Some heroes still need to score on the likeability charts

Image of Simon Kuper

One absolutely hates to name-drop, but when Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Real Madrid this week, I thought back to my interview with Kaka last year. I can barely remember a thing he said. What sticks in my mind is how pleasant he was.

It was at AC Milan’s training ground, Milanello – a sort of seven-star male spa in the countryside near Lake Como. Kaka showed up only 20 minutes late, which for a footballer is early. He wore glasses, apologised profusely for missing me the day before, had a stand-up read of the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper and then answered my questions with affable banalities in American-accented English.

The Monday after the article appeared, a Milan official e-mailed me anxiously. He explained that Kaka, who spent a lot of time at Milanello working on his English, wanted to read the article on the FT’s actual pink pages. But to track down a newspaper two days late is tricky. You almost need to travel back in time. Luckily Milan’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, is also Italy’s mightiest man. Somehow, two copies of the weekend paper were procured in Milan’s central station. I like to imagine Kaka fine-tuning his English with a browse of the books pages.

The point is niceness. Kaka is a brilliant footballer but my main memory of him is what a nice chap he was. Strangely, being nice matters, especially for great sportsmen. It is something Cristiano Ronaldo may eventually find out.

When sports journalists reminisce about athletes they have interviewed, they never ask each other: “What did the guy say?” Instead they usually ask: “What was he like?” Sometimes the answer is depressing. A photographer once told me about doing a photoshoot with the very young David Beckham. Though the shoot was for Manchester United’s own in-house magazine, Beckham repeatedly kept the photographer waiting for hours and then sent flunkies to announce: “David’s already left today.” Some time later the photographer would spot Beckham’s sports car sneaking out of the gate.

Yet often the experience is heartening. Many great footballers are nice. Their job gives them such happiness, energy and a sense of good fortune, and they are treated so well by most people they meet that they beam upon the world. A German friend of mine interviewed Lionel Messi in Barcelona and reported back that the Argentine had spoken entirely in banalities. But more importantly, said my friend: “What a sweet little man he is!” Messi appreciated that the German had made the sacrifice of trekking all the way to Barcelona. He was eager, almost desperate, to make his guest happy.

Niceness works for coaches too. Frank Rijkaard and Jose Mourinho have both won Champions Leagues, but Rijkaard is possibly the most impressive human being in football, whereas Jose Mourinho is just a great football coach. Or take Guus Hiddink: the main reason players and staff at Chelsea want him back seems to be that they liked him.

Not many seem to like Cristiano. He has been called a vain crybaby with a smaller-than-life personality. On the field he plays without a smile, seemingly aghast that some cruel fate stuck him in a Manchester United team peopled with incompetent nincompoops.

It matters, because his project is not just about winning prizes. After a certain point, a great footballer is playing for history. Ronaldo and Kaka are already rich and trophy-laden. At Real they must hope to mark millions of minds forever. They are not just professionals. They are the heroes of our time. When we think back to them in 2039, we will remember not just trophies and stepovers, but their whole personas. To quote the Grantland Rice poem:

For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks – not that you won or lost – / But how you played the Game.

I bet it is not Ronaldo’s favourite poem.

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