Nick Townsend in the Independent:
And so, we depart 2006 embracing two names which have illuminated the national game; a duo who six months ago would have beenthe most unlikely to be commended for awards, other than perhaps El-Hadji Diouf. Could anyone have seriously imagined that Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba, once notorious as practitioners of the game's darker arts, would have been vying for the bookies' favouritism as Footballer of the Year? Yet they are, and clear of the field too - one which includes such names as Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Michael Essien.
But isn't it one of the gloriously compelling aspects of sport, making fools of those who have the temerity to forecast the fates of performers and teams? We overlook the fact that personalities are transformed, by peer as much as public and media pressure, and that individuals are capable of evolving into team players, as we have witnessed with the Portuguese winger.
Amy Lawrence in the Observer:
Hindsight being such a wonderful thing, it does no harm to wind back six months and relive the pearls of wisdom from a selection of vox pops in a tabloid newspaper about English football's World Cup nemesis. Take a bow John Coles, 28, of Enfield: 'Ronaldo's sneaky and devious. He shouldn't even have the right to call himself a footballer.' Hats off to Colin Blundell, 29, from Royston: 'Rooney was stupid, but Ronaldo should never be allowed to play in the Premiership again. I hope he becomes a national hate figure.' Not forgetting Garry Westcombe, 47, of Stoke: 'Ronaldo showed he's just a stupid little boy by winking at the cameras. Every England fan will be baying for his blood.'
Funny, isn't it?
Emotions stirred by football are notoriously changeable. Still, few of England's outraged fans would have expected their emotional response towards Cristiano Ronaldo to be radically altered before the calendar year was out.
Not everyone has performed a volte-face since Ronaldo was, somewhat tangentially, blamed for England's World Cup exit. The majority, however, have been forced to soften their tune. Even the most strident of Ronaldo haters must accept he has illuminated the Premiership, as he showed again with two more goals yesterday, and been partly responsible for ensuring we actually have a title race this season. He plays with a resilience that makes him far more watchable than the show pony, the persistent diver, of yesteryear. He has even been able to show a more human face with a smattering of personable television interviews that show he is not such a cartoon irritant after all.
Not that national hostility is a good thing, but Ronaldo's experience as a casualty of England's World Cup fallout has had an upshot. It has hastened the rise of a talent whose lack of maturity was a weakness throughout his youth.
As a teenager at Sporting Lisbon he was banished from a tournament after throwing a chair at a teacher. Emotional outbursts were not uncommon in a sensitive boy who left his family on the island of Madeira aged 11 for the Portuguese capital. 'He rang me many times crying and telling me he wanted to give it all up,' recalls his mother, Maria Dolores.
'He didn't know anybody and it wasn't easy for an 11-year-old to be alone. He was always asking me to go to Lisbon, but I couldn't go as often as I would have liked. It's just as well he didn't give it up.'
On signing for Manchester United, at the age of 18, in 2003, Ronaldo was depicted as a mummy's boy in an unflattering mock-up in The Sun. Luckily, the growing-up process has been aided by two of the best mentors in the business when it comes to taking heat away from their players. Sir Alex Ferguson at United and Luiz Felipe Scolari with Portugal have put in the hours trying to harness this powerful dribbler with the soft centre.
Occasional tantrums came with the territory right up to the World Cup. When he was easily wound up in friendlies against the Cape Verde Islands and Luxembourg, Scolari admitted: 'Cristiano's case is a worrying one.'
Ferguson echoed those sentiments when the English media made him the fox for their hunt, so it is worth revisiting the incendiary incident during the World Cup, when Ronaldo winked at Portugal's coaching staff in the aftermath of Wayne Rooney's red card for treading on a delicate part of Ricardo Carvalho's anatomy.
Even a wily old pro would have been hard-pressed to understand quite how that made him the scapegoat for England's implosion. It was not Ronaldo who was at fault for Rooney's dismissal. Nor was he at fault for any of England's missed penalties. Still, he got the full tabloid treatment usually reserved for failing England managers or Germans. The public were invited to take aim at a dartboard covered in his face, to back Rooney in an internet vote for the World Cup's best young player to stop the dastardly Ronaldo, and to cheer on France in Portugal's next game.
'Winker' - pun intended - became the acceptable term of reference for Ronaldo. Alan Shearer reckoned Rooney should 'stick one on him' when they got back to Old Trafford. The pertinent point was not when, but if they got back to Old Trafford, so hell-bent were sections of the media in driving him out of the Premiership.
Ferguson deserves credit for convincing Ronaldo that his future remained in England.