- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — Most fans and opponents either love him or hate him, but even his worst enemies cannot deny that Cristiano Ronaldo is one dazzling and unique soccer player.

The Portuguese striker yesterday was denied the Young Player Award, which is given to the best player 21 years old and younger at the finals.

Ronaldo appeared to be the favorite to win the award. But the honor went to Germany’s three-goal forward Lukas Podolski. Ronaldo was the leader in the online polling before he played a role in getting Wayne Rooney sent off in the quarterfinal game with England, and then winked to the bench with a “look what I did guys, don’t you just love me” attitude. Then a hate-mail campaign began against him.

In the semifinal game against France, the majority of German fans jeered every time Ronaldo touched the ball, but he was the hardest working player on the field, and along with his teammate Maniche, the most dangerous.

Today in Stuttgart, Ronaldo again will face those jeers in the third-place game. Most likely, he’ll try to prove that he, not Podolski, deserved the award.

But FIFA’s 14-man panel decided the prize’s winner, taking the path of least resistance. Yes Podolski, a run-of-the-mill forward, scored three goals, but his teammate Miroslav Klose did all the hard work in setting them up.

Clearly Ronaldo is the most exciting young player at this World Cup. He’s eye candy to watch, with a blatant disregard for the impossible, combined with an over-confidence and self-belief boarding on total arrogance.

Yes, he does have that crybaby attitude. He probably never passed the ball in the playground as a kid. He does try to cheat with his elaborate diving methods. He does come off as a spoiled little brat who always gets his way. But Ronaldo is one frightening player to have coming at you if you are a defender. He is fast, powerful and a brilliant dribbler of the ball. His direct play with his numerous step-overs are a joy to watch in today’s overly defensive and cautious soccer environment. Brilliant defenders have dominated this World Cup, but Ronaldo has been the exception.

Against France, Ronaldo never stopped working on the opponent’s backline. Even with the whistles and jeers, he never gave up and if he hadn’t taken so many dives, he probably would have seen more calls go his way, which could have changed the game.

“Everyone who saw the match could see the referee wasn’t fair,” Ronaldo said after the game. “He should have shown yellow cards but he did not because Portugal is a small country.”

The kid still has a lot to learn. But since the late George Best, has there been a player who can keep the ball stuck to his foot and go at defenders at such speed?

Even Best once said of Ronaldo: “There have been few players described as the new George Best over the years. But this is the first time it has been a compliment to me.”

Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro was named after Ronald Reagan because his dirt-poor parents admired the late president. Ronaldo was raised in a tin shack and born on the idyllic island of Madeira, famous for its wine, that lies hundreds of miles off Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. His talent was spotted early and he was brought from the island to play for Sporting Lisbon. When Manchester United played Lisbon in a friendly, the one talking point after the game was the skinny, fast winger with the famous name. In no time, United’s fat checkbook was opened and the giant club spent a stunning $19.7million for the 18-year-old, who at the time became the most expensive teenager in British soccer. He had only played 23 games for Lisbon, scoring three goals. At United he claimed the No. 7 previously worn by David Beckham and quickly made his mark.

When Ronaldo returns to Manchester next season it will not be easy. Those unforgetting English fans will forever remind him of the wink at Rooney’s sending off. One mass-selling British tabloid had Ronaldo’s face as a dart board on its front page with his winking eye as the bull’s-eye. So the Portuguese ace has some major fence-mending to do. Hopefully, Ronaldo can grow and learn from this experience so that one day his personality off the field will match his skills on the field. But as his old American namesake once said of the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.”

The world has not seen the last of Ronaldo, who has the possibility of three more World Cups ahead of him. Let’s hope he lives up to his name.

Note — Germany’s backup keeper Oliver Kahn — like Ronaldo, another prima donna — looks set to start in goal today.

Kahn, the hero of the 2002 World Cup, was passed over for the starting role at the finals by the German coach for Jens Lehmann, something Kahn couldn’t get over. The wrath of Kahn, it surely was. The cameras focused often on the dour-looking Kahn, a cult figure here, sitting on the bench. He hardly celebrated Germany’s goals. And when Germany beat Sweden he was the first to leave for the locker room, while his teammates celebrated wildly on the field. However, Kahn had a change of heart and just before the crucial penalty shootout against Argentina, Kahn came over and shook Lehmann’s hand, giving him what looked like real encouragement. The handshake was plastered all over Germany’s tabloids. Germany, with Lehmann’s saves, went on to win the shootout. Now Kahn is being rewarded for his sportsmanship with the start.

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