Because Steve Nash Likes It
An insider’s look at the comings and goings of the World Cup.
JUNE 22, 2010: The Case for Autocracy
The stadium erupts in to TRL-Carson-Daly-in-his-hay-esque Boy Band euphoria the moment he emerges on to the pitch for warm-ups. With rain fall indecisive, drifting from a reluctant patter to a prideful tour-de-force showing what Cape Town’s winter is capable of, his (pimple scarred?) face relentlessly defends its place on the big screen, the object of laziness’ attention. The vuvus go through the motions, but the cheer is defined by the high-pitched squeal limited to teenage girls and spider monkey mothers fearing for their kin. The buzz crescendos with his first touch of the ball, followed by a nearly unanimous ‘ahhh’ of admiration when he uselessly pulls off a step-over six yard pass to a teammate. I really hate Cristiano Ronaldo.
‘Petulant child’ is a bit of a clichéd turn of phrase these days, and though derivative, I can’t think of a simpler or more successful way to describe Portugal’s No. 7. His body language is the stuff of tragedy or comedy depending on one’s general outlook on life, society, role models, and the world our children will inherit. He kicks at the air when a pass he so desires is overlooked by an insubordinate a teammate; he throws his arms down at his thighs when a ball is delivered to his chest but not his right foot; his facial responses flip between the near-to-tears face and the vehemently-angry-faux-tough guy face when a variety of things out on the pitch aren’t to his exact liking.
He does not even mask something resembling happiness after Raul Meireles has the audacity to score the opening goal. As custom demands, however, he eventually jogs over, fashionably late, to half-heartedly congratulate his countrymen on netting a fundamentally important goal for the nation’s hopes of advancing. Then with that disinterested hugging out of the way (not even a kiss on the cheek or the head, the easiest way to fake genuine emotion), he quickly breaks away from the celebrating pack to return to his position out wide.
I followed Cristiano throughout as if I was filming my very own version of the epicly poor ‘Kobe Doin’ Work,’ though without offering self-promoting commentary as our newly minted five-time NBA champion did. And let me tell you, the theatre of Ronaldo was only just beginning as the drama of the match itself faded to memory. The North Koreans first half resilience crumbled after intermission as their 15 gram daily subsistence ration of white rice allotted by the Great Leader eventually came-a-callin’.
On a side note, North Korea located their World Cup base camp in the most impoverished township I have seen to date in all of South Africa: Timbesa, a densely populated spot on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It’s a fairly incredible place, a shanty-town of corrugated tin shacks and port-a-potty bathroom facilities balanced by a network of food stalls, barber shops (by far more barber shops per capita than I’ve seen anywhere in the world, by the way), open-air tent set up banking centers, and cell-phone services (some of which probably of the black market variety). A huge tent on the periphery of town serves as church hall, and the streets teem with life every time I’ve passed through. Perhaps the most striking feature of the neighborhood is the immaculate, uniformed dress of the school children (a universal truth across South Africa), and though it might be an overstatement to identify that propriety with the larger sense of community pride the people feel in their dwellings, that thought recurred to me on a number of my journeys there.
Nevertheless, at its core the place is still devastatingly poor. Many of the folks that have accompanied me out treat it somewhat like a zoo, locking the doors the moment the threshold of the hood is crossed and then gaping in patronizing wonderment at this slum-dog society, trying to store as many images as they can to immediately regurgitate it in a somewhat heroic narrative of adventure over a few beers at dinner later that night. A few comments will be passed on the unfortunate sadness of this reality, scape-goats will be discussed, whether the Afrikaaners of the past or the corrupt leadership of the present day, and with these words spoken, hands and consciences are wiped clean to enjoy another evening in the wonderful affluence of Sandton, Joburg’s gem of a suburb. I don’t know that I’m that much different; I just don’t talk as much, and I’m cool with walking around in those kind of neighborhoods…but I digress.
Anyway, it is somewhat funny and fitting that North Korea would select such a place to provide one of the few windows their nationals are afforded to the outside world. ‘Well, this is capitalism, boys. This is what happens without the prudence of the Great Leader. Without him, who has just finishing shooting a score of 25 for a round of 18 in golf, such a fate would befall us all.’ They won’t be televising any matches live back in the land above the 38th parallel, only deciding after the fact if the team’s efforts are worthy of broadcast. Who knows, maybe they will just pick fifteen random people out of a crowd, give them yellow t-shirts, and announce the match-up as if it is Brazil vs. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
P.S. anytime you need to emphasize the democratic nature of your country in your naming of it, you’re probably compensating for something.
Back to the matter at hand: with the opposition weakened like Chris McCandless out In the Wild, Portugal made it rain in the second half in a terrific show of false quality sure to convince many onlookers that they are a team to be reckoned with. I went for a pee and missed two goals. And yet, Cristiano didn’t get his.
He puts on his best fake smile as chance after chance escape in the second half while teammate after listless teammate find the back of the net. Up 3-0, then 4-0, then 5-0,…and this guy is visibly pressing. Is it time to step-back, with the result secured, and let some of the younger guys get their shot on the big stage? Maybe help out an elder-statesman on their swan-song of a World Cup bury one last goal? Show some humility to your adversary and perhaps just work on holding possession, developing the kind of tactics that might be called upon against Brazil on Friday? No, no, and no. For Cristiano, It was time to move over to Center Forward, to dictate that the entire attack be pushed through him, to do everything possible to get his name in the scorebook. When he does at long-last convert an open-netter to put Portugal up 7-0, the crowd rises to its feet in bellowing its applause.
Vanity and narcissism creep from Cristiano’s every pore as he shoots not-so-covert glances at his gigantor likeness that the cameramen so steadfastly feed the hungry crowd up on the jumbotron. Even his maturing style of play can’t quite squash the impulse for the pointless exhibitionism of a back-heel or series of step-overs against invisible defenders. He is keenly aware of his magnetism, that his Castrol Oil ad will run before the match, that stupid talk-show hosts across the world talk about his abs post- that Vanity Fair cover. The fact that he might pro-create with Paris Hilton bodes equally ill for the world at large.
But then, he is a brilliant, brilliant player. His play comes off a bit contrived and disingenuous, without that whole ‘he makes the game look like its moving in slow motion’ thing happening. The natural he is not, a feature we often love to see in our star athletes (even if they need to put in an incredible amount of work to play with such naturalcy. That should be a word). He does not move with the intuitive feel you see from the greats in any sport; indeed, it often seems like he has already decided what move or dribbling trick he will execute prior to and regardless of what the defense might offer. But though not blessed with that sixth-sense intuition and effortless flow of the Zissous, Messis, Magic Johnsons and Thomas Dooleys of the world (I’ll give you a dollar if you can pick out which one of those four names doesn’t belong), Ronaldo is the most technically sound and physically refined player in the world. Furthermore, because his skill-set is so tremendously practiced and manicured and his physique so developed and powerful, none of those missing parts really impact the results he is capable of. Ronaldo still dominates the action with his resounding pace, pin-point delivery on crosses, and Thunder Dan Majerle-type range on his shot. He’s like Kobe in the sense that their immense work-rates are distinctly manifest in their performances, from the clean foot-work to the level of difficulty they almost actively seek out in their play to the attention to detail and pathological need to improve. You could see Kobe’s summer regiment when he pulled out the Olajuwon-up-and-under post combo this past November, and you can see Ronaldo’s diligent work in his amazing control and ability to shoot even while moving at top, top speeds.
They have some cross-over in personality as well, if you were to amplify Kobe’s dickheaded arrogance and take-away some of his steely resolve and fierce, murderous focus (I’ve seen Ronaldo cry far too many times to put him anywhere near KB in that regard).
And yet, the people love him. They embrace and enable his pomposity; they urge him on to further heights of self-glorification. His coach rewards him with a captain’s armband despite the physical/emotional/social distance so clear between him and his teammates; sponsors fawn over him and parents buy his jersey for their children despite his ridiculous egocentrism and juvenile antics. I mean, if your child behaved like Ronaldo after the normal age of socialization (6 or 7?), I’d imagine you would be mortified. At least Tiger and Jordan were wise enough to Madison Avenue’s ways to hide their arrogance-inspired flaws from the surface.
So will I break my policy of avoiding hyperbole and translating on-field transgressions in to overriding character judgments for Mr. Ronaldo? You betcha. In fact, at times like this, I am even left debating the merits of democracy. If the masses can support this kind of clown with such chauvinistic vigor, can they be trusted to elect public officials? Perhaps it’s time we roll the dice with autocracy again and hope we come out with a truly enlightened despot. A Somalian friend of mine in Belfast always referred to Barack as ‘King Obama.’ Gotta admit, it has a nice ring to it.
And ladies: you’re the worst enablers of all. C’mon now, he’s got a rat-tail.