IT is World Cup season but the world is busy talking about an ageing superstar and not the competition itself. Across history, no footballer, not even King Pele, has ever had such a grip on the global imagination. His name is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, and he is from the little Portuguese Island called Madeira. He is audacious, ‘arrogant’, selfish and vain but he is a five-time Balon d’Or winner, the first football billionaire, the greatest player to date in the biggest club competition in the world, the Champions League; the most successful superstar across different leagues; the highest goalscorer in international football, and in fact now the highest goalscorer in football itself. He will be the first to have a billion social media followers. He is insanely talented but critics say he is the product of practice, not nature, although they are yet to show any player who can practise his way into five Balon d’Ors.
Unlike his main rival Lionel Messi, Ronaldo is no media favourite. He has, and may have actively cultivated, the image of an arrogant, “selfish” player, one who thinks of himself and not the team, etc, etc. Many in the media have just called upon him to prove himself at the World Cup, a charge that should not be thrown at a player of his status. If the most influential athlete on the planet is being asked to prove himself, it is not just because he is getting old: he was relentlessly panned at the height of his power when he scored 450 goals in 438 appearances for Real Madrid. Ronaldo is not expected to say anything: pundits prefer to say what they think he thinks. It is the everlasting lot of CR7 never to have positive press coverage. A pundit says “Ronaldo has not dribbled past anyone in three years” and ESPN immediately enters a verdict: “His criticism is valid.” Except that it was not, and outraged fans posted videos on YouTube showing the Portuguese dribbling past many.
The central claim is actually hollow, but it is made nonetheless: Messi is the shy, humble guy; Ronaldo the arrogant villain. Indeed, because of the open bias, an article supposedly about him had more mentions of his rival’s name! The breathtakingly handsome, fittest athlete on the planet with almost no fat in his body does not hide his feelings. He scoffs at critics, saying “Your hate makes me unstoppable.” Ronaldo will often be found among the fans after games signing autographs and posing with the physically challenged. It does seem to be the case that CR7 is not even permitted to talk. It is difficult to imagine any athlete disrespected so brazenly across history, and yet beloved by true fans of the round leather game. When the magical Messi panned CONMEBOL, a continental outfit, it was just; when Ronaldo complains about disrespect in Manchester United, a football club, it is gross. He is such an arrogant player who literally donates his blood to people, for which reason he has no tattoo on his body. He has more philanthropic gestures, and has never been credibly accused of arrogance outside the field of play, where critics say he is “a most selfish player” despite having the highest number of assists in the Champions League. He also happens to be the one out of the duo who is looking forward to a dinner. Poor CR7.
Because C.Ronaldo or CR7, as he is fondly called by admirers, is never away from the news, a recap of the present saga is called for. The Portuguese had released an interview with British braggart Piers Morgan, saying he had no respect for his coach Eric Ten Hag, and that his club Manchester United had betrayed him. In fact the screaming headline that caused critics to go haywire was this bold one by The Sun: “Manchester United have betrayed me.” Immediately, the world caught fire! Pundits disgusted by Ronaldo storming off the pitch when Manchester United took on Brentford, etc, literally took the “wantaway” striker to the woodshed, and you can trust ESPN to have had a field day as usual taking down the arrogant fella. Indeed, a journalist spoke of his “already infamous” interview that was yet to air. However, when Morgan aired the first part of the interview on Wednesday, it was a completely different picture that emerged. Indeed, nearly all the comments on Piers Morgan’s YouTube page were positive. The interview presented a thoroughbred professional and family man desirous of his club’s return to glory and deeply hurt by its hierarchy’s treatment of his case at the saddest moment of his life. Now that the actual interview is put, views are changing quickly. Take a trip to the interview on YouTube.
What is Ronaldo’s story? He was almost certainly heading to Manchester City from Juventus when Sir Alex Ferguson called him, saying: “It’s impossible for you to go to City.” Per Ronaldo: “And I said okay boss.” And so the United legend returned to his old base out of pure patriotism when logically he should have headed to City. But what did he find? “The progress was zero…We see many things that I used to see when I was 20.” The club had not changed since he left: it had not invested in technology and even the gym was a drawback. The elite mentality was gone, the younger players were lazy, the club’s owners were not interested in the things that mattered, things that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and others had spoken of long before Ronaldo’s return. And even Casemiro who came afterwards was reportedly startled by the state of things at Old Trafford. Ronaldo returned breaking the record for shirt sales, and thinking he could help till his retirement at 40, but it was a happy ending that never was…
And then we see the quintessential Ronaldo when Morgan raises the issue of his family. Here, the Portuguese icon does not cry like he did during his last interview with Morgan when he was shown a clip of his late father that he did not know existed, but his pain is hard to hide. It turns out that contrary to all the negativity that pundits spun around his shunning of Manchester United’s pre-season tour, saying he was seeking a suitor in Europe so he could play Champions League Football (a venture in which critics like Gabriel Agbonlahor, the ex-Aston Villa player that no one remembers, had a lot to lecture the five-time Balon d’Or winner about), Ronaldo had actually been held down by the illness of his daughter, whose brother had died at birth. His daughter had bronchitis, and he wanted to be there for her. “I think it was not fair to leave my family for a pre-season,” he says. It was a terrible moment in which, by his own admission, he did not know whether to be happy or sad: he had a daughter but had lost a son. Worse still, the club management and Coach Ten Hag did not believe him; they thought he was avoiding pre-season to dump United. It would be nice to watch the interview before sending Ronaldo to hell.
Beyond his fight for family, Ronaldo does have many positives. There is no other athlete anywhere in history that trains as hard, and has inspired so many, as the Portuguese, even if those living in fantasy land disdain his brutal honesty about his beloved club and utter lack of fake humility. He is actually more intelligent than he will ever be given credit for: he quickly transitioned from a mesmerizing, showy winger in United to a pure attacker in Madrid, realizing the futility of showmanship. Dribblers (Robben, Pele, Messi, Okocha, etc) are traditionally short people, but Ronaldo at United was arguably only inferior to Ronaldinho. The Argentine is of course the better dribbler. That is an unimpeachable verdict. But the Portuguese seems to be unmatched at headers, speed, positioning and penalty taking, all of which are skills treasured by pundit unless it is the arrogant Portuguese bad boy that is involved.
When he scores a penalty kick, it is because he is Penaldo. The critics say there is nothing to the bicycle kick he scored against one of the greatest goalkeepers in history, Guilangi Buffon, rising to an insane height before slotting in the ball to the utter befuddlement of the Juventus powerhouse. But it is probably the greatest goal in the Champions League. Throughout his career, the Portugues has played with a less stellar cast than his main rival’s and yet he has triumphed, proven in England, Spain and Italy. Ronaldo was even criticised for getting injured in an Euros final which he eventually lifted, the first for the Selecao. When he doesn’t play too well, he is too old and should consider the Arab league. Then when he scores a hat trick he is: “Just special. I mean, a hat trick!”Many of the Portuguese’s most virulent critics actually achieved nothing for their national teams, and are remembered only by a few fans, but they never stop taking a dig at CR7. Agbonlahor notoriously blamed the Portuguese for wanting to play in the Champions League because, as he says, he only thinks about himself, a claim easily undermined by the Portuguese’s choice of a middling club instead of the high-flying City. A player who used to play alongside superstars such as Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Marcelo and Sergio Ramos found himself playing with overrated stars like Harry Maguire and still manages to score 25 goals. He has earned the right to have some respect attached to his name.
Perhaps CR7 will only be truly appreciated when he retires. Beginning from his youth career with Andorinha (1992–1995), Nacional (1995–1997) and Sporting CP (1997–2002), Ronaldo has come a long way in three decades. He won the UEFA European Championship representing Portugal in 2016; was runner-up in 2004, and was third place winner in 2012. He has to his name the UEFA Nations League (2019) and the FIFA Confederation Cup (2017) bronze. Signing for Manchester United at aged 18 in 2003, he won the FA Cup in his first season, three consecutive Premier League titles, the Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup. At age 23, he won his first Ballon d’Or. At Real Madrid, he won two La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League titles, along with a string of other cups. He is a four-time European Golden Shoe winner, among others. As the World Cup 2022 kicks off, he can expect to break more records.
On current evidence, there is nothing stopping the superstar from actualising his desire to play until 40. By then, looking back on his triumphs and failures, he will have ample cause for cheer. Viva Ronaldo!