The pantomime villain who wouldn't settle for second
Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I got my first glimpse of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a watershed in several ways. England v Portugal in the World Cup quarterfinals and some of the pre-match talk had been about Ronaldo facing three of his Manchester United team-mates: Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand but especially his striking partner Wayne Rooney.
Well, we know what happened: Rooney was sent off after an hour for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, the referee's decision coming after several Portugal players, including Ronaldo, implored him to brandish the red card. Then came the infamous wink from Ronaldo, implying - if you were an England fan and/or United hater - that it was all a bit of a lark.
That wink created a furore and many said there was no way that Ronaldo could come back in the new season and play again for United after that. There were rumours that Ronaldo himself had had enough and wanted to leave, but all the while Rooney and Alex Ferguson - whom Ronaldo regarded as a second father - were working on him and return he did.
It's what happened next that says a lot about Ronaldo's character.
One, he came back after the break physically almost a different person - his muscles fleshed out, like he'd been exercising all summer. "Physically, he changed from a boy to a man," Gary Neville said. "It was like he left as a featherweight and returned as a light heavyweight." Ronaldo meant business.
Two, returning to Manchester, when he could have negotiated a transfer to Spain or Italy, showed a mental toughness - he would take on the doubters and detractors and win. His mental strength had already revealed itself in his game in England, surviving the "hazing" (professional football's closest analogy to ragging of new players, which could involve putting them in laundry baskets, for example) at United training sessions and also the severe and constant criticism from those who said his game was too showy.
Third, and most significant, the next three years elevated him from star to superstar. United won three consecutive Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2007-08; that season, Ronaldo picked up the first of his World Footballer of the Year awards. One more season at United, and then he was off to Real Madrid as the world's most expensive footballer.
That's when I next saw him, at the 2010 World Cup. He wasn't at his best but his game had clearly changed, a wide player who came in and influenced the game more directly. Though only 25, he was the captain and leader. He strode that sodden pitch in Cape Town like he owned it and the 7-0 scoreline against North Korea was not flattering to Portugal at all..
By then, he was one of the world's two best players and footballing loyalties were sharply divided between those who loved Lionel Messi and Barcelona, and those who loved Ronaldo. I was (and still am) in the latter camp; without turning this into a debate on Ronaldo v Messi, my position is that while both play aesthetically pleasing football, and have comparable honours and stats, I hold Ronaldo in greater regard. I can understand why Messi draws the greater numbers; his is a more silky smooth game and he is, on the face of it, a more pleasing character, free of the narcissism and preening that is Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yet for having done things the hard way, whether by choice or otherwise, for being willing to play his game in the face of criticism, for taking on, and winning, the challenge of playing in two very different leagues, Ronaldo gets my vote. He had it all: Difficult childhood, straitened circumstances, father issues, the tag of being a provincial in Lisbon and then a continental in Manchester. He dealt with it all; whether it needed all that PR and all those mirrors is besides the point.
Two years ago, he did a Maradona by taking Portugal to the European Championships final; admittedly, they were better in that match once he'd limped off within half an hour but he'd got them that far and then spent the rest of the match almost coaching them from the sidelines, willing them to the trophy.
Also see:Ronaldo makes claim for GOAT
One of my favourite football videos is a brief clip taken after the final, when Portugal's players are returning to the field with their medals. There, waiting by the stairs as the players walk by, is Ferguson. He is nobody now, just another old man with a bagful of memories. But he has bred champions and they recognise that. He waits patiently as some recognise him; he calls out to Nani, another Portuguese who had success at Manchester United, and they hug. But it's clear he's waiting for one person. And when Ronaldo comes by, Ronaldo who has just won the Euros, the world's most expensive player, the one with the biggest ego, Ronaldo takes time out to hug his former boss. I just saw it again and I got that goosebumps feeling again.
On Thursday, Ronaldo takes the stage as the Lion in
Winter Autumn, the man whom the pundits have said each season will lose his mojo and fade away. Except that no one told him the script. He is now, as Gabriele Marcotti says, Ver.5.0; "more trim, less muscle-bound, lighter on his feet". And still able to fire in the improbable, jaw-dropping free-kick.
Thursday might be the last time I get to watch this infuriating, divisive, self-aware player, arguably the most athletic footballer ever. He may play well, he may play badly. But one thing's for sure - he will be compelling viewing.