Rashford and Ronaldo: Hyperbole or truth?

The football media loves nothing more than a comparison. Young and up-coming players are routinely described as the “next so-and-so” without a hint of responsibility or care. It’s almost as if the ability to judge a player’s ability or potential is impossible without a frame of reference, and an impossible one at that. Witness the lazy exhortations of Paulo Dybala as “the next Messi”, or Marco Verratti as “the next Pirlo”; players only need to play in roughly the same position to be labelled analogous, no matter their stylistic differences.

One such comparison doing the rounds recently is that between Marcus Rashford and Ronaldo (the original, obviously. In an aside, it is quite ridiculous that one of the greatest strikers of our times has to be identified thus). In a departure from usual occurrence, this particular piece of judgement came from O Fenomeno himself. Prior to England’s ultimately disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, the Brazilian told media outlets that he sees himself in the Englishman, adding that “he’s a good young player…..with an amazing future.” Those comments were rehashed in the build-up to England’s friendly against Brazil at Wembley, with Rashford being asked to comment on them as well. While he said that he grew up watching videos of the Brazilian, and that his game has been influenced by him, a few media outlets ran the story as one of Rashford being the next Ronaldo.

Before I descend into frothy-mouthed outrage, let’s first take a cold, hard look at the facts. Rashford is 20 years old; he has two goals in 15 appearances for England, and 26 in 89 for Manchester United. Ronaldo, when he was 20, had scored 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro, 54 in 58 for PSV, 9 in 14 for Brazil, won the Eredivisie top scorer award and been to the ’94 World Cup with Brazil, also winning a bronze at the 1996 Olympics. He would go on to win the World Player of the Year award thrice, the Ballon d’Or twice, the Golden Ball at the 1998 World Cup and the Golden Boot at the 2002 World Cup, hold the record for the most goals in World Cups till 2014, and score the second-highest number of goals for Brazil. He broke the world transfer record twice, before his 21st birthday.

When put in stark contrast in this way, one can see how unfair it is to compare the two. Yet, the media continues to do so, burdening Rashford with the expectation of living up to the standards set by one of the greatest to have played the game. Of course, Rashford is only at the beginning of his career; he may go on to achieve greatness in the game as well. Or, heaven forbid, he may have a perfectly standard, run-of-the mill footballing career. He is undoubtedly one of the most exciting young players in world football, and has so far shown an admirable capacity to absorb the pressure that comes with playing for Manchester United. We must let him continue to do so, let him develop at his own pace and do what he does best, rather than call him the “next Ronaldo” or whatever. In doing so, we may just allow him to reach the heights that O Fenomeno so memorably scaled.