Home Archive June 2009 A game of two halves
A game of two halves
Friday, 26 June 2009 10:28

The facts of the Ronaldo-to-Madrid saga, one of the most high-profile stories of the last month, are well-known. But the language used by commentators on either side is telling: In this month’s word cloud analysis, Zoltan Marfy goes digging for the Real deal.

Sometimes you have to read behind the lines to get the real story. Whether it is a politician’s proclamation, a corporate report or an opinion piece on a football transfer, people might appear to be saying the same thing…but look more closely and you’ll see that there are really very different messages.

Take the transfer of the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United to Real Madrid. Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan for the last month (and who’s to say that, despite the Arsenal rumours, Bin Laden isn’t really a passionate fan of the Red Devils, secretly wishing he could give it all up and just get a season ticket in the Stretford End?) you can’t fail to have missed the story.

We all know the headlines: Portuguese winger Ronaldo is one of the best footballers in the world, and has been pivotal in United’s recent successes. (and winning the Premiership three times in a row, the Champions League in 2008 and the Club World Cup in 2009 counts as success even for trophy machine Sir Alex Ferguson – no bias here, believe me). But he’s always dreamt of playing for Real Madrid, and after three years of on-off flirtation a deal was finally done on 11 June to sell him for a world record transfer fee of £80 million.


Cloud 1
Cloud 2


You might expect the Manchester United fanzine, United Rant (cloud 2), and the Madrid newspaper El Pais (cloud 1) to report this story in very different ways – one bemoaning the loss of its best player, and the other looking forward to a new era of dominance for the world’s most successful football club. But in fact the wordclouds show that they both have very similar stories to tell. On the surface at least.

The names of the key actors are prominent: “Ronaldo”, “Cristiano”, “Ferguson”, “Madrid”, “United” and “Manchester” – all omitted from this analysis – as well as that of “Perez” the flamboyant new Real Madrid President who is bankrolling this spending spree. To all intents and purposes both are telling a fairly straightforward story.

But look more closely at the words around the edges. They reveal a great deal.

The English fanzine mentions “4-2-3-1”, the formation that United have already begun to play, allegedly in readiness for the winger’s departure. And the names of potential new signings like Karim Benzema, Frank Ribery and Antonio Valencia are dotted around, like fresh buds on the vine. (“Ready to wilt,” Merchant’s managing director suggests here. He’s a Newcastle fan, by the way, so, hey…what does he know?).

Clearly United fans have already moved on. On one level they are marvelling at the size of the transfer, and noting the end of an era, but on closer inspection they are looking ahead to a future without a player as well known for his petulance and ego as he is for his passing and scoring abilities.

The writers at El Pais appear to be equally aware of the limitations of their city’s new golden boy. In their article they recognise the significance of this deal, citing “history”, and placing it in the context of era-defining events in footballl, such as the first million-pound football transfer back in 1975. They even draw comparisons between this new player and their last high profile signing from Manchester United – one David Beckham.

However, again, around the edges are the small words that reveal the true story here. Ronaldo supporters, and there is the word under-pinning all of this concern: “ego”.

El Pais has not raged at the size of the transfer fee, in contrast to Catalan paper La Vanguardia which indignantly pointed out that the £80 million could have instead been spent - in a country suffering from a housing shortage - on building 900 apartments of 80 square metres each. However, the Madrillenos are clearly concerned that “canny” Ferguson may just have got the best from this deal, moving on a player who had “irked” him one time too many, and pocketing a sizeable war chest for the summer’s transfer market in the process.

As this example so clearly demonstrates, it is not in our choice of the obvious words that we reveal ourselves, but in the occasional, barely noticed utterances. So, the disloyal politician may use the right words – “capable”, “experienced”, “confidence”- to describe an under-threat colleague, but his use of the past tense gives him away.

In a newspaper article you can get away withhiding your message between the lines like this. But do it in a corporate report or a political interview and you’re inviting trouble. Even if your audience doesn’t actively read between the lines, it is still left with the feeling that something is amiss. There is still a fatal dissonance between the words and the message. This dissonance is the corporate communications equivalent of a footballer being caught on global television winking to teammates, having got an opponent sent off. And we all know what that does to your reputation.

Contact Zoltan at: zmarfy@merchant.co.uk