“I am who I am. The way I act, what others see – that’s the real me. I have never altered my behaviour for anyone. If they like me, great. If not...they can stay away. They don’t have to come to my games.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is far from being the most liked athlete in the world. He has won the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the best football player in the world, three times in his career and is regarded one of the greatest players. He was the first athlete in the world to get 200 million social media followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In 2014, he was named the most marketable and the most recognised football player in the world by sports market research company Repucom. In June this year, ESPN named him the world’s most famous athlete.
But in spite of all these achievements, in no way is Ronaldo considered a model sportsperson. He has been called a prima donna, a cheat, a narcissist, a bad loser and many things worse. From his reputation for diving or going down with the slightest contact as a young player, to his alleged role in getting Wayne Rooney sent off in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals, to being accused of rape, to fathering a child without revealing who the mother is, the Portuguese has been through his fair share of controversies in his career.
He has also made a few contentious statements that drew widespread criticism. In February this year, after Real Madrid were beaten 1-0 at home by neighbours Atletico Madrid and dropped nine points behind table-toppers Barcelona, Ronaldo said, according to the Daily Mail, “If everyone else was at my level, maybe we would be top of the table.” Most recently, his comments following Portugal’s 1-1 draw with minnows Iceland in their opening game of Euro 2016 were criticised after he said his opponents had a “small mentality” for celebrating like “they’d won the Euros”. Later, during the same competition, he threw a television journalist’s microphone into a lake after he was asked a question while walking with the Portugal squad.
“I always speak my mind. I tell it like it is. That might be what others don’t like about me. I don’t pay attention to what people say about me. I don’t read the newspapers or magazines. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”
Not everyone's favourite son
Ronaldo is not the media’s favourite son and neither is he adored by neutral fans, whether he is playing for his club or his country. Many a time, he has been picked on by his own team’s fans. It’s a bizarre relationship. The same media that fills up its columns and airwaves unfolding his every step-over and backheel on the pitch, marvelling at his chiseled body, making documentaries on his physical abilities, and describing his wonder goals like a poet would an autumn leaf, also loses no time in grabbing his feet and bringing him down from his high pedestal when he does something even minutely controversial. The same applies to football fans, which to some extent is a byproduct of what appears in the media. And he understands that.
“The ones who insult me are always the first to ask for my autograph when they see me in the street. I don’t understand why they’re so negative, I really don’t…People love you in the airports and then they hate you on the pitch – that’s what my teammates always say, and it really rings true.”
This bizarre relationship was evident after Portugal’s 2-0 win over Wales in the Euro 2016 semi-finals on Wednesday. The media and fan forums on the internet had lashed out at Ronaldo and his Portugal team throughout the tournament. According to them, Ronaldo was a hindrance – a liability – to his team and never showed up in major tournaments.
As for Portugal, who are all but synonymous with captain Ronaldo, they had the audacity to reach the semi-finals after qualifying third in their group and without winning a single match in 90 minutes. The expanded format of the tournament for this edition, which was praised for giving the likes of Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Austria a chance to shine on a global stage, was criticised for allowing Ronaldo and Portugal to reach the semi-finals. If Northern Ireland, who also qualified third in their group, had somehow reached the semi-finals, whether they would have received a similar reaction is anyone’s guess.
However, after Portugal won and entered the final, their sinful escapism throughout the tournament suddenly turned into clever pragmatism. After being ostracised as the team that failed to win a single match in regulation time, Portugal were praised for being the only side to remain unbeaten throughout the tournament apart from hosts and fellow finalists France. As for Ronaldo, he was no longer the selfish narcissist who was a bane for his team, but Portugal’s saviour with one goal and an assist in the semi-final.
His goal – a thundering header after being airborne for what seemed like eternity – was analysed in separate articles, with graphics of how high he had jumped and how long he had levitated. He was praised for being a leader on the pitch and playing for the team, rather than himself. His greatness was debated again and it wasn’t long before the inevitable comparison arose: If Portugal win Euro 2016, should Cristiano Ronaldo be considered greater than Lionel Messi, who has never won a major tournament for Argentina?
Rivals and compatriots
Ronaldo and Messi is a bizarre case again. The two great arch-rivals. The two best footballers in the world. Comparisons and discussions on who is better are available at a dime a dozen on the internet, but Messi has always had the upper hand. The Barcelona star has been named the world’s best footballer two times more than his Real Madrid rival. Messi is also a less controversial and more likeable character, what with his boyish looks. He also comes across as a shy and humble person. Ronaldo, on the other hand, once said, “I think people are jealous of me because I’m rich, good looking and a great footballer. There’s no other explanation.” He has also built his own museum on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where he is from.
Incidentally, Messi was recently convicted in a tax evasion case in Barcelona and sentenced to 21 months in prison. However, according to Spanish law, he is unlikely to serve jail time since this was his first offence and the sentence is less than two years. While the case did receive coverage and Messi was criticised for his role in it, it’s nowhere near the amount of flak Ronaldo got for his “small mentality” comment – an offence much milder than tax fraud.
“There are days when it’s not easy being Cristiano – days when I’d love to do something normal and I can’t. But I know how to handle it and to be honest I’m not uncomfortable with this kind of life.”
Today, Ronaldo is one win away from creating history. Never before has a Portugal team won a major international tournament. Great players such as Eusebio, Luis Figo and Pauleta have never held a trophy aloft in Portugal colours. The closest they have come to it is a runners-up finish for Figo’s men in Euro 2004, months after Ronaldo’s debut. Back then, after Greece defeated hosts Portugal in the final, a desolate 19-year-old Ronaldo had stood in the centre of the pitch crying.
Twelve years later, now aged 31, Ronaldo is in the final again. It’s safe to assume it’s now or never. It’s also safe to assume that the media will be ready to either write a ballad on him or completely tear him apart for being a self-absorbed bottler. He is one game away from finally being appreciated for his achievements. He is also one game away from being the subject of universal schadenfreude. Find out in Monday's headlines.
Not that he cares. Following the semi-final, he told reporters, as quoted by The Guardian, “I’ve always dreamed of winning something for Portugal and now it’s just one step away. Dreaming is free, so let’s keep dreaming.”
All quotes, unless specified, are taken from Lucas Caioli's book Ronaldo: The Obsession for Perfection.