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Associated Press/Photo by Martin Meissner

A real kick in the teeth

Europe | A star player's high-profile move from Manchester to Madrid may signal changes in Europe that go beyond soccer

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

LONDON-Ronaldo? Sir Alex? Unknown names to most Americans. But if you're talking with people from countries enthralled by the August start of the European soccer season, the suddenly changed circumstances of these two men are the stuff of endless conversations.

Start with the basics: The best soccer player in the world is a 24-year-old from Portugal, Christiano Ronaldo. The best soccer manager in the world is a 68-year-old Scot, Alex Ferguson-to be precise, Sir Alexander Ferguson CBE, for even Queen Elizabeth II recognizes his achievements. And until June, they were the two lynchpins of Manchester United Football Club, the greatest soccer club in the world.

This summer, though, Ronaldo moved from Man U to Spain's prime team, Real Madrid. Real Madrid paid United the staggering sum of 80 million pounds (about $135 million) for the rights to Ronaldo. His weekly wage, according to rumor, will be over $500,000. Both figures are new records for soccer.

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But Ronaldo's story is about more than dollars and cents. Its roots are larger than sport. Since European soccer is intrinsically linked to its economic environment, the transfer reflects a host of larger issues.

Ronaldo came to Man U in 2003, when he was 18 years old. Many young players are never able to make the adjustments required by English football. It's a rough-and-tumble physical version of soccer, and it can be unforgiving of a player who relies heavily on flair and skill. Every time a bigger and stronger defender knocked over Ronaldo, every time the ball squirted away from him in the midst of an overly elaborate trick, and every time he dived, flailing to the ground in an overwrought tangle of arms and legs in an attempt to get the referee to call a foul where none had occurred, he lost a supporter.

But Ronaldo always kept one in Sir Alex, who saw his potential. And while Ronaldo's detractors branded him a diver and a "show pony," he worked to inspire that confidence. Ronaldo learned when to perform his intricate tricks, and when to make the quick pass. He married his breathtaking speed to an increasingly powerful body, with muscle roping his torso, thick sinews like cords up his neck, till the moment came when he was faster and quicker than the defenders, and stronger and tougher too.

Ronaldo finally achieved his full potential during the 2007-08 season. He scored 42 goals that season, the best ever total for a Manchester United winger. He scored them after long, jinking runs where the ball seemed glued to his feet, and defenders fell over, still not knowing which way he went. He scored them from the penalty spot after collapsing in a heap at the slightest touch by an opposition player: Ronaldo stood alone in front of the goalie with the abuse of the raging crowd ringing in his ears before coolly drilling the ball into the bottom corner of the net. And he scored them with his head, in the finest British tradition, running fearlessly into the maelstrom of elbows and shoulders and rising above it all to nod the ball into the goal, and then, preening, to soak up the sounds of success, the cheers and the boos, glorying in them equally.

Ronaldo's mentor Sir Alex is one of the most respected figures in soccer-but also one of the most hated. Much of that has to do with his success-more than 30 trophies in his 24 years as manager-but also his attitude. Sir Alex is famous for his "hairdryers": scathing dressing downs delivered mere inches away from his players' faces, his cheeks red, his eyes jutting out from behind steel-rimmed glasses, the abuse pouring out from his mouth in his rough Glaswegian burr, hot enough to scald. He is also known for his "mind games": accusing referees of bias days before a big game, suggesting his rival managers may be cracking up under the pressure, refusing to talk to journalists who ask the wrong questions, remaining stubbornly myopic to his own players' faults.

In May 2008, Ronaldo and Ferguson stood together in Moscow, surrounded by legions of deliriously happy United fans, and lifted one of soccer's biggest prizes, the Champions League Trophy. Despite their differences in age and nationality, they had a clear kinship borne of their shared, defiant, relentless desire to win. It was the beginning of the end.

Immediately after the match, rumors began running in the Spanish press that Ronaldo was bound for Madrid. The saga would end a year later when Ronaldo pulled on the famous white shirt of Los Blancos in a ceremony staged in front of 80,000 fans. For a year Ronaldo vacillated, giving interviews in England about his respect for Ferguson and how much he loved Manchester, and then interviews in Spain about his desire to play for Madrid, the team he supported as a boy. For a year Ferguson raged to the press about Madrid's interference with his player, insisting that Ronaldo was going nowhere, that he had a contract in place and he was not for sale. Of Madrid, he said, "I wouldn't sell that mob a virus." But at the end of the year Ronaldo was sold anyway.

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