Can Ronaldo ‘do a Maradona’?
It is the semi-final of an international tournament. In one corner, the favourites, low scorers but relatively comfortable in all their games. In the other corner, the underdogs, who have struggled to find their best form. The underdogs do have one major advantage – their iconic captain, a strutting maverick who can win games with a touch of genius. The maverick plays in the same league as the players who represent the favourites. He knows their strengths and he knows their weaknesses.
I’m not describing the Portugal v Spain semi-final in Euro 2012. I’m describing the Argentina v Italy semi-final at the 1990 World Cup. 22 years ago, Diego Maradona led his team to a semi-final showdown with Italy. The game took place at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, where Maradona played his club football with Napoli. Before the game, Maradona cleverly exploited Italy’s North-South divide by telling the Neapolitans that they should support him (and Argentina) as he was their ‘God’; rather than the Italians, who often sneered at Naples as the ‘pauper’ city. Maradona’s words had the effect of dividing the crowd against Italy. This was surely the greatest example of ‘mind games’ in the history of football.
More significantly, Maradona, as the star player of the Italian league, knew all the Italian players inside out, having played against them in club football. When the match arrived, Italy, who had strolled to the semi-finals, looked petrified and had their poorest game of the World Cup. Maradona had psyched them out. Argentina, hitherto unimpressive, played their best football of the tournament and held their nerve in the penalty shoot-out to reach the final, as the Italians wilted. Maradona had his victory. The Italians knew that he had beaten them.
The Maradona situation is not an exact parallel of the Cristiano Ronaldo situation but as one of the star players of the Spanish league, Ronaldo holds the key to Portugal beating Spain. In a tight, low-scoring game (which this semi-final is likely to be), Ronaldo’s explosive ability and his remarkable finishing prowess could be the difference between winning and losing. The Spanish players know this full well.
It seems the Spanish, who were once viewed as beauty, in a world of footballing beasts, are now suffering a backlash, like a band that becomes popular. Know-alls are queuing up to criticise their ‘boring’ possession football. Without wishing to sound big-headed, during the 2010 World Cup, when Spain were being venerated by all and sundry, I observed that they keep the ball well but do little constructive with it. It seems that people are finally catching up with my observation. Although in Spain’s defence, it is difficult to play against teams who put ten men behind the ball. One wonders what Michel Platini, who was a superbly gifted French attacking player in the 1980s (before he became a soulless UEFA bureaucrat), made of his country’s wretched surrender against Spain in the quarter-finals.
One of the advantages of Spain’s collective passing and pressing style is that even the best attackers that they face struggle to exert influence on the game. Ronaldo may be the spider caught in this Spanish web but as he showed, when he drove Real Madrid on to victory against Barcelona (who play a deluxe version of Spain’s football), in April 2012, he possesses the quality to make a breakthrough. It’s a team game but as the 1990 World Cup semi-final was Maradona v Italy, I suspect that Wednesday’s Euro 2012 semi-final will be Ronaldo v Spain. Maradona’s reward was a final against Germany. Ronaldo’s could be the same thing. Cristiano Ronaldo divides opinion but in light of the backlash against Spain, if ‘CR7’ does lead Portugal to victory, I suspect that it won’t just be Portuguese football fans that will be grateful.
Portugal v Spain; whats your prediction?