DCSIMG

The £136m odd couple

EYE-WATERING though it is to take in the £136 million Real Madrid have decided to spend on the combined talents of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, fears that it will signal a return to the worst excesses of the Galacticos era, when the Spanish giants relied too heavily on their star system, have been aired with indecent haste.

Until the club's audacious president, Florentino Perez, reveals the full extent of his latest vision, with a detailed outline of his supporting cast, it can only be churlish to look at two of the game's greatest players, brought together by one of the its greatest clubs, and question the wisdom of it. While Michel Platini's description of the coup as a "threat to fair play" is not without merit, and the plight of Scottish football lends the figures an obscene dimension, the warning that Madrid's two most recent signings are but money-making machines, potentially incompatible on the pitch, and contrary to the team ethic, serves only to complicate what ought to be a simple business.

"Can Kaka and Ronaldo actually play together?" was the question posed by one London newspaper the other day, to which should come the reply, "one would bloody well hope so".

Given that the two players have cost almost exactly what Setanta was supposed to be investing in the SPL these next five years, it is not unreasonable to expect that they can play Beethoven's third symphony together, never mind the world's most popular game. Too similar? Well, maybe, if by that you mean that they are entertainers who cost their employers exorbitant sums of money, and are expected to perform nothing so common as a defensive shift. But, as players, people, icons, these guys could hardly be more different.

Quite apart from their backgrounds and their personalities, which lie at opposite ends of the social spectrum, there is a marked contrast in their style on the pitch, as well as their favoured position there. While both are luxuries, far enough forward to express themselves without fear of failure, they are more likely to complement than duplicate each other. Ronaldo, now 24, has come to perform as well at centre forward as he does on either wing, while Kaka's natural habitat is midfield, or at least in the territory that separates it from attack.

In essence, they do similar things, for similar reasons, in very different ways. Each has the wherewithal to change a game, to alter its course with a flash of inspiration, but the methods cannot compare. As the world now knows, Ronaldo is an explosive proposition, fast and furious and full of tricks, from the step-overs that even he grew tired of to the free-kicks that accelerate away from his physics-defying boot like a burst balloon. Kaka is just as direct, but subtle with it, darting quickly, almost imperceptibly, into positions of power with the kind of balance and vision that cannot be taught. "His reading of the game is uncanny and it seems he has already thought of what to do with the ball an hour before he even gets it," says Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Like Zinedine Zidane, a predecessor at Madrid, Kaka lets the ball do his work with an economy of style that appeals to the connoisseur. By focusing only on the end, rather than the means by which it is achieved, the 27-year-old's genius is an appreciation of simplicity. "He will always try to go vertically rather than horizontally," said his Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti, now with Chelsea. "He will never take the extra, unnecessary touch."

Ancelotti speaks also of a calm, composed boy, "prone to neither euphoria nor depression", which might as well be added to the long list of ways in which he differs from Ronaldo. The latter, of course, is a petulant bundle of huffs and puffs and histrionics, as he showed in last month's Champions League final. A cocksure start to the match was followed by the headless-chicken routine to which he often resorts when the fates conspire against him.

In the aftermath of that defeat by Barcelona, when his Manchester United team-mates consoled each other in Rome's Olympic Stadium, he cut himself adrift from the rest, as alone in mourning as he had been in celebration 12 months earlier.

A commitment to his fellow players is not foremost among Ronaldo's many strengths. While that smacks of the individualism feared by Madrid's worst critics, the opposite is true of Kaka, whose fundamental humility stems from a belief that he is a small part of something much, much bigger. This, after all, is the man whose goal celebration includes a symbolic point to the heavens. When he recovered from a swimming-pool accident that threatened to paralyse him at the age of 18, he attributed it to his religious faith, which he misses no opportunity to publicise, be it on his T-shirts or the tongue of his adidas boots. He was proud to declare that he had been a virgin until he married his childhood sweetheart in 2005.

The morning after Ronaldo had been confirmed as the most expensive footballer in history, he was pictured snuggling up to Paris Hilton in a Hollywood bar. It was the latest in a catalogue of tabloid headlines, speculating on what appears to be a hectic sex life.

Whether he is writing off his Ferrari, plastering himself in hair gel or upsetting the establishment with his repeated attempts to deceive referees, the impression is of a pouting prima-donna, too vain to be remembered in Manchester as anything more than a brilliant player. His successful efforts to have his club-mate, Wayne Rooney, sent off at the 2006 World Cup – to say nothing of the wink that followed them – may not be so readily forgiven by United fans should his repertoire of tricks be turned on them in future.

Ronaldo's religion is himself, which isn't entirely a criticism. He is a dedicated player, committed to self-improvement, with a taste for neither alcohol nor drugs, the two scourges of his Madeiran family. His father drank himself to death at the age of 52. The player who was teased about his regional accent when he moved to Lisbon as a boy has learned to look after himself since growing up in a ramshackle bungalow so small that the washing machine had to be kept on the roof. He has not needed the comfortable, middle-class upbringing from which Kaka benefited.

A president cannot pick from the world's sprawling population its two most talented players, and expect them also to create the chemistry so coveted by smaller clubs. He must look beyond them, to the water-carriers, which is where it went wrong for Perez last time round. Between 2000 and 2006, when the acquisition of Messrs Beckham, Figo and Zidane culminated in the club's biggest trophy drought for 50 years, there was no brawn to go with the brilliance, no foundation on which the flair could flourish.

Perez says he has learned from the experience. Should the sale of one or two Dutchmen fund the purchase of a robust midfielder, and a defender to replace Fabio Cannavaro, it might just allow Kaka and Ronaldo to thrive like never before. If the game at that level is defined by its pursuit of greatness, it is not just the president's dream, but his duty.

The day Falkirk broke world transfer record

FOR CRISTIANO Ronaldo and Real Madrid, read Syd Puddefoot and Falkirk. Yes, at one time the mighty Bairns held the world record for payment of a transfer fee when they secured the services of the charmingly-named Cockney striker in February 1922.

Falkirk splashed out 5,000 for Puddefoot, then a 27-year-old striker with West Ham United who had two England caps. For good measure, West Ham threw in Puddefoot's brother Len.

It seems incredible nowadays when England's top clubs earn vast sums that could buy whole Scottish towns never mind their clubs, but after the First World War it was Scottish football which was enjoying a mini-boom and even provincial clubs such as Falkirk had money in the bank.

After his war service, the man known as Puddy had become the darling of Upton Park. In season 1921-22, he had played a vital role in West Ham's unsuccessful attempt to win League Division Two, scoring 19 goals. In those days players were bought and sold like slaves. It you were the target of a lucrative offer, you had no choice but to move. When Falkirk came for Puddy, he was just another chattel.

The theory is that West Ham manager Syd King had thought Falkirk were bluffing and so named a sky-high price that was double the previous world-record transfer fee, the 2,500 paid by Blackburn Rovers to Hearts for Percy Dawson in 1914. When Falkirk came up with the money, King had left himself no option but to sell the fans' hero. In a bid to defray the anger of the supporters, the club issued a statement that appeared to say Puddefoot was glad to go.

"The departure of Syd Puddefoot came as no surprise to those intimately connected with him," said the directors. "It is an old saying that everyone has one chance in life to improve themselves and Syd Puddefoot is doing the right thing for himself in studying his future." Nothing could have been further from the truth. Puddefoot was reluctant to leave England, not least because he was on the verge of becoming a top-class cricketer with Essex.

But the signing terms were at least generous – Puddy pocketed a one-off 390 fee at a time when the maximum wage for a footballer was 8 per week. Falkirk paid him that weekly maximum and arranged some "business" earnings as well.

West Ham spent the record fee well. Puddefoot could only watch from afar as the next season saw the Hammers win promotion to the top flight and reach the famous "White Horse" FA Cup final at Wembley.

Puddefoot did not enjoy his time at Falkirk, though he scored 45 goals for the club in three years. He complained his Scottish colleagues wouldn't pass to him, and it was no surprise when he went back to England, Blackburn Rovers paying 4,000 for him in 1925.

The Puddefoot transfer was the only time a Scottish club set the world record and the second last time a Scottish club featured in the British transfer record list – Billy Steel was transferred from Morton to Derby County for 15,000 in 1947. Kenny Dalglish's move to Liverpool from Celtic for 440,000 in 1977 was the last time a Scottish club was involved in a record transfer between two British clubs, just two months after Hamburg FC paid 500,000 for Kevin Keegan to set a British record fee.

After a career in management – he was once the coach of Galatasaray – and the civil service, Puddefoot died of pneumonia in 1972, aged 77.

Martin Hannan

 
 
 

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