Ladislao Kubala may be the least famous truly great footballer who ever lived. His extraordinary career took him from his native Hungary (where he was born in 1927) to Italy (where he narrowly escaped being on board the plane that crashed into the Superga hills in 1949, killing his Torino team-mates) and ultimately to Barcelona, where he won four La Liga titles and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups (the Fairs Cup being the predecessor of first the Uefa Cup and then the Europa League). Such is Kubala’s standing in Barcelona that during the club’s centenary celebrations in 1999 he was voted by the club’s fans as Barca’s greatest ever player, even though he had retired more than three decades earlier and been followed at the Nou Camp by such footballing luminaries as the two Johans (Cruyff and Neeskens) and the original (Brazilian) Ronaldo.
The reason that Kubala is not as well-known outside of Catalonia as he should be is simple. He was Barcelona’s star player in an era (the 1950s) when they were completely overshadowed by their great rivals, Real Madrid, who, under the incomparable Alfredo Di Stefano and Kubala’s fellow Hungarian Ferenc Puskas, won the first five European Cups and consequently established themselves as probably the greatest club side ever. Such was Kubala’s footballing misfortune (he had probably used up all his luck in avoiding the Superga crash after staying at home to nurse his ailing son) that even when Barcelona became the first team to defeat Real Madrid in the European Cup, knocking them out in the 1961 semifinals, he still failed to win the trophy as Barca went on to be beaten by Benfica in the final.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been Real Madrid’s equivalent of Ladislao Kubala – an all-time great talent who has had the bad luck to play for Real in the first era in which their own European exploits have been utterly outstripped by those of their hated rivals, Barcelona. Since Ronaldo joined Real from Manchester United in 2009, he has won comparatively little: only one Champions League; one La Liga; and a couple of Spanish cups. I use the word “comparatively” deliberately (how my own club, Arsenal, would love to complain that they had won “only one Champions League”), because in the same time, of course, Barcelona have won three Champions Leagues and four La Ligas, and even more importantly earned comparison with the very greatest club sides ever, including Real Madrid’s fabled 1950s team.
Barcelona’s Champions League defeat this week to the other Madrid side – Atletico – has not only confirmed that Diego Simeone is the outstanding defensive coach in the modern game, ahead of even Jose Mourinho (Simeone has now knocked Barca out of the Champions League twice in three seasons, whereas Mourinho has only achieved it twice, first with Chelsea and then with Inter, in more than a decade). It also affords Cristiano Ronaldo a unique opportunity finally to escape from Barca’s enormous shadow.
As they say at Mormon weddings, “It’s all relative”. Of course, Ronaldo, by any normal measure, has been phenomenally successful. Even before joining Real, he had proved himself to be a genuinely great footballer, winning one Champions League and a hat-trick of Premier Leagues with Manchester United, as well as becoming (ahead of Cantona, Giggs et al) the only modern-day Manchester United player who truly bore comparison with the club’s 1960s “holy trinity” of Law, Charlton and Best.
Nevertheless, his experience at Real, up until now, has been akin to that of Kubala’s at Barcelona in the 1950s – that of an outstanding individual player whose achievements have unfortunately been put in the shade by the outstanding team assembled by his club’s greatest rivals.
However, Barcelona’s surprise exit at the hands of Real’s city rivals, Atletico, offers Ronaldo a golden chance to avoid Kubala’s fate and prove himself as undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers ever. If he can inspire his Real team-mates to win another Champions League (which would make it a personal hat-trick of European titles for him, after his earlier wins with Manchester United and Real), he will have escaped forever the gigantic shadow cast by the current Barca side. That will not be easy, of course, as Real first have to overcome Manchester City in the semifinals and then either Bayern Munich or Atletico Madrid in the final, but if anyone can do it, it is surely Ronaldo.
If he wins a third Champions League for himself and Real’s 11th in total, Ronaldo’s place in the pantheon of the very finest footballers ever (a hall of fame reserved for Pele, Maradona, Garrincha, Di Stefano, Puskas, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Charlton, Best, Zidane and, yes, Messi) will surely be secure. Then the only thing that will stop him winning universal admiration (even among Barcelona fans) is the preening narcissism that allegedly made even his own son choose Messi as his favourite player. But it is highly unlikely that a cure for that will ever be found.