Cristiano Ronaldo’s airbrushed good looks and hyper-charged ability cast him as a different species of man, one invulnerable to the outside world. But, as his penalty cannoned off the Austrian’s post, he grimaced – and then the world pointed and laughed.
Hating the Portuguese has become a sport all of its own. He’s perceived as a prancer and a preener who sees his teammates as mere chorus players in his one-man musical. He’s a comedy villain who’s mocked for his apparent resentment of others’ successes and his refusal to engage in any celebration which isn’t focused entirely on him. When Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema or James Rodriguez scores for Real Madrid, the world’s reflexive response is to comment on Ronaldo’s pout first and the goal second. Just as on Saturday night: Ricardo Quaresma gleefully tapped-in Portugal’s extra-time winner and was mobbed at the corner-flag. But who was missing? In the grand scheme of things, Ronaldo’s ability is all that matters and his otherworldly ability to influence the outcome of games is the only true measure of his greatness, but he will always be surrounded by this ambiguous periphery. He’s very hard to love.
Yet we’ll miss him when he’s gone.
Ronaldo, in spit of being a glowing symbol of footballing modernity, plays quite an old-fashioned role. While the contemporary standard is for excellence to be accompanied by platitudes and faux-humility, he is a raging narcissist. While others talk of their personal performance only in terms of what it has helped their team to achieve, Ronaldo is one of the very few players left who is happy to invert that relationship. He is driven by personal glory and, unwittingly or otherwise, he does little to hide that. Even in the 2015 documentary about his life, the content of which was presumably controlled and shaped by his own management team, his relentless chase of personal accolades was very telling. While filmed during Real Madrid’s successful pursuit of the mythical La Decima, his focus – or the documentary’s narrative – rarely strayed from the Ballon d’Or.
For him, football is a vehicle which can be driven to self-glorification. In twenty years’ time, he will not be filmed attending reunions with a forty-five year-old Gareth Bale, an ageing Pepe and a balding Sergio Ramos. Not because he doesn’t value the contribution of others or because he genuinely believes himself to be the only important component, but because it doesn’t fit his character. Ronaldo is unique, he is supposed to stand alone. His rise through the game has been powered by something more than just a desire to fill his mantelpiece and create memories. He doesn’t seem to covet medals, league championships or even European Cups, rather his ambition is animated by a thirst for legacy. He’s brazenly open about that and unashamedly focused on becoming one of football’s immortals; everything he does on the field, even his style of play, appears to have tailored in a way that will permit him access to that pantheon. He is a less a Madrid player or Portuguese international, and more just a superstar who happens to be wearing a certain shirt. He transcends his environment in a way that very few of his contemporaries do.
That will sound like a pejorative description, but it’s not really intended that way. There is a clear distinction between the player and human-being in this instance and, while Cristiano Ronaldo the footballer may be a highly antagonistic character, Cristiano Ronaldo the man is reportedly generous with his time, polite, and capable of considerable compassion. The point, however, is to accentuate just how unique he is and how rare the breed of sporting icon he represents has become. In this era, in which image is indisputably king, he is unique. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, owner of the other continent-swallowing ego, doesn’t really compare. Ibrahimovic’s personality has been grown with a wink and a smile and Nike’s commercialisation of the player has depended on a subtly tongue-in-cheek approach. In 2016, that’s essential: raw, undiluted self-regard has never been less marketable.
Ronaldo doesn’t care, though – and his advisors aren’t persuasive enough to make him. Consequently, unlike any of the other players who have occupied the rare air at the top of the game in recent times, he is not universally loved. He is more of a Jimmy Connors than a Roger Federer; someone who values the literal act of winning more than the affection which usually accompanies it. Whereas Federer is – and remains – a stylistically perfect ode to tennis (the Leo Messi in this comparison), Connors roughhoused the game and forced it to kneel to him. Even those who hated him had no choice but to watch and respect him.
And Ronaldo is that old, Connors-style of icon. He’s a fascinatingly contradictory character who is both absurdly vain and staggeringly short on self-awareness. Within the context of the today’s game, though, he is the cowboy in black – the counterpoint to Messi’s lilywhite greatness and a jagged character who will always draw a response.
Image: Rory Smith.