Gabriele Marcotti
Thursday June 18th, 2009

There are some people who, I guess, are just not meant to be liked. Maybe they don't fit with what we expect, or perhaps there's something about them that prompts us to judge them more harshly than others. Or maybe they just don't look right.

Consider four of the world's best players (I'm not going to suggest they are the top four because I don't want to get caught up in an endless and subjective debate): Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaká and Lionel Messi. The latter two are generally adored and loved, even by their opposing fans. The former two are reviled by their opponent and often viewed with suspicion even by their own fans.

What gives? What's the common thread binding Kaká and Messi on the one hand and Ibra and Ronaldo on the other?

Ibrahimovic is accused of being lazy off the ball. Fair enough -- you lose track of the number of times he stands, hands on hips, watching his teammates defend at the other end of the pitch. But then Messi isn't exactly the second coming of Roy Keane (in fact, Barça-watchers know that Samuel Eto'o often does a fair chunk of his defensive work). And, by contrast, Ronaldo regularly runs himself into the ground, chasing back and defending on corners.

As for being "money-hungry" mercenaries, sure, you could level that accusation at some of them. Ibrahimovic practically engineered his move from Ajax to Juventus in 2004. He then dumped Juve for Inter after the Calciopoli scandal. And he's now flirting seductively with Barcelona and Real Madrid. And, of course, before it was finalized last week, Ronaldo's not-so-secret love tryst with Real -- while still under contract with Manchester United -- was there for all to see. But hey, even squeaky-clean Kaká used interest from other clubs to sign a deal that made him the best-paid player in the world some 15 months ago. And he was happy to listen to Manchester City last January and, of course, Real last month. That's the way of the world, isn't it?

Ronaldo supposedly goes down too easily and occasionally reacts with X-rated tackles (just ask Thiago Silva). Fine. But Messi has been known to take a tumble as well. And, when it comes to outright cheating, he's the only one of the four to have conned the referee by scoring a goal with his hand. In comparative terms, Ibrahimovic is a paragon of integrity (though he, too, doesn't stay on his feet if he thinks there was contact), at least when it comes to diving. The point is that there really isn't much difference among the four, with the possible exception of Kaká.

So what is it? Personal life? Ronaldo lives his life like a 20-something single heterosexual male with money to burn, the center of a universe of beautiful and willing women. But Ibrahimovic shed his wild streak a few years ago; these days, he's just another boring married guy. Of course, compared to the ultra low-key Messi (whose girlfriend made her first public appearance only earlier this year) and the evangelical Christian Kaká (who preserved his virginity until his wedding day), Ibra is Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Manson and Mick Jagger rolled into one.

Could the difference be -- ultimately -- the way these people look and come across? Messi and Kaká are both clean-cut and soft-spoken. They look shy and humble. There's something of the underdog about them (which, incidentally, isn't that far from the truth: Messi overcame a hormonal disorder, Kaká broke his neck when he was a kid). Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo both look big and brash. They remind you of the older kid in the playground who stepped into your pick-up games and ran circles around you.

Of course, the marketing folks picked up on this a long, long time ago, which is why Messi and Kaká far outstrip the other two in terms of Q rating and commercial potential. As for who the greatest of the four is, it's open to debate, and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But because we're only human, odds are, the likability factor will affect the debate, probably far more than it should.

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