When thinking of Ronaldo, the boy who cried wolf springs to mind. When he joined the club as a skinny teenager, he brought his European tactics of diving along with him. Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one moment suggesting that diving is a foreign activity to English players (eh, Stevie Me? Joe Cole? Etc.), but Ronaldo was far more obvious with it, therefore, far more irritating to the fans, our own and rivals alike. He might have been fouled, or there might have been no contact at all, but it wouldn’t stop Ronaldo from falling in such a dramatic way, that at times, left us as United fans rather embarrassed.
The summer before last, when watching United’s pre-season tour in Asia, I noticed that Ronaldo had really bulked up. He didn’t look like the waif of a teenage winger we’d had before, but rather a strong looking man. His shoulders were much broader and he was carrying extra muscle. He had been transformed, both physically, and likely, mentally as well. This pre-season tour followed the World Cup in which Ronaldo had been singled out as the reason why England had been knocked out. He was being abused in the street, the homes of his relatives as well as his own were vandalised, and he wasn’t far away from upping and leaving for the sunshine and hassle-free life Spain offered him.
Ronaldo started the season the most hated man in England, booed every time his name on the team sheet was read out, and every time he even got close to the ball. This period in Ronaldo’s life was the best thing that could have happened for United. The transformation was complete. Ronaldo was bigger and tougher, Ronaldo was not only physically more able to stay on his feet, but consciously made an effort to do so, Ronaldo was kicked from pillar to post in every match he played, but kept his cool and gave everything he could, and thanks to our booing and whistling rivals fans, Ronaldo now had a point to prove and motivation to do so…Ronaldo was becoming one of the greatest players in the World.
Sir Alex Ferguson has time and again called for better protection from the referees, who seem to waft away far too many fouls when Ronaldo is the victim. It is by pure good fortune that we have yet to lose him to a serious injury when considering how many times he is fouled in a game. The opposition fans urge for their players to foul him and cheer when they do so. The player who sticks it to Ronaldo is celebrated by their fans, and the referees do too little to stop it.
Yesterday, as we sat in the cold and damp Manchester weather, watching our team effortlessly brush aside Fulham, who looked to be defeated before a kick of the ball, Ronaldo shone all over the field. I’d argue Rooney had a better game, working tirelessly for the team until he was substituted, Ronaldo was the player who gave us the points, scoring once in each half. Ronaldo has now scored thirteen goals in sixteen games, which is remarkable for any player, let alone a winger. Before last night, he had scored two goals a game on three occasions this season, desperately seeking the United hatrick which has eluded him so far.
With ten minutes to go last night, it appeared as though Ronaldo was finally going to get his wish, as he went to take the ball around Fulham keeper Niemi, who had flown prematurely out of his goal. The keeper dived to the ground getting nothing on the ball, forcing Ronaldo to jump over him, falling to the ground. The referee waved play on. Every person in the stadium could see it was a penalty, apart from the men that counted, the linesman (who had a shocking game. I have yet to see the highlights, but there appeared to be a ridiculous number of dreadfully wrong offside decisions!), and the ref. As United fans jumped from the seats, assuming the only decision the referee could make was to point to the spot, we were fuming when the referee pulled out the yellow card to book Ronaldo for diving. Isn’t Styles the big man, the celebrity, denying United a penalty in front of the Stretford End. It’s a load of bollocks and I’m sick of it.
Ferguson was also left fuming over the decision, although it matter little, considering the three points were in the bag “The penalty kick incident is a result of perceived idea of the referee that Ronaldo dives,” said Ferguson. “In fairness to the referee Niemi got him booked. Why would he dive? He’s on a hat-trick. It was a ridiculous decision. It was the wrong decision, but at the end of the day we’ve won the game.”
Frank Stapleton makes the obvious argument, as it seems logic is too much to ask from some referees. Why would Ronaldo dive to win a penalty, when if clearing the goalkpeer, he had an open net to score in? “It was a definite penalty. From where I was sat in the ground, the player knocked the ball past the goalkeeper and went round him. There was no point in diving to the ground as he was putting the ball into an empty net. There wasn’t a Fulham defender close by and there was contact. The goalkeeper couldn’t really get out of the way, but I think the referee made a mistake. It’s a pity because I think Ronaldo has taken diving out of his game now. When he first came into the Premier League he went down very easily because that was part of his culture in Portugal. But now he’s a much more mature player. That was a guaranteed hat-trick for him because even if you win the penalty, you can’t be sure that you’ll score. So I think it was a very harsh decision.”
However, this isn’t the first time United have been denied a stonewall penalty at Old Trafford this season, despite the myths surrounding our ground. I’m not foolish enough to think that referees haven’t looked upon us favourably, particularly at Old Trafford, over the years. Whilst of course no bitter takes in to account we’ve been the most successful attacking team over the past fifteen years, so simple probability suggest we’ll win more penalties than most teams, we have had our fair share of softer penalties during the latest golden period. However, since the big hoo-hah has kicked off over refereeing decisions at Old Trafford in the past few years, it appears as though referees enjoy waving away perfectly reasonable penalty claims. They love being the centre of attention, proving that not all referees buy in to the magic of the Theatre of Dreams, and they won’t be swayed by our 76,000 crowd. The fact they are failing to make the correct decision and award us the penalty for a foul seems to pass them by.
Before Mike Dean lost the plot when refereeing the game between us and Chelsea at Old Trafford this year, Patrice Evra was denied a stone wall penalty after Joe Cole took him out (the player who was guilty of two red card offences that day, but managed to leave the field at the end of the match with just a yellow). The Independent comments on Dean’s “erratic decision” in failing to award us a penalty for Cole’s “crude foul” on Evra. Less than twenty minutes had been played, and Dean just didn’t have the bottle to become another statistic, knowing if he awarded that penalty in front of the Stretford End, with just over fifteen minutes played, he would also have to send Joe Cole off. He just didn’t have the nerve. It was his inability to make this decision which likely lead to the fuss that followed, sending off Mikel, failing to send off Joe Cole a second time for a awful foul on Ronaldo etc. He was performing a balancing act between wrong decision after wrong decision. If only he was man enough to give that penalty on seventeen minutes, he might have seen a more favourable write-up of his performance the following day in the press.
Michael Brown, remember him? The thug who stamped on Giggsy on the opening day of last season and got away with just a yellow card? Well now playing for Wigan, he should have seen his side concede a penalty after just four minutes earlier this season. He simply barged Ronaldo over in the box, making no effort to go for the ball. Who didn’t have the balls this time? Our old friendly Mike Riley. “Referee Mike Riley’s inexplicable decision not to award Ronaldo an early penalty, when he collected the rebound and was instantly bundled over by Michael Brown, was also significant,” said Sky Sports. “Ronaldo gathered up the loose ball and looked to be clearly fouled by Michael Brown, but referee Mike Riley waved play on,” said the BBC. It was The Independent who I believe phrased it best, saying that Ronaldo “is now suffering like the boy who cried wolf – or in his case “penalty” – being denied legitimate appeals because of his reputation. Early in the game, Michael Brown simply barged him over in the penalty area without punishment.”
Ronaldo is the constant victim, after being wrongly framed as England’s World exit villain, coupled with the judgement he receives based on how he played as a boy, rather than how he actually players now, as a man. People who watch United week in week out, our fans, can see the difference in the player. Bitters and WUMs still harp on about his diving ways, but all you have to do is watch the player to see that he has virtually cut it out of his game. He can still be guilty of going down to ground too easily at times, but with foul after foul being waved on, I don’t begrudge him the decision to go down under a weaker foul, in hope that finally the ref will give him a break. He is certainly not alone in that regard, and you can point the finger at nearly every Premiership player for that.
Ronaldo appears to continue to go on from strength to strength, and is now the joint highest scorer in the league (despite the three match ban he faced for a red card against Pompey). I can only praise his attitude on the pitch, rarely reacting despite being the constant focus of rival antagonism and referee unfairness. But it’s about time he was cut some slack, and referees grew some balls, allowing themselves to award Ronaldo a penalty without fear of the fierce media reaction they anticipate. Until then, Ronaldo is going to have to keep on with what he does best, playing the game, and hopefully sooner rather than later he’ll get his deserved hatrick.
What do you think? Does Ronaldo still dive or is he not being protected enough by referees?