The Curious Case Of Cristiano Ronaldo

 Facebook Cristiano Ronaldo
Facebook Cristiano Ronaldo

In this age of neurosis and suspicion, the diatribe has come to be thought of as merely a more artful sort of rant. Originally the genre was one of moral instruction and wasn’t at all aggressive—at least not in the hands of Epictetus, Cicero, and Seneca. When they condemned someone in public, slander never entered into it.

Cristiano Ronaldo. Thousands of people shout insults at the Real Madrid player, in every stadium he plays in. What, then, can a diatribe of the philosophical kind possibly do to injure him? Criticizing someone who’s won the Balon d’Or with not one, but two different teams is a fascinatingly wrongheaded exercise. His looks and his personality, combined with the astronomical amount of money he earns, can be something of an obstruction to clear thinking. Gracefulness and good looks are designed to provoke envy, as both he and his Russian girlfriend have committed their lives to reminding us.

What we have here is a highly productive case of narcissism. When Cristiano prepares for a free kick, he readies himself by taking those few theatrical paces back—signaling to all that something special is about to happen—and then he stands, legs astride, resembling a statue of himself. It’s a pose Apollo might have pulled off, had he simply practiced more. But does it actually make for a better free kick? Of course it does; drawing attention to himself is Narcissus’s way of concentrating.

CR7, Cristiano’s self-appointed nickname, suggests someone not subject to the normal laws of human nature, a cyborg or an archangel, a creature who waxes his hairlines differently.

Sometimes his mannerisms are shocking, but what of it? In mass culture, vanity is what works. Had Mick Jagger been a humble man, the Stones would have ended up playing in a garage somewhere.

Cristiano’s greatness lies in far more than his physical condition; cunning and guile can’t be acquired in any gym.

People who have gotten close to Cristiano suggest a caring, somewhat naive individual, with a one-track mind; the game is the single thing he cares about. It hardly matters, in the end, that he worships his likeness in the mirror or that he spends his free time stroking puppies. It’s the on-the-field exploits we judge a character by.

No player in modern soccer can match Cristiano for sheer athleticism. He goes forward in sustained bursts, putting into practice and even refining the advice Usain Bolt gave him when the pair had that little tête-à-tête in England. He’s just as comfortable scoring with the boot as from a header, calling to mind a Gabriel Batistuta or an Oliver Bierhoff. He’s also a dribbler par excellence and will suddenly halt mid-run, a lesson for the opposition player: you pay for his feints and jinks with time on the orthopedic bench.

All of these traits combine to form what the Germans, with all the exactitude of their language, would call a Kraftpaket: a powerhouse. If he were in the Olympics, he’d be at the top of the podium every time. But soccer is more than just a sport. Cristiano’s greatness lies in far more than his physical condition; cunning and guile can’t be acquired in any gym.

It didn’t bother him if his team lost, but if UEFA and its president didn’t value him as highly as he valued himself, heaven help them.

The masterpieces of this art have been wrought by the crippled legs of Garrincha, by tiny Lionel Messi, by the other Ronaldo, the overweight one, by Tostão who could see only a few feet in front of him, and by Dino Zoff, the all-but-immobile Italian goalkeeper. Greatness, in this ambit, defies any of the normal means for assessing greatness. How to measure a feint, how to weigh up intuition? Or a pass into space, or a cool head, or a player’s superior positional sense, or knowing exactly what your opponent is about to do?

In Cristiano’s view, soccer is a high-performance sport, one in which personal bests come above the ability to enchant. Incapable of identifying with other players, he finds his only reflection in the object of desire: the ball. Cruyff’s legacy was his introduction of the passing game, showing us that the ball ought to be the thing in motion, doing the work. CR7 seeks to reverse this certainty, supplanting the ball as the most looked-at, and most coveted, thing on the pitch.

He forgets he’s taking part in one of the strangest of all the permutations of public life. In a world where families are dysfunctional and residents’ associations reveal to us the true strangeness of our fellow human beings, soccer proposes something quite unusual: human beings—eleven players—actually getting along.

Cristiano’s participation is like that of a distinguished stepchild, standing out from the rest of the family. He’s famous for not celebrating goals he hasn’t had a hand in; his individual achievements always come above those of the group. No wonder his teammates have nicknamed him “Ansias”—anxious for it, wanting, eager beaver. His thirst for success begins and ends with him.

* * *

In the 2011–12 season, Cristiano was nominated for the Balon d’Or. Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president, didn’t go to the award ceremony in Monte Carlo, but his opposite number, Sandro Rosell of FC Barcelona, did. Messi won that year, and Cristiano felt he’d been scorned. In the following game, against Granada, he scored two goals but didn’t celebrate. When he was asked about this show of apathy, he said he was sad “for professional reasons.”

A top soccer player earns millions. Some of this fortune is given over to guaranteeing his public happiness; he’s under contract to transmit contentment. So scoring and then making a show as if to say it’s all a fraud is like flipping the bird when the crowd cheers for you. Everyone’s allowed to feel depressed sometimes, but Cristiano’s depression took the form of a professional “fuck you.” It didn’t bother him if his team lost, but if UEFA and its president didn’t value him as highly as he valued himself, heaven help them.

 His thirst for success begins and ends with him.

In the 2011–12 season, Cristiano was nominated for the Balon d’Or. Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president, didn’t go to the award ceremony in Monte Carlo, but his opposite number, Sandro Rosell of FC Barcelona, did. Messi won that year, and Cristiano felt he’d been scorned. In the following game, against Granada, he scored two goals but didn’t celebrate. When he was asked about this show of apathy, he said he was sad “for professional reasons.”

A top soccer player earns millions. Some of this fortune is given over to guaranteeing his public happiness; he’s under contract to transmit contentment. So scoring and then making a show as if to say it’s all a fraud is like flipping the bird when the crowd cheers for you. Everyone’s allowed to feel depressed sometimes, but Cristiano’s depression took the form of a professional “fuck you.” It didn’t bother him if his team lost, but if UEFA and its president didn’t value him as highly as he valued himself, heaven help them.

When Cristiano arrived at Real Madrid, José Mourinho, the most sibylline manager of all time, began picking teams with a marked preference for players represented by his agent, Jorge Mendes. Never has a promoter had so much sway within a sporting entity. In order to fine tune the tension in the squad and reinforce his fear-based authority, Mou the Terrible would sometimes criticize his favorites in public or leave them out of the starting lineup. When Cristiano’s turn came, he reacted by kicking the dressing-room furniture around. Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas made a show of support—the team captains making a brave stand against the tyrant. And what did the Apollo of Bernebéu have to say about this? He called up his agent and asked him to talk to Mourinho on his behalf. Mendes bargained with Mourinho, winning protection for Cristiano—problem solved (for Cristiano, that is; the rest of the group continued to have a torrid time under Mourinho).

The threat he generates in making solo runs, or from dead ball situations, mean it’s less important to keep possession of the ball; like a superhero, he’ll win the war on his own.

When Marcelo refused to join the Mendes stable, arguing that the agent was like family, Cristiano stopped being friends with Marcelo and went out and praised Fabio Coentrão in the press, a recent, costly addition to the club, the most flawed player of Mourinho’s tenure, and someone who happened to play in Marcelo’s position.

CR7’s motivations are rarely what can be called companionable. Depending on the manager, this becomes more or less marked. Anyone wishing to find out more about the Whites’ dark days under Mourinho need look no further than Diego Torres’s insider account, Prepárense para perder.[1]

Ansias, prodigiously independent, prefers tactics that don’t depend on the team functioning as a unit. The threat he generates in making solo runs, or from dead ball situations, mean it’s less important to keep possession of the ball; like a superhero, he’ll win the war on his own.

* * *

In 2014, on receiving his second Balon d’Or, he surprised the world with tears of gratitude. The gesture did show a human side, but the fact is it was a personal achievement that had moved him.

When Eric Cantona was asked to pick the best thing he’d ever done on a football pitch, he chose an assist he once made, thereby underlining every player’s interconnection with his teammates. Even the most capricious prodigy needs the rest of the team. When Maradona went on his famous run in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, slaloming subjects of the English crown as though they weren’t there, the whole thing was made possible because Jorge Valdano was ghosting along on a parallel run, drawing numerous defenders out of Maradona’s path.

When Cristiano arrived at Real Madrid, José Mourinho, the most sibylline manager of all time, began picking teams with a marked preference for players represented by his agent, Jorge Mendes. Never has a promoter had so much sway within a sporting entity. In order to fine tune the tension in the squad and reinforce his fear-based authority, Mou the Terrible would sometimes criticize his favorites in public or leave them out of the starting lineup. When Cristiano’s turn came, he reacted by kicking the dressing-room furniture around. Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas made a show of support—the team captains making a brave stand against the tyrant. And what did the Apollo of Bernebéu have to say about this? He called up his agent and asked him to talk to Mourinho on his behalf. Mendes bargained with Mourinho, winning protection for Cristiano—problem solved (for Cristiano, that is; the rest of the group continued to have a torrid time under Mourinho).

Paradoxically, the footballer who has benefited most from Cristiano is his archrival Lionel Messi.

When Marcelo refused to join the Mendes stable, arguing that the agent was like family, Cristiano stopped being friends with Marcelo and went out and praised Fabio Coentrão in the press, a recent, costly addition to the club, the most flawed player of Mourinho’s tenure, and someone who happened to play in Marcelo’s position.

CR7’s motivations are rarely what can be called companionable. Depending on the manager, this becomes more or less marked. Anyone wishing to find out more about the Whites’ dark days under Mourinho need look no further than Diego Torres’s insider account, Prepárense para perder.[1]

Ansias, prodigiously independent, prefers tactics that don’t depend on the team functioning as a unit. The threat he generates in making solo runs, or from dead ball situations, mean it’s less important to keep possession of the ball; like a superhero, he’ll win the war on his own.

In 2014, on receiving his second Balon d’Or, he surprised the world with tears of gratitude. The gesture did show a human side, but the fact is it was a personal achievement that had moved him.

When Eric Cantona was asked to pick the best thing he’d ever done on a football pitch, he chose an assist he once made, thereby underlining every player’s interconnection with his teammates. Even the most capricious prodigy needs the rest of the team. When Maradona went on his famous run in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, slaloming subjects of the English crown as though they weren’t there, the whole thing was made possible because Jorge Valdano was ghosting along on a parallel run, drawing numerous defenders out of Maradona’s path.

Criticizing Cristiano’s looks, his personality, his team, or even the money he earns—all of this is the diatribe at its most vulgar. This formidable Portuguese athlete challenges us to come up with a more complex form of condemnation. So here’s the crux: no teammate of Cristiano’s has ever improved by playing alongside him. A consummate egoist, the notion of the duo doesn’t enter his thoughts. Careca surpassed himself playing alongside Maradona, the same with Rivelino alongside Pelé. The Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes had a line about the nonsense word “Clodoaldo” “rhyming with,” that is, improving in the presence of, the finer sounding “Everaldo”; the importance of collaboration in the game cannot be overstated.

Paradoxically, the footballer who has benefited most from Cristiano is his archrival Lionel Messi. The bitter competitiveness of a single player, the vying for individual records of every kind, has spurred the Argentine to greater heights.

Cristiano’s physical perfection is a mirror for his solitude on the pitch. The greatest of sorcerers have accomplices, even making use of their defects.

On a bronze plaque mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the poem by Emma Lazarus welcomes those who have no capital city but their hopes:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door…

* * *

Those miners who, leaving the pit, kick a ball between them, are not so different. Consummately democratic, soccer was dreamed up as a way of overcoming the tyranny of great athletes and giving the barefoot players a chance; with a little guile, they might overcome the limitations life has placed on them.

The pariahs that have made this terrain their own have had names such as Maradona, Di Stéfano, Puskás, Cruyff and Pelé… None of these outlandish characters relied on sheer power or pace alone, and each of them made their friends better players.

In this game, which allows for so much magic and wonder, Cristiano Ronaldo merely plays a sport.

[1] Prepare to Lose, Ediciones B, 2013. TC mark

God Is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game by Juan Villoro is now available for sale. 

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