Is Ronaldo ready for bigger U.S. spotlight?
Apologies for sounding too Kardashiany, but could Cristiano Ronaldo "Take America"? Real Madrid's capture of their Decima, buttoned by their Portuguese superstar's abs-revealing, garbage-time penalty kick, has sent his global profile to blockbuster superhero franchise level. The 29-year-old, who is recovering from knee tendinosis, is currently in the USA with his national team.
The only statistic rivaling the number of clutch goals Ronaldo has netted is the dizzying array of products he has elected to pitch in scattered territories around the globe, including KFC in Malaysia (Spicy Talent!), Saudi fast food, an ever-so-creepy European Armani promo and, perhaps predictably, his own snug underpants.
Yet, like space to Captain Kirk, the United States has always been football's final frontier. Elite footballers adore the U.S. because of the anonymity they can still experience when vacationing here. If Ronaldo's Portugal, one of the United States' opening-round opponents, excels at the World Cup, might he be able to become the first global footballer to truly crack the United States without playing there?
To do so would complete a remarkable career arc born of personal and professional transformation. On the field, the Portuguese superstar's work ethic has propelled a 12-season makeover from show pony to the world's most lethal player. Strong, swift and superlatively coordinated, no other attacking talent can torture defenders in so many ways -- with pace, power, the deftest of touches, aerial ability and set-piece invention.
Ronaldo's run into the World Cup has been statistically startling. Seventeen of his 31 league goals have given Real Madrid the lead, and his 17 Champions League goals (a season record) propelled Real Madrid to the trophy they so desired. In the World Cup playoffs, he outdueled Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- courtesy of a dramatic, 29-minute second-half hat trick -- to smite Sweden and deliver the tournament place Portugal craved.
In the process, Ronaldo has become football's highest earner, gained the upper hand in his mano-a-mano with Lionel Messi, and morphed into a transcendent athlete, part reigning Ballon d'Or, part creature of fantasy. He is fully deserving of a museum to celebrate his majesty, even if it was self-built.
Off the field, Ronaldo has undergone a similar evolution. From a baby-faced footballing fledgling so shy he held his mother's hand on the streets of Manchester, he morphed into a vain vaudeville villain, like the dog from Aesop's fables in love with its own reflection.
Winning changes everything and even turns the perception of arrogance into confidence. Ronaldo's consistently peerless play has elevated him once again into CR7, a global brand that combines the charisma of a bottle of Drakkar Noir come alive and a physique that would send Michelangelo running for his chisel (see Spanish Vogue).
This rare combination has empowered the rise of the Portuguese star's profile in the United States. The ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report, which is managed by Luker on Trends, has him ranked as the 12th most popular athlete in the United States for the first quarter of 2014 (Messi is 10th).
"The fact he is on the list at all is telling," said Rich Luker, the social scientist who manages the study. "He is definitely positioned to take off."
With World Cup 2014 airing in prime time and expected to break all ratings records, might Ronaldo be primed to become one of America's top-five sporting figures? David Schwab, founder of Octagon First Call and a celebrity brand expert, believes so.
"Americans love success," he said. "In soccer, there are Americans with marketability in this country -- Landon [Donovan], Alexi [Lalas], Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard -- but none have achieved global success, and that is what we connect to with Ronaldo ... and why he will join Pele and David Beckham in our imaginations."
Pele and Beckham both played in the United States, yet Ronaldo exists in a different age.
"Social media allows us to feel like we can touch and feel him no matter where in the world we are," Schwab said. "Ronaldo's [83 million] Facebook likes and [26.5 million] Twitter followers feel like they know what he is having for dinner and where he is going next."
Ronaldo has something that Messi does not.
"He is a global brand to men and women, so while both men can appear on the sports front page, Ronaldo with his shirt off on vacation is a lifestyle front page in a way Messi is not," said Schwab.
"His American parallel would be Andre Agassi in his prime when he had that physical look and dynamic personality you can build a marketing campaign around. Messi is more Pete Sampras in that equation."
So how big could Ronaldo become in the U.S.?
"His brand is always going to be global as opposed to being United States-focused," Schwab said. "But he has all of the brand partnerships he needs to become massive here, if he were to drop into the Super Bowl, for instance. The only question right now is whether Ronaldo has the desire to do more, because America is his for the taking."