Cristiano Ronaldo steps into the spotlight

As Cristiano Ronaldo shielded his eyes from the blinding explosion of flashbulbs, it was clear the Manchester United winger’s transition from pride of Old Trafford to global phenomenon was complete.

After a magnificent season in which his dazzling array of feints and flicks bewitched defenders and fans in equal measure, Ronaldo has become one of the game’s new icons.

The 22-year-old’s brilliant form was instrumental in United winning their first Premiership title for four years and he was rightly showered with plaudits and awards.

But now he faces a challenge that will define his career.

Every move he made during United’s recent pre-season tour of Asia was followed by legions of fans and photographers desperate to catch a glimpse of him.

So much attention would sit uneasily for many. At best it could be seen as an unwanted but necessary evil, but it would be no surprise if sudden elevation to such a rarefied celebrity status had a more corrosive effect.

The road to football’s pantheon of greats is littered with tales of stars who fell by the wayside after succumbing to the temptations that can so easily corrupt a young talent.

Ronaldo only has to look back at his predecessors in the United number seven shirt to see how easy it is to be distracted by the bright lights.

George Best lost his passion for the game far too young and Sir Alex Ferguson gave up on David Beckham after becoming convinced he was spending more time working on his image than his free-kicks.

Happily for Ferguson, his latest prodigy shows signs that his feet will remain firmly on the ground despite the hype declaring him the best player on the planet.

”How players manage to handle that celeb-kind of attention we will never know,” Ferguson said. ”But with Ronaldo he seems to do OK. He seems to be fine and does not seem to be overwhelmed or overly flattered by it.

”The problem comes when players get flattered by it and start to enjoy it, that is when you start worrying.

”It is obvious when a talent like Ronaldo comes along that there will be attention. This club is great at creating heroes, no question about that.

”With Cristiano, a lot has happened to him in his time at Manchester United. But he is an intelligent boy and looks after himself. He has matured fantastically well.”

That maturity was visible in the admirable way Ronaldo coped with the taunts from opposing fans that followed him around the Premiership in the aftermath of his role in Wayne Rooney’s World Cup dismissal last year.

For a while after his £12-million move to United from Sporting Lisbon in 2003, Ronaldo was in danger of becoming a flat-track bully, who could humiliate inferior opponents but struggled against the best.

His heroics last season erased most of those doubts, but he is still not the finished article.

Lacklustre displays in the Champions League semifinal second leg against AC Milan and the FA Cup final against Chelsea were crucial to United’s defeats in those matches.

If Ronaldo has suffered occasional stage-fright, Ferguson sees no reason why it will inhibit him for long. He has time, talent and buckets of confidence on his side, as the United boss knows so well.

Ronaldo has offered to shave his hair off if he doesn’t hit 20 league goals this season — as long as Ferguson shaves his own thatch off if Ronaldo reaches the mark.

A shrewd operator like Ferguson may just think the gamble is worth taking if it guarantees Ronaldo’s star remains in the ascendant. — Sapa-AFP

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Steve Griffiths
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