Vanity projects are nearly always hilarious and have the inevitable, unintended consequence of ridiculing their heroes. While they often labour under the pretence of shedding light on a subject, more often than not they show little more than a stage-managed reality – an uncut version of something which has already been heavily airbrushed.
Ronaldo, Anthony Wonke’s semi-deep dive into the world of Real Madrid forward, doesn’t quite follow that trend even if it does come equipped with the usual batch of cliches. It’s fun and really not a bad way to spend an hour-and-a-half, but rather than adding texture to a player who can often appear holographic, it succeeds only in confirming many of the assumptions that already exist about Cristiano Ronaldo. He is vain – hopelessly, hopelessly vain – but not necessarily in an arrogant way or dislikeable way, rather as the manifestation of some deep insecurity.
When Ronaldo peers into the mirror, like the Evil Queen from Snow White, he seems to seek reassurance rather than an ego stroke and there’s something very unsettling about that.
As is shown – and has been echoed in the press ever since its release – the film portrays the Portuguese’s relationship with football in a strange way. Ronaldo is shown to be in possession of everything a man could ask for, including a life which is cosmetically perfect. But while the documentary is a portrait of unimaginable success and cartoonish opulence, it has a lingering sub-text and it hints at a joylessness within its subject’s life.
Cristiano Ronaldo turned thirty in February and his game is starting to show signs of wear and tear. His statistics may still place him at the very top of the game but not even the fiercest Madridista would deny that his career is now on a gentle downslope.
That’s very normal and it’s something which happens to every athlete as they enter their thirties but for Ronaldo, who seems to place so much emphasis on his individual place in the game, it’s natural to wonder what might happen once his personality is de-coupled from his footballing greatness.
He’ll be talked about for a long time and rightly so. His level of performance over the past decade has burnt a hole in the stratosphere and brought him untold wealth and fame. The trouble, seemingly, is that neither appears to have translated into any form of contentment. Ronaldo is merely sustained by success rather than truly satisfied by it. He is a lonely climber trudging mechanically up into the clouds, never stopping to admire the view and never really taking a moment to appreciate how far he has travelled.
Maybe that’s admirable and maybe it is the attribute which has allowed him to become who he is today, but it’s less than ideal in a man who will still have most of his life to live after his football career finishes.
Cristiano Ronaldo needs football and he appears to have an unhealthy reliance on the affirmation it provides. While offering a convenient narrative arc, his documentary’s focus on the Ballon d’Or really just confirms an easy truth: the game is his drug and his moments alone in the spotlight offer a high which he will likely chase forever.
It’s tempting to be dismissive of such concerns. Ronaldo has the means to float blissfully in the ether for the rest of his life, but that’s a reductive approach to what can be a complex problem.
What happens when he can no longer hear the crowd and when he’s the deprived the sustenance of success? When there are no more goals and no more awards and Cristiano Ronaldo is sitting at home with his memories and his fading looks, how will he fill the voids?
In Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, the Al Pacino-starring tale of a shooting-star quarterback who rises to prominence in a fictional American Football world, a conversation takes place between Jamie Foxx’s character and the team’s creaking, pill-addled linebacker, played by Lawrence Taylor. It’s very Hollywood and overly stylised, but it’s dialogue which has a real-world resonance: fame is fleeting and when the floodlights fade athletes are left alone in the darkness.
That it is Taylor’s character who gives the lecture lends the scene an added poignance. The former New York Giant, while unquestionably one of the greatest players to ever play in the National Football League, has spent the last few decades – both during and after his career – proving that sporting excellence are no mask for personal fragility. Lawrence Taylor the linebacker is a deity, but Lawrence Taylor the man is very mortal.
He isn’t an isolated case, either, because professional sport is littered with similar examples. The very finest athletes, those who transcend the ages, can seem like gifts to the crowd, but in some cases the individual needs their sport more than it really needs them. Money, fame, and women may all be highly desirable, but the existence of an emotional outlet can be the master component within that life.
It’s the hidden irony of the sportsman: the very qualities which take him to the summit – the drive, the maniacal focus – often put him on unsteady ground during the long hours of his retirement.
None of that is to say that Cristiano Ronaldo is headed for certain personal doom after he hangs up his boots, merely that he exhibits the traditional symptoms of an athlete who might be at risk. Football is evidently his stabilising gravity and without a traditional family structure to fall back into or an obvious secondary focus to absorb his obsessional competitiveness, there has to be a concern for how his energies will be channelled.
His post-football life will be embellished with all sorts of luxuries and he will possess the raw purchasing power to do as he pleases but, as has been shown before, material wealth is not the warm blanket it’s commonly assumed to be – and no nightclub, fashion label, or millionaire’s toy will make the testing emotional adjustment any easier.