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