Comparisons with George Best are inevitable as the 23-goal United star continues to shine
Towards the end of 2005 I was one of three writers asked to select Manchester United’s 50 greatest postwar footballers for a book. The hardest task was judging current players, especially those whose careers were young. Cristiano Ronaldo caused the greatest headache. Caution led us to put him at number 39, one place below Arthur Albiston, two above Andy Cole. Overhyping is the worst sin of modern pundits but to underplay can be criminal too.
There are Ronaldo-sceptics even now but, quicker than the Dow Jones Index, their numbers are falling. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s numbers keep stacking up. With 23 goals in 26 appearances, and at least 18 United fixtures remaining, he seems likely to beat the 32 goals scored by George Best in 1967-68, a record for a United winger or midfielder in a season. It remains premature, but no longer feels odious, to bracket the pair. At the very least we must be reaching the point where, if Best were around and his boots needed lacing, there might be someone fit for the job.
There have been other “new George Bests” but Ronaldo is different. “He’s the first to come on the scene and make me think, ‘By God, this kid’s got everything, maybe he does compare to George’,” Paddy Crerand said. Crerand was Best’s close friend as well as teammate and needs nobody to tell him the Irishman was unique. But hearing Ronaldo mentioned in the same breath does not leave him gasping. “They’ve got great similarities: beat people easily, great with either foot, George was good in the air and so is Cristiano and you’re talking a pair of good-looking so-and-sos,” Crerand said. “Most of all, he has the same impudent streak George had. I’ve seen a lot of football but I get a thrill on my way to the stadium if I know Cristiano’s playing.”
Ronaldo, England’s Footballer of the Year for 2007, league champion, FA Cup winner, global icon, is all that before his 23rd birthday, which arrives on Tuesday week. When precocity is the measure he can hardly be bettered, yet Best was best, European Footballer of the Year, European Cup winner, double league champion, icon twice over, all as he was turning 22. His strike-rate was slightly better than Ronaldo’s goal every three games and in 1967-68 it accelerated as the games increased in importance. He scored in a European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid and conjured a magical solo effort in extra time in the final with Benfica to tip glory in United’s direction.
Compared with that, Ronaldo’s little triumphs in Europe, such as his two goals in last year’s demolition of Roma, are forgettable and while Best was inspired by a rivalry with Eusebio, Kaka, who beat Ronaldo to European and World Footballer of the Year in 2007, dwarfed the Portuguese on the two occasions they went head to head in Champions League knockout ties. Ronaldo’s record on the most important domestic occasions is also sketchy, as three goals in 26 appearances against Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal attests. “George starred in the big games, they inspired him. The bigger the stage the better he played,” said Crerand. “He hasn’t always shown that, but Cristiano will get there.”
His two performances against England in major finals show it is in him to make big gestures on the big stage and in the 2006 World Cup semi-finals, while the rest of the Portugal team capitulated, he launched what amounted to a one-man crusade against France. “He demonstrates character every week,” said Crerand. “In the Premier League he gets booed and abused away from home and George never got that, away fans loved watching George. Sadly, it’s the way football’s going.”
Sir Alex Ferguson is always talking about Ronaldo’s mettle, his contention being that it takes the greatest courage in football to keep demanding the ball and taking players on because of the high risks of failure and physical harm. Bravery was the most hallowed value Sir Matt Busby ascribed to Best. “I don’t think the diving thing’s true of Cristiano any more,” said Crerand, “he takes a lot of knocks. But George played on rubbish pitches against people who could boot him all afternoon – in my day you had to shoot someone to get sent off. We’d come in on Sunday mornings for a bath or a rubdown and George’s legs would be black and blue, but it never bothered him. What would he have done to teams today, playing on bowling-green surfaces with defenders who are hardly allowed to tackle?”
The similarities are there in the back-stories. Best ran home to Belfast when overwhelmed by Manchester during his first trial with United aged 15. Ronaldo, when even younger, made his own journey from a small island community to a mainland, leaving Madeira for Sporting Lisbon’s academy, where he suffered homesickness. Their families had little money, the football they learnt was on the street; later they would embrace glamour: Ronaldo is partners with his sisters in a fashion boutique (CR7) in Funchal, just as Best dabbled with a menswear emporium in Sale at the height of his fame. After Busby first set eyes on Best, “the vision of this black-haired lad kept coming back to me”, he said. Ferguson knew Ronaldo from the scouting reports, but was bedazzled by his first proper encounter, telling Peter Kenyon at half-time of a friendly against Sporting in 2003: “We’re not leaving the stadium until we get the boy.”
On Friday, in his weekly briefing, Ferguson waxed lyrical about his protege until questions started going in the direction of Best’s record and the comparisons. “I hope he can do it. But that’s enough on Ronaldo,” Ferguson growled. For once he is happy to see one of his players ignoring a job description he set out for them. Did Ferguson imagine Ronaldo had such scoring powers? “No. We saw his potential as a winger, his ability to drive at defenders. That was the main reason we took him on. And he still plays as a winger for us. He gives us width and is a threat from there,” he said. “He’s an improving player, his decision-making is good and getting better. He practises all the time. The boy’s a finisher.
“He’s a good header, has two good feet, is quick, brave. He has all those assets great strikers have always had. He scored a header this season from a corner kick and he hung in the air, so at corner kicks we’re hoping he’ll be a threat, and from crosses from the opposite side of the pitch, because he’s got that great leap, great power. “The rest (of Ronaldo’s goals) is a combination. His third goal against Newcastle came from fantastic team passing and movement, the first-time passing, and he has that great ability to run beyond people on to the through pass anda good shot, a strong shot. The kind of kid he is, he has always had the hunger to play. He loves the game.”
Of course you can fall out of love with football. Best did so by his mid20s but by then had scored more than 20 goals in a season for United in five consecutive campaigns. His beating of defenders was founded on extraordinary control and ability to make sudden changes of direction, while Ronaldo’s is more about using theatre to distract his foes, but the flank is not big enough for either of their talents which is what draws and drew them central, in search of goals.
Best appreciated United’s latest No 7. “There have been a few players described as the ‘new George Best’ but this is the first time it has been a compliment to me,” he said. He was a better judge of ability than the authors of a certain list.
Ronaldo is good but Best is best
Cristiano Ronaldo’s exceptional form and soaring goalscoring rate are such that serious comparisons are now being made between the Portuguese winger and George Best, the greatest of all his forerunners in the Manchester United No 7 jersey. With at least 18 games remaining for United, Ronaldo, on 23 goals already, stands a good chance of beating Best’s 1967-68 tally of 32 goals, the most scored in a season by a United winger or midﬁelder. A comparison of their achievements at similar ages shows Best remains out on his own, but Ronaldo may be catching up
Big-game Best Ronaldo has yet to emulate Best’s record in big games. When Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968, Best scored in the semiﬁnal against Real Madrid and the ﬁnal against Benﬁca. He had already deﬁned his iconic status with two goals and a virtuoso performance in the away leg of a European Cup quarterﬁnal, against Benﬁca in 1965-66. Ronaldo has yet to show his best form in big club games
Best in history George Best’s total of 32 goals in a season was extraordinary for a winger at any club, but especially at Manchester United where there is a tradition of spreading the goals around. His total is better than some of the greatest strikers in United’s history ever managed and stands comparison with all but Denis Law and Ruud van Nistelrooy
Best ever scoring season, selected United players
Denis Law 46 goals (1963-64) Ruud van Nistelrooy 44 (2002-3) Tommy Taylor 34 (1956-57) Dennis Viollet 32 (1959-60) George Best 32 (1967-68) Brian McClair 31 (1987-88) Jack Rowley 30 (1948-49 & 1951-52) Bobby Charlton 29 (1958-59) Dwight Yorke 29 (1998-99) Eric Cantona 25 (1993-94) Cristiano Ronaldo 23 (2006-7, 2007-8)
HEAD TO HEAD
Professional debut Best 17 years 4 months, Ronaldo 17 years 8 months
First professional goal Best 17 years 7 months, Ronaldo 17 years 8 months
International debut Best 17 years 11 months, Ronaldo 18 years 6 months
First international goal Best 18 years 7 months, Ronaldo 19 years 3 months
First league title Best 18 years 11 months, Ronaldo 22 years 3 months
First European Cup Best 22 years 0 months, Ronaldo is still trying
First FA Cup Ronaldo 19 years 3 months, Best never won the FA Cup
English Player of the Year Best 22 years, Ronaldo 22 years
European Footballer of the Year Best 22 years, Ronaldo still trying
Ronaldo v Big Four
v Chelsea played 9, 0 goals
v Liverpool played 7, 0 goals
v Arsenal played 10, 3 goals