Almanac Soccer: Coiffures, posers, and show-offs: ‘Ronaldo’s’ European Cup Final.

I’ll say up front that I’ve always favoured Australian Rules football for its rugged action, but you have to love Soccer for its theatrics. But how far can the defining line be stretched between sport and theatre?


The other night I got with some soccer loving friends to watch the 2016 European Cup Final, France v Portugal, and tried to get into the spirit of it. I’ve haven’t seen much Continental soccer before, so I’ve only seen Ronaldo play a few times, but his reputation precedes him. The match is billed as the whole nation of France against one man, Christiano Ronaldo. Is the Stade de France in Paris big enough to contain his ego?


Most in the room with me are supporting France, mainly because of Ronaldo. He’s the anti-hero; not exactly Batman’s Joker, but when they make the movie (and there’s talk of it), he’ll likely be played by someone more dark, like Jack Nicholson or Johnny Depp rather than Matt Damon or Harrison Ford, but keep Jim Carey in mind to supply the emotional meltdowns.


Now, we know the guy can play. He’s done it all in European club soccer, but he’s yet to bring a trophy home for the national team. He was there in Lisbon, as a boy in the team 12 years ago, when Greece scrounged a goal to deny the Portuguese victory at home. So this is Ronaldo’s Second Coming to a European Cup Final.


Now is his moment. He’s Portugal’s Captain and only behind France’s Griezmann for the tournament’s leading goal scorer. Portugal’s only 90 minute victory came in their semifinal from one of Renaldo’s majestic, Air Jordan type leaps with hang time to power a header past the goal keeper. It was timely contender for goal of the tournament. On this pleasant night in Saint Denis, there couldn’t be any other man in the world under more focussed attention. And as the McDonald’s sign boards around the ground say, he’s loving it.


So was it going to be the biggest anticlimax when Ronaldo went down injured in the first ten minutes? No, far from it! At first I was surprised that his knee did appear to be suffering a real injury. That wasn’t what I expected after the obligatory rolling on the ground, arms flailing. But that just meant more cameras, with more facial close ups, giving Christiano more ‘me’ time while he sat on the turf holding up the game. The ten remaining from Portugal then push the ball to each other for the next five minutes, just treading water, while the knee gets inspected on the sideline.


He then comes back on. He then goes off again to get his knee strapped. Portugal push the ball around a bit more until he comes back on again. When it becomes clear that he can’t run freely enough to continue, he signals for a substitution, and sits down on the turf waiting for a stretcher. If he couldn’t score the winner in this game, then this could be his last chance to draw attention to himself. He ceremoniously gives up his captain’s armband and lays down on the stretcher, eyes closed as if dead.


The look reminded me of the 1978 Henry Winkler comedy, The One and Only, where Winkler plays a wannabe actor who craves people’s attention. The opening scene shows Winkler joining a high school (American) football team because he knows there’ll be girls watching. He fakes an injury, unconscious after the first play. With everyone’s attention on him while being stretchered off, he rolls sideways, again falling onto the ground to everyone’s horror. I was hoping for something similar from Ronaldo at this time, but this hasn’t yet entered his repertoire.
From that time on, the match proceeds cautiously, as cup finals mostly do, as one goal will most likely decide the match. The player close ups on the big screen during the lulls allow us to examine the secondary competition to which professional footballers are currently committed, that is, who can outdo the other for most creative hairdo. For my money, tonight’s winning coiffure goes to French and Juventus central midfielder, Paul Pogba. Though the competition is fierce, I’m told Pogba’s stylistic effort has actually been toned down in comparison with his other outrageous cuts and dyes in respect of the occasion.


The match did have its cliff hanging moments, with the French looking the more likely to score within the ninety minutes. When André-Pierre Cignac bounces his tight angled shot off the inside of the left post and somehow across the goal face in the 92nd minute, the game must go into extra-time, still 0-0.


Someone must win, but with no scoring how does soccer decide who really is the better team? Could hairdos count for something, I wonder? It’s towards the end of extra-time, everyone’s getting tired. After one particular tangle, the ref steps in and gives French defender, Laurent Koscielny a yellow card for handling the ball. He demonstrably protests, of course. But this time, the replay clearly shows the ball hitting the arm of his Portuguese opponent, Ederzito António Macedo Lopez (otherwise Eder, by his shirt name). Now the skin colours of Eder and Koscielny are like coffee and cream. When the ref saw the ball hit the dark arm of Eder, how could he think to give a yellow card to Koscielny? With the resultant direct free kick, Portugal almost scores, hitting the crossbar. It would have been the most ridiculous way to decide the game. Even my idea of deciding the match by hairdos wouldn’t look so silly by comparison.


But the French defense is momentarily stunned. A minute later, they are opened up, and Eder fires home the winner from well outside the box. France will try to equalise in the last ten minutes but we know it’s all in vain. Their energy is already spent.


These ten minutes are some of the rare moments in this tournament when Portugal has actually been leading. In all of their games they’ve only been in front for about ten percent of their combined playing time. Rather bizarre for the championship winner! (France weren’t much better, having entered the Final after holding the lead for less than a third of their match time.) The excitement brings Ronaldo out of the change rooms. He stands shouting instructions from the coach’s box (which I suspect is technically illegal, but it’s good theatre.) So for the last ten minutes, Portugal has two coaches.


One of the Portuguese goes down with ‘cramp’. Such time wasting tactics is a predictable coda to any extra-time tournament finale. From the coaching area Ronaldo instructs by pointing to his wristwatch. His understudy knows the script and stays down on the ground, arising as painfully slow as a Shakespearean Hamlet having drunk poison.


Now I don’t mean to say that these are not true athletes being tested in a physical contest. Courage is required. In the jump balls alone there was one bad head clash; one guy yellow carded for tunnelling; another yellow carded for a strong knee in the back. But drama school is too often a necessity for attracting the attention of the referee. In this game, a high boot near the face should have been sufficient to merit a free kick, which mightn’t have been given without the player falling down holding his forehead. No contact was ever made.


It’s like the old joke about the Swiss Alps ski instructor, who says in a heavy French accent. “For your first lesson, I am going to teach you how to fall down.” The Australian in the group pipes up, “Mate, for forty bucks an hour, you’re going to tell me how to stand up.” But falling with flair and timing is intrinsic to the game. Too early or too late and you could be yellow carded for ‘diving’. Ride the bump and stay on your feet and it’s guaranteed you will never get a free kick.


This evening, Ronaldo is the victor. No one is swapping shirts, but Ronaldo takes off his number 7 anyway, just in case, happy to reveal his exquisitely chiseled pecs and abs. Why does he need to take off his shirt? His screw in nipples show that the Paris evening breeze is cool. And he can’t be hot from playing, as he only played the first ten minutes. Though it’s said that when going through the airport metal detectors, Ronaldo is the only player who offers to take his shirt off before anyone asks him to.


In an arena filled with such theatrical displays, it is no surprise that Christiano Ronaldo is currently the world’s most celebrated actor in the play.

About Michael Viljoen

Michael was born in the Nelson Mandela Bay area, the same as Siya Kolisi, the successful World Cup winning Springbok captain, but was raised in Melbourne with a love for Australian Rules. He has worked as a linguist in Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, where he wrote a booklet on the history of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, which was translated into several Cameroonian languages.


  1. John Green says

    Well written, Michael. You really get stuck into the “beautiful game” where it deserves to be mocked. Rose and I watched the last ten minutes plus extra time when we were in Ireland. I think it’s a European thing. The English game is nowhere near as cringeworthy.

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