Was Cristiano Ronaldo right to rant about his Real Madrid teammates?
Cristiano Ronaldo committed two apparently cardinal sins on Saturday after Real Madrid's 1-0 derbi at Atletico.
The first was criticizing his teammates to the media, and the second was, quite outrageously, showing human rather than supernatural powers in front of goal. For the first, he must be condemned out of hand, while we must take the second to mean that he's a dud -- finished at the top level -- or so it might seem if you can't hear common sense over the outrage.
When Ronaldo tried to claim later that he was talking about fitness and not ability or performance when he said, "If all the rest of the guys were at my level, then we'd be top of the league right now," it was as false-sounding as Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent in Mary Poppins.
I believe he did mean form, intensity, talent and attitude -- not physical fitness -- but not for the first time, I'm going to defend Ronaldo if for no other reason than that there are so many unfair stories written and spoken about him.
First things first: his critical words. Let's assume for the purpose of this exercise that what he was really saying was: "If all my major teammates at Madrid were hitting my levels of performance most of the time, we'd be scoring more, harder to score against and, therefore, top of the league."
Would he be wrong? No, he wouldn't.
Cristiano Ronaldo has changed as a footballer. He's less physically awesome, less clinical and less likely to determine games alone, particularly against elite opposition. But it is an inescapable fact that he just set the record for the most goals in a Champions League group stage, and he is three goals shy of Golden Boot leader Luis Suarez. Three measly goals.
It's equally inescapable that Ronaldo's goals per game rate in the league and Europe stands at 34-in-35, which is a total that every other striker in the world (bar Suarez) would covet.
There was a time not long ago when any striker totaling 34 goals in all competitions by the end of the season would have been regarded as an outright phenomenon and almost a freak. Ronaldo has that total in February. Yes, he has been a flat track bully in some matches, but some of his goals in La Liga have kept Madrid lingering in the title race thus far, while his absolute screamer in Rome has arguably pushed Los Blancos toward the final eight of the Champions League. Big strikes.
His season might not be producing elite career numbers, given that he has failed to score against Atletico, Barcelona, Villarreal, Sevilla or PSG. But would Arsenal, Liverpool, Milan, Dortmund, Atletico, Manchester United, Inter or Manchester City willingly pay upward of €60 million for a striker who could guarantee them nearly a goal per game in 35 matches?
You bet they would.
Therefore, is Ronaldo entitled to use the legal defence of veritas when he states that if all his star teammates were performing at his level, there'd be more chance for Madrid to be on top of La Liga? Yes, he's right on. Veritas and truth -- not always comfortable to face up to but usually valuable.
Have James, Rodriguez, Isco, Toni Kroos, Danilo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Varane or Gareth Bale had the positional or "pound-for-pound" equivalent of a 34 goals-in-35 matches season?
Not a chance. Not one of them. That's not necessarily an implied criticism because injury accounts for some of those answers (Bale was consistently in prime form before his muscle strain resurfaced). But compared to Ronaldo, only Karim Benzema and Keylor Navas -- with sporadic contributions from again fit Luka Modric -- can consider themselves to have produced a season of equivalent excellence to CR7's.
Whether or not his statement has damaged his team's morale -- particularly shaky at Madrid this season -- their most famous, most expensive and "best" footballer was absolutely on the money in terms of his colleagues' form and physical fitness. Yet Ronaldo is endlessly mocked or attacked in papers, on television and on radio for his remarks. "Arrogant," "self-destructive," "selfish," "churlish," "over-indulged," or "spiteful" -- I'm sure you have heard one or more of those adjectives applied to the 2014 Ballon D'Or winner since his outburst after the 0-1 defeat to Atleti in the Bernabeu.
But imagine for a second: What if it not only is true but also needed saying? What if the entire Real squad needed a proverbial reality check? The kind of stinging criticism that can annoy or irritate footballers such that they put in more effort every day until they arrive at a better level of individual and group performance?
Let's extend the argument. If, as it appears, we are in a phase in which Ronaldo takes fewer games by the scruff of the neck because he isn't quite the physical phenomenon he once was, then isn't it absolutely vital that the players around him are functioning at A+ level to compensate? Isn't it crucial that Real Madrid continue to extract the utmost Cristiano Ronaldo has to give by ensuring that the players with whom he best "clicks" are in top physical, mental and sporting form?
Ronaldo has every right to be frustrated. He has broken records and scored at superhuman rates in a season of great distress at the Bernabeu. Key supporting cast members such as Bale, Benzema, Marcelo and Carvajal have been injured for varying lengths of time. The coach who started the season has been sacked, and his club is so institutionally inept that they got thrown out of the Copa del Rey for a self-inflicted error. What could CR7 legitimately expect to achieve if the team around him were firing on all -- or at least most -- cylinders?
To achieve better than this? Of course.
There were many in the Spanish media who didn't like Ronaldo's words for another reason, beyond the unwritten rule about not calling your teammates out in public, which seems to me to be a sad state of affairs. Either Ronaldo's words had some merit and legitimacy or they didn't. His criticism would have been worth no more and no less had he scored a brace to win the game for Madrid.
If he is telling the truth as he sees it, is willing to take the risk of ostracism and believes some of his teammates needed a short, sharp, verbal shock, then the words needed saying.
Of course, this story might implode on Ronaldo and the team. It might have done damage to team spirit -- so far, Sergio Ramos has defended Ronaldo in public -- and it might alienate Ronaldo from the Bernabeu fans. Right now, one can only speculate and wait for the hard evidence to accumulate. But he wasn't wrong simply for saying it, and it wasn't an illegitimate move purely because he has had more effective and more astonishing seasons than this one.
Where you suspect Ronaldo is most culpable for this explosive statement -- plus a clutch of recent outbursts -- is in his inability to handle frustration with grace. His sheen of overall greatness could be enhanced if he could learn how to show a sense of humor and patience about a minor downturn in his previously "super" powers.
All in all, one senses anger building up in Ronaldo; after one league title in what will be seven seasons this May, can you blame him? He works at a club without a proper sporting structure: there's no Director of Football, a procession of managers who don't know whether they'll be in a job four months later and a club president who thinks he understands football but doesn't.
There is also perhaps anger and frustration at the fact that he is no longer able to do all the exceptional things that made him such a phenomenon in recent years. That said, in the case of the People vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, I find in favour of the defence.
When it comes to Real Madrid, don't shoot the messenger.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.