It’s not easy being Cristiano Ronaldo. On the one hand, there’s the endless quest for full-length mirrors and the striving to perfect what is already pretty darned good; on the other, the endless carping of journalists, the crowd, opponents, even teammates. What’s the point of being so good when no one else gets it?
He doesn’t make it easy for himself with the endless controversies—the World Cup wink in 2006, the rant over chants in Euro 2012 and now, the cry from the heart. I’m sad, he said two weeks ago, that’s why I don’t celebrate my goals for Real Madrid. You could hear the titters and jeers; there goes Ronnie again, the poor little rich kid who wants to be loved. He’s not happy with the $16 million (around Rs.88 crore) he earns each year at Madrid—he wants more. Money can, it seems, buy him love.
But while it’s easy to knock him, it’s easy too to forget what Ronaldo brings to football—and what he’s done to get to the top. A player who has, over the past decade, dominated the two top football leagues, breaking into one as a precocious teenager and leaving it as its biggest star, and entering the other with a huge risk to his reputation, enduring the hard knocks before finally achieving greatness. Along the way, reinventing himself from a winger, a fringe player, to the central playmaker.
Yes, he is high maintenance—but he works at least as hard on his game as he does on his image. It’s only when he’s compared with his arch-rival, his bête noire, that things get, well, a bit messy.
I’ll plant my flag early on—I love Ronaldo’s and Madrid’s style of play, its emphasis on speed over stealth, pace more than pass, direct over delicate. Make no mistake, though, Madrid’s game involves as much technique as does tiki-taka. There are few—if any—sights in football better than Ronaldo in full flow, “running down that wing”, as the Manchester United fans still sing, beating his first marker for sheer speed, catching an overhead pass, killing the ball with one movement, beating his second marker with a drop of the shoulder or leaving him dizzy with a series of stepovers and then beating the keeper with a bullet of a shot. All this in the space of a few seconds.
He’s done that for years now; it’s what prompted Manchester United to persuade their boss, on a flight back from Portugal after the teenager had tormented them in a friendly while playing for Sporting Lisbon, to sign him up.
If that were all to his game, he’d be a star. That was simply the basic package; Ronaldo Ver. 2.0 added a lethal free kick—the trick apparently lay in hitting the ball at the valve, which helps the ball drop down faster. He then perfected his heading technique and, by the time he joined Real Madrid in 2009, had the nous to play through the middle—and thus be more influential.
I had the privilege of watching one of his most commanding (and high-profile) performances, on a freezing, rain-swept day in Cape Town during the 2010 World Cup. The opponents were North Korea; at the risk, perhaps, of enhancing his reputation of being a flat-track bully, he dominated the game with his passes, his flicks and his ceaseless roaming across the park.
None of this came easy; coaches speak of endless hours spent perfecting the free kick and other tricks and Wayne Rooney wrote recently of how Ronaldo came back after the 2006 World Cup bulked up so that he could take on his defender. That body is now celebrated in a documentary aptly called Cristiano Ronaldo The Machine (look it up on YouTube) that analyses his game on various parameters. It’s a pretty stunning testament to a player who, as a teenager, was operated on for an irregular heartbeat.
So why, after all those goals, all those honours, and all that money, the angst and the prima-donna mentality? I guess it can partly be explained by his background.
Ronaldo was born to a family of relatively humble means on the island of Madeira, deep in the North Atlantic, much closer to Marrakech and Casablanca than the Portuguese mainland. For a Madeiran to make it in Lisbon is the equivalent of someone from, say, Ranchi making it in Indian cricket—a small-town boy with a strange accent fighting big-city prejudices. The chip on the shoulder was just one training-ground taunt away.
Next came his stock-in-trade: Wingers (and goalkeepers) are far more prone to ridicule and abuse, it comes with the territory. Had he been a defender, a central midfielder or even an out-and-out striker, he might yet have been a different person, but a winger’s modus operandi is based on the outrageous. Basically, he puts himself out on a limb; stunning when it comes off, stupid when it doesn’t. Ronaldo’s main weapon in his early days was the stepover, often to the point of showboating. Defenders—the foot soldiers of football—hate that, and Ronaldo’s shins and calves paid the price. He was also easy meat for opposing fans—and often fans of his own side who would wish he’d just pass the bloody ball to a teammate.
Then there were the two main clubs he’s played for, whose history—recent or otherwise—prompts love and loathing in equal measure. Manchester United are hated because of their success and the power that has come with it. Real Madrid’s case is a bit more complicated, given their association with Franco and Spain’s Fascist era, but their biggest problem today is that they aren’t Barcelona and will always be seen as the team that has assembled stars rather than grown its own.
These are hard times for some of sport’s great entertainers. Kevin Pietersen paid the price for his insecurities, Oscar Pistorius went down in public estimation because of his ambitions for Olympic gold. Football needs Ronaldo happy again—even at the cost of a few million dollars more. Even if it means a few more mirrors to admire that physique.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com