When I close my eyes, three fleeting images spool out from the Spain vs Portugal 3-3 draw—a match that has already become part of the World Cup football folklore.

The first is Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo’s self-assurance and self-awareness as he struts off the bus into the stadium to put his mark on the game’s biggest stage.

Then comes the orchestrated tiki-taka of the Spanish armada around the understated Andres Iniesta. And finally, there’s the indelible imprint of Ronaldo closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before curling a free kick around the wall and dipping the ball into the top right corner of the goal to score an equaliser, minutes away from the final whistle of the Group B opener.

Portuguese players celebrate after Ronaldo’s third goal against Spain in Sochi. Photo: AFP
Portuguese players celebrate after Ronaldo’s third goal against Spain in Sochi. Photo: AFP

With power and confidence, speed and guile, and the finishing touch of a genius, Ronaldo took the match by the scruff of its neck and denied Spain a win.

The very next day, the world was witness to a contrasting performance from the man with whom Ronaldo vies for the mantle of the best footballer—Lionel Messi. Leo not only missed a free kick from just outside the D, and the sundry other chances, but also a penalty, as debutante Iceland held the mighty Argentina to a 1-1 draw.

But, for all the brilliance of Ronaldo that lights up football for us, he also represents much that is still ambivalent about the sport. The manner in which he “earned" a penalty in the opening minutes of the game was typical. He ran at the relatively inexperienced Spanish right back Nacho Fernandez, made a feint to draw out a challenge, which Nacho could not pull out of in time, made contact with the defender’s knee in his charge forward, and went down to the turf with one eye on the referee.

That’s where the subjective interpretation of a referee comes into play. Was the defender’s touch hard enough to knock Ronaldo off his feet? Or did the tricky Portuguese initiate the contacts to extract a penalty at the start of the game and the killer free kick near the end?

But, for all the brilliance of Ronaldo that lights up football for us, he also represents much that is still ambivalent about the sport. The manner in which he “earned a penalty in the opening minutes of the game was typical

In a game between Denmark and Peru the very next day, the referee did not call a penalty even though a Peruvian attacker fell after a challenge inside the box. Replays showed the defender had made contact with the leg and not the ball. The video assistant referee (VAR), which is available for the first time in this World Cup, was not consulted. Instead, the field referee indicated that he had seen what had happened and decided it wasn’t a foul. This was one of the several shades of grey in football.

Ronaldo is a past master at deriving “technical fouls" from these shades. And he even flaunts them. It goes all the way back to his first World Cup in 2006 when he induced Wayne Rooney into a rash shove that got him a red card and knocked England out. His infamous wink to team mates after the incident, captured on camera, characterises Ronaldo to this day. His smirk at Nacho after converting the penalty in the 2018 opener showed up that side of him, again.

Should we wink at it and let go, or frown upon the gamesmanship? That depends on who we are and what we enjoy in the game. To many, it’s a flaw in character that will never elevate Ronaldo to greatness despite all his brilliance and the sense of presence he emanates on the field. Ronaldo himself has no such compunctions—he appeared to point to an imaginary goatee on his chin after scoring, in a sign of the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time).

Ronaldo's infamous wink to team mates after tackling Wayne Rooney in 2006 characterises Ronaldo to this day. His smirk at Nacho after converting the penalty in the 2018 opener showed up that side of him, again

To be fair, Ronaldo and other strikers are not the only ones exploiting the interpretative ambivalence of the rules to draw spot kicks and send-offs. Football officials have been at pain to rid the game of deliberate trips and blocks—euphemistically dubbed “professional fouls"—that defenders use to thwart attacks or even remove a dangerous attacker from the scene altogether. That Egyptian hero Mohamed Salah failed to take to the field in the loss to Uruguay was because of his injury after getting into a tangle with Spanish defender Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final before the World Cup.

Tolerance towards such tactics is petering off and it’s starting to pay off. The first yellow card of this World Cup came only in the dying moments of the first match between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia. We’re able to enjoy the beautiful game as it should be, without unfair or brutish play and constant interruptions. Now, if referees also start showing yellow cards more often for dives by forwards from the slightest, or even no contact, that would remove a few more shades of grey.

It has happened in other sports, the best example being tennis. When the talented American John McEnroe arrived on the world stage at Wimbledon to challenge Swedish great Bjorn Borg for the world No.1 spot, he quickly became the Superbrat in British media. McEnroe used tantrums to his advantage not only to fire himself up, but also to distract opponents.

When John McEnroe arrived on the world stage at Wimbledon to challenge Swedish great Bjorn Borg for the world No.1 spot, he quickly became the Superbrat in British media. Photo: Getty Images
When John McEnroe arrived on the world stage at Wimbledon to challenge Swedish great Bjorn Borg for the world No.1 spot, he quickly became the Superbrat in British media. Photo: Getty Images

As an actor playing McEnroe pointed out in a film about the Borg-McEnroe rivalry, the tantrums contrasted vividly with the calm precision with which McEnroe served right afterwards. He was pretty much in control of his emotions all the time. Not surprisingly, there was hardly a murmur from McEnroe in the final with Borg, either out of respect for the taciturn Swede or in the knowledge that it would have no effect on the iceman.

The likes of Superbrat McEnroe and Ilie ‘Nasty’ Nastase of Romania are a faint memory in tennis, where a thrown racquet or an expletive automatically cost a point after a warning.

This is harder to achieve in a contact sport like football, but the consensus appears to be that fans, by and large, prefer to be entertained by the skills and imagination of players rather than winks and smirks. This is judging from the cleaner game we’re seeing in each successive World Cup.

But it’s still a work in progress, and until that settles down, we have to reconcile ourselves to the shades of grey in football. To see Ronaldo earning a free kick will always make us wonder if it was trickery. To see him walk the walk with a hat-trick of goals will fill us with wonder nevertheless.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.

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