Cristiano Ronaldo and why art, not the artist, is what matters

June 18, 2009

SOCCER-ENGLAND/RONALDOCristiano Ronaldo’s obsession with scoring an unforgettable goal in the Champions League final makes perfect sense now the world knows he always intended to leave Manchester United afterwards for Real Madrid.

Reaction in England to his departure was captured in a Guardian headline: “United fans will miss outrageous talent but not a charmless man”. Ronaldo, it was said, possessed sumptuous talent coupled with obnoxious self-regard.

What, in the end, will Ronaldo be remembered for? His artistry as a footballer or his perceived failings as a man?

John Updike, who died this year aged 76, gives a clue.

A prodigiously prolific novelist, short story writer, playwright, literary critic, art critic and poet, Updike also produced one classic piece of sports writing entitled “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu“. It is a wonderful account of Ted Williams‘s last game at Fenway Park in 1960, which turned out to be the great slugger’s last game anywhere.

Updike cuts to the essence of all great athletes.

“He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose… For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”

Baseball, says Updike, and by extension any sport, is maintained “…not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.”

Williams’s craftsmanship and rigour appealed to Updike’s puritan soul. His achievements, like Williams’s, depending on unsparing daily endeavour.

There was, though, a contradiction between Williams the athlete and Williams the man. He was, the sportswriter Roger Kahn said bluntly, “not a man to match the deed but an egocentric emotionalist who seems most of all to need a spanking”.

Updike did not avoid the controversies which dogged Williams’s career. He just didn’t think they mattered. Kahn cared no more than Updike about the personal foibles of Williams or of any other ballplayer. “They are all players in a drama larger than themselves,” Kahn wrote. “There is a classic tragedy within major league
baseball that catches and manipulates the life of every athlete as surely as forces beyond the heaths manipulated Hardy’s simple Wessex folk into creatures of imposing stature.”

Art, not the artist, is what matters in the end. Lord Byron, as a recent biography by Edna O’Brien confirms, was a moral monster. Pablo Picasso, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra were deeply flawed. Their poetry, pictures, films and music will endure, regardless.

So, too, will the memories of Ronaldo’s mesmerising feats at Old Trafford when the narcissism and petulance we read so much about last week have been long forgotten.


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Great people will always be remembered for their deeds and not their character, that rings true for every big personality throughout history, athletes included.

But there’s another dimension that needs to be addressed, and that is the assumed familiarity that we have regarding these individuals. The assumption is that we have been provided with the complete picture of say Cristiano Ronaldo is problem.

Most people who have met Cristiano Ronaldo will tell you that he is a very gracious and easy going bloke and this contrasts with his supposed public personality.

The problem exists when we accept, blindly, what has been written about him is the absolute truth. The problem is that much of what is written about Cristiano Ronaldo is done so maliciously by journalists trying to sell newspapers. Creating a negative stereotype of someone or something is much easier than the opposite, one need only look into our own culture and subcultures to see this peculiarity manifest.

In essence, the problem doesn’t exist in Cristiano Ronaldo, but in our own flawed perceptions and assumptions that we formulate based on the very little and biased information got from people who are neither family nor friend and who would benefit little by speaking well of him.

Posted by Christiano | Report as abusive

I can’t agree with you. I’ve got nothing against Cristiano Ronaldo but 1) he’s not an artist and 2) how the artist behaves in public, and while practising their art, is important. when eric clapton spoke warmly about enoch powell he ceased to be an artist.

Posted by james | Report as abusive

I have to disagree with you as well. Updike’s comments may apply to baseball, which I think relies more on talented individual players than football. Football, or soccer if you prefer, is first and foremost a team sport. Ronaldo is an individualist with great talent and ingenuity, but he is certainly not a great team player. He always stood out against inferior teams, but rarely shone in the big games. At Man Utd, he was extremely fortunate to be surrounded by great players, whereas he has never made an impact for Portugal, where he is by far and away their most talented player. He had a tendency to dive quite a lot and would often sulk if things did not go his way. He’s a sunshine player who will be fantastic when his team is on top, but just doesn’t want to know if the going gets tough. He should fit in well at Real Madrid where they form their team from a number of talented players who’ll give their all and a few individualists who will provide entertainment, but little work. It is a pity that so many young people all over the world idolize Christiano Ronaldo. Despite his natural ability, he is not a great role model

Posted by Pat Walsh | Report as abusive

I just cannot agree with this romantic notion of CR’s “art”. There have been greater artists in football (or sports in general) who have achieved more for club and country, and were more decent and charming human beings- and shame on the fans who cannot remember them for that. This sounds like what ManU supporters would say to archive him as one of their greats who they hope will grow more flawless as time fades memories. What really has he done for his country to be mentioned in the same breath as the true artists of football over the ages, so much so that his human frailties must be forgiven?

Posted by mimo | Report as abusive

Well I agree with Christiano’s post from the first to the last word. And I also got first-hand accounts from Nemanja Vidic and Zoran Tosic that he was one of the most humble characters in United’s dressing room. To say that Ronaldo has not performed in big games for United and that he is a sunshine player is quite simply ludicrous, as is the ancient, malicious stereotype of him as a greasy dago diver. I can remember far more stopms, kicks and elbows he received when referees, under pressure from frustrated rival fans, snarling opponents and perversely jestful tabloids, turned their heads the other way. On the other hand, I can appreciate that his grimaces and narcissism, which appears to be part of his act to unnerve opponents (were Eric Cantona and Paul Gascoine any different?, can sometimes be irritating. What has he done for his country? Errr, let’s see – took them to the Euro 2004 finals and the 2006 World Cup semi-finals — exactly which England current player has come even close to emulating that achievement?
As for his human frailties, we all have them, unless the likes of Mimo, Pat Walsh and James see the Carpenter’s Son himself every time they look in the mirror.

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