who had fallen out of the favour of the French public and caused a whirlwind of controversy that besmirched the French Football Federation and all the hard work Les Bleus had done to become a European juggernaut at the end of the 20th century.
Since emerging as a star for both France and Bayern Munich, Ribéry has divided opinion. But that wasn’t always so. The French, two decades ago, had loved and accepted him, who “looked as ordinary as they did,” writes Simon Kuper in Soccer Men. They appreciated him, someone who had the feel, the experience and the upbringing as a poor kid living on the fringes of French society in one of the country’s northernmost corners. He was loved by every man because was an everyman, partly, it must be said, because he was white, “unlike all other French forward players to have emerged since 1998,” writes Kuper, and partly because he was a fan of the French team, not just a player. Ribéry, however, is a special component to any side, one with talents that have not gone unnoticed.
Kuper continues: “After a brief stint with Galatasaray in Turkey, he joined Olympique Marseille. There, in late 2005, the contour of today’s unique player started to emerge through the northern forg. Ribéry is a rare soccer player who can dribble the ball a few yards forward in almost any situation. He crouches over the thing, guarding it like a miser, knowing just how far he can take it before pushing a pass into a hole nobody else had seen. Bernard Lacombe, director of soccer at France’s eternal champions Olympique Lyon, and owner of one of the best pairs of eyes in the game, explains that on the pitch Ribéry does every different from everyone else.
Ribéry was the great Zinedine Zidane reborn as a small crab. But he also had something “Zizou” never had: He was a perpetual-motion machine, chopping the air with his little hands as he ran. He moved even as he received the ball, which, as Thierry Henry notes, made him ‘a nightmare for defenders.’ He dribbled like a Brazilian, passed like a Dutchman, and ran like a Brit.”
But since then, he has very much been a target of derision, a 29-year-old with a chip on his shoulder, an image to restore and a relationship with a country to rekindle. Last Sunday, Ribéry scored his first goal for France in over three years in a rather unconvincing 3-2 win over Iceland — a game in which the French trailed by two goals. His reconciliation has begun in small steps. Upon his substitution, the crowd at the Stade du Hainaut cheered and exalted in his name, giving him a warm welcome onto the pitch. He responded with a crucial goal that helped to save France from an embarrassing defeat.
He told Agence France-Presse after the match: “It was becoming difficult to have to justify myself, people were asking questions. There comes a time when you begin to ask yourself what you should do. It’s been a long time since my name has rung out in a French stadium. I hope that this is the trigger. When the public calls out my name, that gives me even more confidence to try things, to score, to dribble. These are things that I’d lost. I’m loved at Bayern.”
He has an armoury of things to try. But Ribéry had been lost himself, spiritually and personally. There’s no doubt about his club performances; with Bayern, he scored 17 goals and provided 15 assists in all competitions this season. At the European Championships, he will have three games in a tough group with Sweden, England and Ukraine to make up for lost time, to recapture the essence of the teenager who endeared himself to the public with such fervor before and after he made his international debut in 2006. He struggled to find his way into French football, playing for meagre monthly wages and driving overnight to feature in lower-tier matches. Now he’s trying to find his way back into the hearts of his countrymen. “I’ve had difficult moments,” Ribéry admits to Kuper in Soccer Men. The past few years have no doubt been the toughest of them all.
Andrea Pirlo, Italy
He left AC Milan a reject, one apparently oft-injured and a player whose unorthodox deep-lying play had been phased out of the modern game. But Andrea Pirlo roared back with Juventus. He, along with the Bianconeri, who won Serie A for the first time since the infamous Calciopoli scandal in 2006, enjoyed a year of rejuvenation. He turned his opponents into spectators once again. Several times this season, Pirlo passed the ball with surgical precision — enough to be Serie A’s top playmaker and tied sixth among Europe’s best with 13 assists, also a personal best. In that peculiar fashion of his, you could see the 33-year-old line up a through ball like a pool shark, jerk back and fade away as the ball landed on his striker’s foot, like he did years ago.
Pirlo could once again be Italy’s unassuming talent, one whose brilliance is so often cloaked and under the radar. A couple of years ago, as Italy crashed out of the World Cup, a late injury that ruled Pirlo out of the majority of their miserable campaign put the Azzurri in a dubious position, as if shorthanded, down to 10 men, before the tournament started. Already on Friday, even in an extremely disappointing 3-0 loss to Russia in which the Italians failed to properly handle an assembly line of golden chances, Pirlo was the brightest in Italy’s starting constellation of 11. Thirty yards away, he targeted Balotelli, lobbed the ball to his foot as if mailed to the striker, but the Russian keeper parried the subsequent shot away. Pirlo did it over and over again, an act that never gets tiring or easy to solve.
Italy have not lost three consecutive games since February 1986, according to stats compiled by Opta Sports. But they have now. They have not scored a goal in 300 minutes of play. A sweeping scandal involving 22 professional teams has prevented one potential starter, left-back Domenico Criscito, from playing in the European Championships. Like a village ravaged by a storm, there is much more than the image of Italian football to rebuild. In June, Italy will be playing for its pride and respect as much as a place in the quarter- or semi-finals. Gianluigi Buffon may be the captain, but Pirlo is still one of the sole functional cogs in a system that has malfunctioned and gone under repairs since his senior debut 10 years ago.
From ESPNFC: “Any biography of Pirlo, perhaps the greatest playmaker of the 2000s, is bound to have more words dedicated to the things he’s won — everything but the Euro — than to his personality and what makes him tick. Pirlo is an inconspicuous man in all arenas of life but the field. There, he is nicknamed l’architecto and il metronomo for his capacity to orchestrate the offense and set the pace of a game.
“Sitting very deep in the midfield, where he can collect the ball from his defenders, Pirlo’s long balls and set pieces are without equal. In Poland and Ukraine, as ever, Italy’s forwards will only be as strong as the service Pirlo provides them, which propelled the team to the 2006 World Cup, for starters.”
He is the safest bet in football. And Italy will need to put all their money on him if they want a second chance at a year so far marred by scandal and controversy.
Anthony Lopopolo is an Italian-Canadian freelance sportswriter and an unabashed apologist for all things Serie A. He has written for such publications as The National newspaper and the National Post, and has also appeared on Canadian national radio to talk footy. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.
|Part 1: Trapattoni, Schweinsteiger, Xavi|Part 2: Ronaldo, Ribéry Pirlo|Part 3: Parker, Huntelaar, Shirokov|Part 4: Ibrahimović, Modrić, Čech|Part 5: Shevchenko, Szczęsny, Eriksen, Papadopoulos, Predictions|