Some people are only happy when they're complaining. Create a cure for cancer, and people will be barely be finished congratulating you before they're inquiring about one for the common cold. Everyone knows a parent who will look over their child's report, see nine A*s and just focus on the B in P.E. This is the 'Yeah, but ...' generation. Give the people what they want, and invariably they'll want more.
With all that in mind, then, it does seem remarkably churlish to second-guess Ronaldo's hat-trick against Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2003. Look at the bare facts surrounding this particular performance, and there appears to be little room to manoeuvre. Not many players score a hat-trick against United on their own patch, but Ronaldo did it in the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final. The previous visiting player to claim the match-ball at Old Trafford was Dennis Bailey — remember him? — in that 4-1 League victory for QPR in 1992. In the eight years since Ronaldo's, no one's managed to emulate him. Placed in that context, only the willfully obtuse would raise doubts. And yet still those doubts remain.
For such a bewitching, destructive footballer, Ronaldo provokes a strange level of misty-eyed nostalgia, a sense of what could have been, mainly because of the hardships he had to overcome throughout his career. If he does not quite belong on a list of lost talents, he surely never quite fulfilled his potential from 1998 onwards — not that he should be criticised for that, given that the circumstances surrounding his relative decline were exceptional and almost unprecedented. First, of course, there were the rather unsettling events before Brazil played France in the 1998 World Cup final, a game in which the best player in the world by some distance was a sorry shadow of his usual self after suffering a fit. Brazil were trounced 3-0, but it surely would have been a different story if all had been well with Ronaldo. At the very least, it would have been closer.
Then there are the serious knee injuries that curtailed Ronaldo while he was at Inter, the first against Lecce in November 1999, the second, even more tragically, during his comeback against Lazio five months later. He wouldn't be seen again until 2001, but the fact he somehow found it within himself to help Brazil win the 2002 World Cup only added to the legend. Football is littered with players who have never recovered properly from disastrous injuries (Michael Owen, Alan Shearer, Marco van Basten); the astonishing twist when it comes to Ronaldo is that even though he wasn't the same player, he was still more gifted than most.
The general consensus is that United found that out first hand. Yet given the fairytale story surrounding Ronaldo, there is a tendency to overrate this hat-trick. It's a view bordering on the heretical, like saying you don't rate The Godfather or going to a fancy restaurant and asking for ketchup, but in the cold light of day, it was more to do with United failings instead of Ronaldo's brilliance. Although Sir Alex Ferguson's side won the league, overhauling an unusually fragile Arsenal, they were not a great team, they were merely a very good one. They were in the middle of a run, stretching from the final against Bayern Munich in 1999 until the tie against Lille in 2007, in which they won just one knock-out game in the Champions League, and were at the end of a cycle, the beginning of the all-conquering Ronaldo-Rooney era a few years away yet.
Neither side will appreciate the comparison, but Real Madrid's Galacticos were the Barcelona of the age. Having won the Champions League for the third time in five years the previous season thanks to Zinedine Zidane's gorgeous volley against Bayer Leverkusen, it was unthinkable that they would fail to defend their title. Ferguson was so worried about being drawn against them in the last eight that he alluded it was a Uefa fix designed to ensure Real would reach the final, although he quickly retracted his comment. It wasn't mind games, it was fear of Real's regal aura, and with some justification. In the first leg at the Bernabéu, United were eviscerated. Luis Figo opened the scoring with a delightful curler after 11 minutes of traffic that was so one-way, it was as if United had been told they would be fined if they attacked. With 27 minutes gone, it was 2-0, Raúl accepting a pass from Zidane and coolly beating Fabien Barthez. Three minutes into the second half and Raúl did it again, although Ruud van Nistelrooy quickly gave United hope for the return leg, tapping in from close range after Iker Casillas had denied Ryan Giggs.
"I hope he doesn't like travelling," said Ferguson afterwards, thinking of the second leg. "Failing that we will stop him entering the country." He wasn't talking about Ronaldo though. Or Figo. Or even Zidane. He was talking about Raúl. "Real buy these big players like Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo but I think the best player in the world is Raúl," he continued. That opinion was probably coloured by the way Raúl had also destroyed United in 2000, but Ferguson got his wish when the striker was ruled out of the second leg with appendicitis.
Needing a 2-0 victory to reach a semi-final against Juventus, Raúl's absence gave United fresh impetus, but in truth, they never realistically got within touching distance of Real, even if John O'Shea did nutmeg Luis Figo. After 12 minutes of frantic action, Guti, granted far too much space in the centre circle, was allowed to turn and slide a slick pass through to Ronaldo, who had started to edge away from the unwitting Rio Ferdinand. He let the ball run across him as he headed towards the right side of the area, and instead of taking a touch, he decided to surprise Ferdinand and Barthez with a first-time shot. The angle was tight, but Barthez had left a huge gap at his near post, allowing the shot, which was hit with a fair amount of pace, to sneak past him. It's wrong to insist that a goalkeeper should never be beaten at his near post, but this was one of those moments. It was a Specsavers goal, the sort which takes a couple of seconds for people to realise has gone in. Barthez was beaten too easily and Ferdinand's defending left much to be desired.
The goal meant United had to score three just to take the game into extra time, and they did get one back before half time through Van Nistelrooy. The equaliser, though, only had the effect of poking a particularly angry bear, and at the start of the second half, Real barely allowed United a kick. Tiki-taka was just a twinkle in Pep Guardiola's eye in 2003, so Real's short spell of unerring passing dominance before their second goal was like walking into your garden and finding a unicorn sitting on the lawn. For a minute, Figo and Zidane taunted their hosts, before the Frenchman sliced open United's defence with a sublime pass through to the marauding Roberto Carlos, who unselfishly rolled the ball across to Ronaldo for an easy tap-in. Ronaldo put the finishing flourish on the move, but in truth it was all about the simple genius of Zidane. Ronaldo's part in it was the equivalent of a barman adding a slice of lime to a bottle of Corona.
Eight minutes later, after an own goal from Ivan Helguera had made it 2-2, Ronaldo sealed his hat-trick. This goal was probably the most convincing of the three. Picking the ball up 35 yards out, he turned, advanced ominously and as United criminally backed off, he unleashed a vicious strike into the left corner. Old Trafford collectively drew a deep breath. They were witnessing something special, as the standing ovation Ronaldo received when he was substituted testified. Or so it seemed. Watch the replays of the goal, and although Ronaldo didn't need any help from his mates, he did get some from Barthez, who was caught way too far of his line and then tried to save the shot with his wrong hand. It was a good shot, but not in the top corner, and would it really have beaten, say, Casillas up the other end?
Indeed it is worth pointing out that this was Barthez's last game for United, Ferguson finally growing tired of the eccentric Frenchman's foibles. He was actually not as calamitous in 2002-03 as he was in 2001-02 when he kept the blooper DVD trade going on his own, but he still had his moments; earlier that month, in a league game away to Newcastle United, which a swaggering United won 6-2, a woeful kick from Barthez allowed Shola Ameobi to score Newcastle's second goal. Seemingly meaningless, the howler in fact meant that United's goal difference was one worse than Arsenal's, and they were only three points ahead of Arsène Wenger's side having played a game more. And in the first leg against Real, he was extremely fortunate not to be sent off in the first half when, for no apparent reason, he sneakily handled the ball outside the area despite being under no pressure. In front of Barthez, too, with Gary Neville missing, O'Shea at left-back and Mikaël Silvestre in the centre, United's defence did not exactly exude confidence. Replace Barthez with Edwin van der Sar, Silvestre with Nemanja Vidic and O'Shea with Patrice Evra, and Ronaldo might not have had it so easy.
After Ronaldo was taken off, David Beckham, who started on the bench, scored twice for United to give them an ultimately fruitless 4-3 victory. This might have been the game that started Roman Abramovich's love affair with football, and no wonder he couldn't stand the style propagated by José Mourinho when he became so enamoured with a match in which neither side bothered much with defending. Real stopped playing once they were 3-2 up and it was more of a testimonial than a fair fight. The subsequent giddy reaction from most observers didn't reflect well on anyone. Real didn't even win the Champions League anyway, going out in the next round to a Pavel Nedved-inspired Juventus. That defeat had little do with Ronaldo though, as he had to start the second leg on the bench due to a calf injury. When he came on in the second half with Real 2-0 down, he won a penalty, taken by Figo and saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Juve eventually won 3-1 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.
Ronaldo's hat-trick at Old Trafford consisted of two goalkeeping mistakes and one tap-in, although it would be wrong to quibble with the awe-struck ovation from the United crowd. Yet was this as much about the memory of what Ronaldo had been in his early days and the way in which he fought back from injury to make us fall in love with him all over again as it was about the hat-trick? Let's not forget, too, that fans tend to rate something more highly when it happens against their team, mostly because it's a comforting excuse: magnanimity in defeat makes it more tolerable. Although it's impossible to say with any confidence what the 66,708 spectators inside the stadium were thinking at the time, there was a sense that as they chanted "Fergie, Fergie, sign him up", the applause was not just for the man playing for Real Madrid, but for the boy who scored 47 goals in 49 games for Barcelona in the 1996-97 season. At that point, he truly was O Fenômeno — you could try to stop him, just like you could try to stop a runaway train by putting Hans Moleman in front of it.
Compare Ronaldo's to some of the truly awesome hat-tricks in recent history, and it simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. In 1997, Dennis Bergkamp proved that beating yourself in a competition isn't always the doddle Sepp Blatter has made it out to be when his three goals for Arsenal against Leicester finished first, second and third in Match of the Day's goal-of-the-month competition. Then there's Rivaldo's irresistible offering against Valencia in 2001, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's perfect hat-trick against Tottenham in 2002, Wayne Rooney's stunning United debut against Fenerbache in 2004, Lionel Messi's exuberantly impertinent effort for 10-man Barcelona against Real in 2007 or, arguably, Michel's classy treble for Spain against South Korea at Italia 90. Ronaldo's wasn't even the best in the Champions League that season; that accolade belongs to Thierry Henry for his supreme contribution in Arsenal's 3-1 victory at Roma.
To enter the pantheon of great hat-tricks, something more is needed. Quality of opposition, the stature of the match and the reward for victory must be taken into account. Most importantly, and this is where Ronaldo's entry falls down, it is surely crucial that none of the goals can be put down to bad defending or goalkeeping. Raúl only scored twice in the first leg against United, but neither shot, both elegantly taken with his left foot, gave Barthez a chance (particularly the second, a stonker into the bottom-right corner from 25 yards after a breathtaking counterattack). Rivaldo's hat-trick ticks all the boxes: it was against a team that had reached the Champions League final for the second year in a row, each goal was spectacular and the last, in the 90th minute with the score at 2-2, was a barely believable overhead kick from the edge of the area that the Brazilian made for himself. Without it, Valencia would have qualified for the Champions League at Barcelona's expense. Where Ronaldo is concerned, it feels more like Veruca Salt than Oliver Twist to ask for more. But that doesn't mean we can't.