Jim White

No disputing who is number one

Jim White

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Cristiano Ronaldo has just achieved something that no
Manchester United player has done since George Best, 40 years ago: he has been
voted European Player of the Year.

Across four decades, it is a recognition not even
competitors of the scale of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane or David
Beckham were accorded. And, like Best before him, there is no doubt that Ronaldo
was the number one choice.

Of the 96 judges polled across Europe,
77 placed Ronaldo top of their shortlist. Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres
trailed in second and third place like the other medal winners in the Olympic
100 metres behind Usain Bolt. The player was that far out in front.

There is no doubt about it, Ronaldo was the man of last
season. Next time he responds to taunts from opposition fans by raising his
index finger he will have the evidence to support his claim: now he is not the
only person to reckon him the best.

And so, as he takes the trophy once held by the great
Irishman, the comparison with Best becomes ever more pertinent. Best was
United's finest ever talent. Now Ronaldo is beginning to match him. Perhaps,
some suggest, even overtake him.

Physically they are very different: Best was all poise and
balance, exuding the grace of a ballet dancer. Ronaldo is big, muscular, built
like a rugby second row, with the explosive pace of a sprinter. And Ronaldo is
a year older than the Irishman was when he picked up the award.

But on the pitch, their achievements are running almost in
parallel. Last season was Ronaldo's annus mirabilis. Like Best in 68, he was
master of all he surveyed, winning the European Cup with a goal of sumptuous
quality, belying with his performances throughout the competition the claim
that he never turns it on in big matches.

Like Best in 68, through the season he scored seemingly at
will, breaking his predecessor's record for goals scored by a United winger. Like
Best, he mesmerised opponents, his sheer presence setting problems for defences
that most failed to solve.

Just like Best, never mind his skill driving spectators to
the edge of their seats, at times observers were left doubting their own eyes:
did he really make the ball wobble that ferociously for that free-kick against Portsmouth? Is it

And like Best, his enormous natural talent has been honed by
practice. While as a youngster, Best used to push himself physically and
mentally, forcing himself to become two-footed, improving his heading by
suspending a tennis ball at ever more improbable heights from a door frame, so
Ronaldo does not approach a free kick without hours of preparation. Every shot
on goal is the result of tireless planning.

And like Best, since he too can almost win a game on his
own, Ronaldo is a target for opponents who make the not entirely unjustified
assumption that by stopping him, they can stop United. Where Ronaldo is lucky
is that he is protected by the rules in a manner Bestie never was.

Back in his heyday, Best was assaulted every single match in
a manner that would probably get questions asked in parliament were it to happen
today. Once, the Sunday Times printed a full-length photograph of him taken
immediately after a game at Old Trafford. His legs were purple with bruising,
his thighs and hips covered with stud marks, even his shoulders bore the
evidence of grievous bodily harm.

Ronaldo is generally subject to close attention from rivals,
but it is never as violent as that which Bestie was obliged to face; the rules
no longer allow it. One thing we can speculate, however, is that were he placed
in similar circumstances, he shows every inclination that he would be as brave
as Best, as determined to receive the ball and inflict the only punishment
appropriate: the scoring of goals.

Despite the closeness of their achievements, however, the
two men are not entirely as one. Best was quick-tempered, responding to
provocation. But he never went to ground unless under sustained attack. And
although not yet evident in 68, Best was plagued by a self-destructive streak
that ultimately destroyed him, turning him from the continent's top footballer
into a man in thrall to his demons barely four years later.

Ronaldo, you suspect, is way too convinced the world is a
better place with him in it ever to damage himself like Best. But that streak
in Best's character meant that on the terraces and in the stands, the fans saw
something in him entirely missing from Ronaldo's make-up. Even at the peak of
his fame, there was a shy, humble vulnerability about him that made him seem
almost fragile on the pitch.

Ronaldo, in contrast, exudes an arrogant certainty. It means
that while Best was loved - and later, long after the awards had been put away,
endlessly forgiven for his many failings - for all his bravura Ronaldo is
rarely more than admired. That is where the real difference lies.

See what former United defender Paul Parker thinks of Ronaldo's award by clicking here

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