Ronaldo has Done so Much for Real Madrid – So Why Do some Fans Whistle him?


Madrid – There are supposed to be about 1,300 words in this article. It is tempting to just spend 1,287 of them listing the things that Cristiano Ronaldo has done at Real Madrid – and there are more than enough of them to take up all that space, that is for sure, from the two Champions League titles to the 395 goals – and then leave just enough room at the bottom to add: “On Tuesday night at the Santiago Bernabéu some Real Madrid fans whistled him. Dicks.” On one level at least that would probably sum it up quite nicely and we could all get on with life but while it can look that simple, it’s not always.

Cristiano Ronaldo was whistled on Tuesday. You might not have heard it on television and you might not have heard it if you were in the stadium either but he did and at one point he lifted his finger to his lips. “I don’t tell them to be quiet, never, I only ask them not to whistle because I always give my best in every game. Even if I don’t score goals, I try to work hard to help Real Madrid,” he said after a Champions League quarter-final in which he scored a hat-trick. Real Madrid knocked out Bayern Munich 6-3 on aggregate and Ronaldo scored five.

His statistics might look like they broker little argument and they certainly do not invite whistles but there is an argument: stupid though it sounds, he wasn’t playing well on Tuesday. When the whistles came, Madrid were struggling and it seemed likely they would get knocked out. Ronaldo had slipped over a couple of times and rarely looked a threat. When he was sent running through, his shot was saved at the near post by Manuel Neuer when some supporters thought he should have played in Karim Benzema. It wasn’t until the 76th minute that he had a decisive impact but by the end he had scored a hat-trick, his 41st for the club. He has 100 Champions League goals.

Daft though it may appear when he has 31 goals this season, for the first half of the campaign he wasn’t playing well, although he has been impressive since Christmas. He didn’t always play that well last season either and yet it ended up being the best of his career: a double European champion and the winner of the Ballón d’Or for the fourth time. He is evolving: more a No9, less a player who dominates games. It just so happens he is about the best No9 you could imagine. “I don’t know who doubts Cristiano Ronaldo,” Cristiano Ronaldo said after the victory over Bayern Munich.

He also noted the people “who love me” don’t doubt him. The whistling wasn’t loud and it wasn’t done by that many. The majority of Madrid fans cheered him on Tuesday night and every night. They didn’t whistle but he heard the ones that did and it stung. Maybe that is human nature and even if it is a few, you may wonder why it is any at all: Ronaldo certainly does.

Madrid’s fans have cheered Ronaldo and they chant his name. They have celebrated his successes as their own. In the summer, they wanted Portugal to win the European Championship. When he won the Ballon d’Or, a gold mosaic engulfed the Bernabéu. They fight his cause in the endless debate against Lionel Messi as if it was another title for Madrid and a succession of managers and team-mates have said he is the best player in the world. Thousands of supporters wear his shirt – more than wear anyone else’s – but still some have whistled him and the Bayern game was not a one-off.

His frustrations are played out on the field, externalised and ostentatious, and when he reacts to the fans’ frustrations it doesn’t help. If he mutters something under his breath, it makes the news, lip readers reveal his words. The way he plays contributes to it, as does his body language, that hint he is an individual in a team sport; the way it can sometimes appear to be about him. There is something about the way players and managers talk about him being the best that could feel forced, too: Rafael Benítez’s baffling reluctance to do so contributed to the manager’s downfall at Madrid.

While Ronaldo’s triumphs have been celebrated some fans think the team should have won more; this is Madrid, after all. He is the holder of the Ballon d’Or, a player who, with Messi, has dominated European football for a decade. The demands at the Bernabéu are gigantic; you have to be perfect, especially if you are the best in the world. Besides, everyone gets whistled at Madrid; whenever the issue is raised you are remind of that. Gareth Bale has been whistled , Zinedine Zidane tells people it has happened to him, even Alfredo Di Stéfano got it at times.

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Jermain Defoe Rolls Back the Years to Show England What They Have Missed


There was something very familiar about all this. The sight of a winger bustling to the byline and, even as he pulled the ball back across goal, being absolutely convinced the net would be billowing by the time his momentum had carried him on to the artificial turf ringing the pitch. Jermain Defoe tends to offer that calibre of reassurance, forever loitering as he does in enemy territory spanning the width of the posts, the six-yard box only ever a dart away, defenders constantly on edge. Cue that trademark celebration, arms stretched wide, as the striker trotted towards the crowd. It was as if he had never been away.

Except, of course, he had – and, plenty would argue, for far too long. The scenario which yielded England’s lead midway through the first half on Sunday might have been plucked from the last occasion when Defoe had scored for his country at Wembley, so identikit a goal did it feel from a player who has been prospering like this for years.

Retreat back to September 2010 and his first goal of a hat-trick in a European qualifier against Bulgaria had also been thumped into the roof of the net from Ashley Cole’s hooked centre from the left, albeit at the other end of the ground. The striker’s last goals for his country, a brace pilfered with precision against San Marino in Serravalle on his most recent start, had come a distant 1,465 days ago.

Yet here he was at 34 demonstrating that all the instinctive bite and canny positioning remain as sharp as ever, even after years in the wilderness at this level. The ease with which he found space from a panicked Linas Klimavicius, holding back while the defender felt compelled to snuff out the ball at source, has sustained his prolific Premier League career at four top-flight clubs. The finish flew beyond Ernestas Setkus, establishing the striker as England’s sixth oldest scorer and rendering the goalkeeper’s smart save down at his near-post from the same player moments earlier rather less meaningful.

“It’s good to be back,” said the forward as he conducted his round of man-of-the-match interviews. “As for what happens next, I’ll go back to my club, keep my head down and see what happens.” Gareth Southgate will have learned nothing new from the flash of brilliance which eased the home side ahead. This was not a rookie seeking to establish a reputation, and even the manager said he would have “put my house on him scoring at some stage today”.

“Defoe did what Defoe does,” said the captain, Joe Hart. Yet the veteran’s potential involvement against Scotland hardly feels outlandish and the manager was even coy about his chances of making the World Cup in Russia, when the forward will be months away from his 36th birthday. The likes of Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and even, possibly, Wayne Rooney will hope to have thrust themselves back ahead of the older man in the pecking order by then.

But this manager retains a pragmatic streak and has already demonstrated a willingness to pick, or omit, players on form alone. The veteran had merited inclusion for those 14 Premier League goals for the division’s bottom club, Sunderland, and, in truth, he had always represented England’s likeliest route to reward.

England had been braced for Lithuania to clog up the play, all stodgy defence and only occasional forays upfield on the counterattack. Defoe, of all Southgate’s current options, with Kane and Sturridge crocked, was the striker who might best exploit a yard of space or snaffle up a half-chance. The logic went that Southgate could throw on the blistering pace of Vardy and Rashford to charge at tiring opponents late on. Low key as much of this felt, the plan essentially worked a treat.

Defoe is a luxury to whom Southgate will be delighted to turn. It is easy to measure his longevity in terms of the personnel who have come and gone over the span of his 13-year England career. He had replaced Darius Vassell on his debut in a friendly against Sweden in Gothenburg under Sven-Goran Eriksson, a game in which the current national manager earned the last of his 57 caps as a second-half substitute. But his display here, ripping a shot just wide of a post and revelling in a contest against the side ranked 107 in the world, justified his inclusion among the current crop. It was almost a release from the toils he so regularly endures, a refreshing change from a relegation scrap.

Lithuania, of course, are hardly the most obdurate of opponents but England, and their strikers, did what was expected of them. Arguably Defoe’s biggest challenge of the evening was to keep his own emotions in check as he led out Bradley Lowery, the five-year-old suffering from neuroblastoma who now counts the forward as his “best mate”, before kick-off. Hart had ushered the pair to the front of the line, Defoe offering the young Sunderland fan words of reassurance as they entered the arena. “You can imagine how I felt doing that, having done it with my club as well,” he said.

Lowery had joined the majority in applause on the striker’s substitution just before the hour-mark. His hero had stuck to the prescribed script.

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Lack of Winter Break or Not Good Enough: Why are English Clubs Failing in Europe?


English football may be about to plunge into one of its regular periods of introspection now that Leicester City are left as the only standard-bearers for the Premier League in the Champions League quarter-finals, though the rest of Europe will not find anything too surprising in this week’s developments.

Leicester are the English champions, after all. Why should they not be the team to progress furthest? And though Manchester City might have hoped Pep Guardiola would bring a touch of Barcelona flair to his new project in England, there is clearly a difference in what the two sides perceive as all-out attack. In Barcelona’s case it means the ability to overhaul a 4-0 first-leg deficit, in City’s it means not having a shot on target for more than an hour. Anyone who saw the first leg at the Etihad would know Monaco are a sprightly side capable of causing City problems; all the second leg proved is that the same is true even without Radamel Falcao. The first leg is what came back to haunt Guardiola’s team at the Stade Louis II, for no side conceding six goals in two games can have a reasonable expectation of progress.

That Monaco could pull off the trick was largely due to conceding only one at home, set next to City’s three. Entertaining as both legs were, the bottom line is that City went further in Europe last season under Manuel Pellegrini, and although they never looked capable of displacing Real Madrid in the semi-final at least they kept things tight enough to go out to only a single goal. It is glaringly obvious at the moment that Guardiola needs a major defensive overhaul to have any chance of improving on this season’s results.

Leicester beginning the fightback against Spanish sides in Europe apart, the story here is a familiar one. The Premier League’s influence in Europe is declining, and has been for some time. There is no immediate need to worry about being overtaken in the coefficient ranking by Italy or France, a Uefa rule change guarantees four qualification places to each of the four biggest leagues from 2018 and England is presently third, though a survey of Champions League quarter-finalists over the past five years makes depressing reading.

From 40 places, Spain has had 15 representatives, Germany nine and England just four. Even France, with six, has done better. Can it really be less than a decade since two English teams were fighting it out in the final and Uefa was becoming uneasy about Premier League domination of their competition?

Those teams were Manchester United and Chelsea, of course, and it is not without significance that neither made it to this season’s event. Take out your two most successful and experienced Champions League campaigners – and Chelsea certainly deserve that billing for their achievements this century – and your overall performance is bound to suffer. Tottenham and City could both pin the blame for early exits on inexperience, or at least that is what their managers kept saying. Arsenal’s inability to progress beyond a certain stage is harder to explain. They do not lack experience or quality, and while continually being drawn against Bayern Munich does not help, the 10-2 aggregate scoreline this season would suggest the gulf is growing.

Yet Arsenal, though their record of Champions League qualification is exemplary, are often worried about finishing in the top four in a way that Bayern are not. They are usually champions and missing out on the Champions League altogether is unthinkable, because that is the way German football is structured. A few other leagues are the same, whereas in England we have a situation where teams of the pedigree of Chelsea and United can miss out. Even though there are only a couple of months of this season left, it is currently impossible to predict which two sides from an ultra-competitive group of five below Chelsea will finish outside the top four.

While the idea that English performances in Europe are suffering because the Premier League is becoming more demanding may be an oversimplification, overseas observers would point out straight away that we make life more difficult for ourselves by not having a winter break.

English football seems to take pride in making its festive fixture list as gruelling as possible, which is probably not the best preparation for the resumption of the Champions League in February. Then again, it is fair to mention that Spurs went out before Christmas this season, and the Premier League cannot be all that competitive if erstwhile relegation candidates Leicester were able to win it last year.

Against all expectations, the fairytale headlines made a reappearance this week, with everybody’s favourite underdog putting in a spirited performance and a little underhand skulduggery to see off Sevilla. Claudio Ranieri might be history, but the impossible dream goes on. Leicester will probably be disappointed that Manchester City are no longer around, because based on Premier League form that might have been a quarter-final draw they could have won.

There are no easy sides left now, although naturally all the other seven quarter-finalists will be hoping to be paired with Leicester. One would have to say further progress appears unlikely, yet just about everything Leicester have done over the past three years has been unlikely. While they might not be able to beat Barcelona, it would be fun to watch them try, if only to see Jamie Vardy on the same pitch as Luis Suárez. As Sir Alex Ferguson always used to say in advance of such situations, “You’ll need a strong referee for that one.”

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