Jose Mourinho leaned forward and revealed his deepest fears. "I'm worried," he said, "that someone will give Cristiano Ronaldo an hostia." An hostia is the communion wafer at the heart of the Eucharist or Holy Communion -- the consecrated bread, the host, the body of Christ. But, fear not: Mourinho wasn't scared of some unscrupulous priest forcibly converting Ronaldo to the Catholic faith; he was scared of some unscrupulous defender forcibly converting him into a heap of broken bones and bruised muscles, writhing on the ground. For hostia in Spanish also means a blow, a whack, a thump.
It was the Real Madrid coach's news conference just before the second game of the season. Ronaldo had been caught on the ankle in Week 1 at Mallorca. He had continued for the 90 minutes -- the challenge occurred in the third minute -- but afterward Madrid informed journalists that he could be out for a couple of weeks. As it transpired, he was out for 14 days -- conveniently enough, exactly the same number of days as international duty lasted. Absent as two more poor results cost Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz his job, he was fit again as Madrid prepared to face Osasuna.
Not that Mourinho said he was entirely relaxed; not, he said, that Ronaldo was entirely fit. He said he feared a recurrence of Ronaldo's injury and insisted that the Portuguese attacker was "too honest." Ronaldo, he said, "has a British attitude, an attitude of fair play. He takes the hits and doesn't go down. He is too honest. He doesn't go down and because of that the referees don't protect him. I'm worried that someone will give him an hostia."
So was the Madrid press. Never mind the fact that it looked like a pretty unexceptional tackle or that Ronaldo had not and would not miss a single minute for Madrid. Never mind either the fact that last year Ronaldo was actually only the 24th most-fouled player in La Liga. After the Mallorca game, the sports daily Marca accused Madrid's opponents of going for the Portuguese player and specifically homing in on his weaknesses. Its cover ran a target on Ronaldo's ankle -- the same one that had kept him out for six weeks last season -- and the headline: "Objective: Ronaldo." It claimed that, like a boxer who sees a cut by his rival's eye, opponents were deliberately aiming for the same part of Ronaldo's body.
The fact that, a solitary game into the season, there was no evidence to suggest as much -- and if teams did start targeting Ronaldo's ankle, you could make a case for saying it was because Marca had helpfully informed them of his weakness -- made no difference. They were scared Ronaldo would get an hostia, too. A campaign was launched. Campaign? More like a moral crusade. Ronaldo was an entertainer the game should not be deprived of, an endangered species. Anyone who went near him was demonized, malicious intent read into every tackle. Forget the other players; Marca declared that Spain had to protect Ronaldo.
But Ronaldo did not get an hostia. Lionel Messi did. It happened late in a game against Atlético Madrid last Sunday. Messi was stretchered off after Tomas Ujfalusi stamped down on his ankle. Photos showed the ankle doubled right over and when Messi took his sock off, his ankle had already swollen up. Fortunately, tests the next day showed that Messi had only minor ligament damage and would be out of action for about 10-15 days.
"The images speak for themselves," Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola said afterward. "Now you [journalists] have a responsibility to write about it."
So write about it, they did -- and in some cases with classic spin. When Ujfalusi got a standard two-game ban, the pro-Madrid Marca considered the case closed, arguing that the defender should not be "demonized" -- a reaction that contrasted remarkably with the publication's attitude toward Souleymane Diawara and Patrick Mtiliga when they were involved in clashes with Ronaldo last season. Marca ran comments from Atlético president Enrique Cerezo saying that Ujfalusi is a "clean player" and on the Czech's message of apology to Messi.
Meanwhile, although the defender appeared genuinely upset and sorrowful in his news conference Monday, the Barcelona-based El Mundo Deportivo was still furious. The sanction was, it said, "ridiculous -- another kick for Messi." On Tuesday, columnist Luis Racionero moaned: "The only thing this Kafkanian maggot should do is shut up and disappear. The competition committee should kick him out of the league, but that putrid committee packed with Madridistas is delighted for people to destroy Messi."
Racionero was among the least rational, but he was not the only one setting into a familiar role, even though immediately after the event they had all been a little scandalized. The image of the challenge, after all, hardly let them react in any other way. It had been a genuinely nasty "tackle." Barcelona had, in Guardiola's words, played "brilliantly," but it was Messi's injury that dominated the media. It was as if the game had been forgotten -- as if the crunch of Ujfalusi studs wiped out the previous 89 minutes. "Hunted!"; "The essence of the game, kicked!"; "Brutal" ran the headlines in the Barcelona-based Sport. El Mundo Deportivo called it "Messicide," while the Madrid-based newspaper AS led on "Aaaaayy!"
At Marca, the cover read "Chilling" in cracked-up letters like a bone shattering. Inside, its editorial tried to claim that when it had campaigned to protect Ronaldo it meant Messi too -- and all the league's artists. (There was no mention of the rest of the league's players; maybe they don't need protection.) "It's time," Marca said, "for measures to be taken," time for the "impunity" to end. There should be zero tolerance. Oddly enough, they forgot what they said before last year's clásico, when they called on Madrid to stop Messi "by civil means or criminal ones."
But if Marca '"forgot," Barcelona's Guardiola did not. No one was claiming that it was actually Marca's fault that Ujfalusi had fouled Messi, but the gulf between messages was revealed. Insisting that "all players must be protected, not just Messi and Ronaldo," Guardiola nonetheless pointed out: "People cannot talk about stopping players by civil means or criminal ones."
Marca editor Eduardo Inda was furious. Accidentally on purpose using the feminine form of the word "mad" to accuse Guardiola of having "gone loca, I mean loco," he lost his cool. What came next would have been a brilliant demonstration of irony -- if only that had been what he intended.
"In classic fascist style, Guardiola has put a target upon me, with falsehoods, half-truths. If anything happens to me, we will know who to blame," railed the man whose newspaper drew a target on Ronaldo's ankle and called for Messi to be stopped by all means necessary.