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Jun 6, 2012

Understanding Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo ranked No. 1 in our poll of the best players at Euro 2012. 

The task of translating Ronaldo into the American sports pantheon demands fusing the competitive nature of Kobe Bryant with the self-importance of Terrell Owens, adding a dash of Zoolander and topping it off with the arrogance and vanity of Alex Rodriguez. Simply put, Ronaldo is the kind of guy who would have no problems letting Cameron Diaz slip popcorn into his mouth during a Super Bowl. Like A-Rod, CR7 affects an aura that suggests he could easily let an afternoon get away from him while tracing the contours of his own reflection in the mirror.

Strip away the rhinestones, precision-plucked eyebrows and glistening waxed legs, though, and the Portuguese winger is the complete athlete.  Few players can torment their opponents in more ways. Strong, swift and superlatively coordinated, Ronaldo can score with power from distance, with clinical calculation up close or with his head via aerial audacity.

To see Ronaldo prepare to take a free kick is to see a creature of fantasy live and breathe. After deliberately marking a run-up, he eyes the target, readying himself for an eternity, legs spread dramatically apart. In a flurry he springs into life, generating such power and spin that the ball is transformed into a gyrating orb, exploding past a disoriented goalkeeper.  

Ronaldo’s persona is tinged by a touch of the vaudeville villain. This is a man who evidently lives life by an unspoken mantra: “Why walk when you can strut?” A smile crosses his lips only to express derision toward the inferior inhabitants who populate his world: opponents, referees and teammates who do not bend to his will. Goal celebrations are less spontaneous outbursts of joy and more testaments to his own magnificence.

Such theatrics ensure that Ronaldo triggers extreme emotions. He is a player adored by his team’s fan base yet loathed by just about everyone else. Nike based a marketing campaign around the love and hate he conjures, polarizing reactions that have been magnified by his starring role on Real Madrid, where, under egotistical coaching genius Jose Mourinho, Ronaldo has perfected a brand of loathsome excellence.  

Ronaldo remains sanguine. After being heckled throughout a Champions League victory at Dinamo Zagreb in September 2011, he offered a simple analysis of his detractors' motivations. "I think that because I am rich, handsome and a great player, people are envious of me. I don't have any other explanation.”

The La Liga star is certainly well-remunerated. He ranks third on football’s annual highest-paid list with $36.6 million, attracting a roster of blue-chip endorsers including Coca-Cola and Armani, enticed by the 44 million-plus who have made him the most liked athlete on Facebook. (By point of comparison, LeBron James has 10.4 million, Derek Jeter just 1.66 million.)   Ronaldo's Q-rating is sufficient to enable him to “romance” both Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. Yet his explanation conveniently ignores the dark side of his game: A propensity to flop, dive and feign writhing pain also stains his reputation.   

The nadir of his gamesmanship came in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals against England. After Wayne Rooney had stamped on Ricardo Carvalho, a teammate of Ronaldo’s, Ronaldo goaded the referee into showing a red card and then winked toward his bench, suggesting that the Rooney windup had been an intentional part of the team’s game plan. The incident, now known as “The Wink,” led to Ronaldo’s vilification by the English tabloids, which treated the gesture as though it amounted to the single greatest assault on British values in the postwar era. Ronaldo later dismissed the vehement emotions he elicited with typical faux modesty: "If God can't please everyone, I won't either.”

The God comparison is a long way from his humble origins. Born Feb. 5, 1985, in Funchal, the largest city on the small island of Madeira, off the western coast of Portugal, Ronaldo was named Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro -- Ronaldo after then U.S. president, Ronald Reagan (just as his great rival Lionel Messi was named after another legendary American, Lionel Richie). His early years were shaped by hardship; his father was a gardener and alcoholic, his mother a cook and cleaner.

As a skinny 18-year-old, greasy of hair and fleet of foot, Ronaldo danced around Manchester United’s back line while representing Sporting Lisbon in a 2003 preseason friendly. He signed with the English giant shortly afterward for a reported $19.5 million.  Although he inherited David Beckham’s No. 7 jersey, the young Portuguese initially cut a shy figure, a teenager sufficiently nervous during his early days abroad to grasp his mother’s hand as they crossed the road together. He reserved his cockiness for the field, becomingly instantly renowned for his proclivity to unleash a torrent of step-overs and feints at high speed.

The first time I saw him play in the flesh was against an Everton side led by fellow teenage phenomenon Rooney.  United had effortlessly dismantled its inept opponent and Ronaldo had cut apart Everton at will, overshadowing an off-form Rooney. With the result beyond doubt, Ronaldo killed off the clock, unleashing a blur of gratuitous scissors and step-overs on the edge of the Everton box. The showboating goaded Rooney into action. Head down, he thundered in from the opposite wing, charging diagonally across the entire length of the field. Without any intention of touching the ball, he crashed knee-high into his rival, looming over him menacingly as he writhed on the turf in pain.

Renowned for his hard work in training, Ronaldo summoned the physical and mental fortitude to withstand the punishment he received. While playing an ever more dominant role, he helped United clinch a trio of Premier League titles as well as the 2008 Champions League before forcing a move to Real Madrid for a record $125 million transfer fee in 2009.  

Upon his arrival in Spain, Ronaldo found himself cast as the antagonist in an epic footballing drama with Messi’s Barcelona -- a drama in which, until this past season, Real appeared condemned to come off second-best. Propelled in large part by an imperious Ronaldo --  46 goals in 38 appearances -- Real Madrid was able to rip the La Liga title from Barcelona’s grasp, a triumph blemished only by the fact that Messi topped Ronaldo's personal achievement, tallying an inconceivable 50 goals.  

Real’s title was also slightly sullied by a surprising Champions League exit. The Spaniards were dumped by Bayern Munich after a semifinal penalty shootout in which Ronaldo missed his kick.

Ronaldo summed up his year with a swagger, telling Spanish paper Marca, "On an individual level I give my season a 10 and collectively [the squad] a 9 because we want to win more -- the Champions League, for example.” What mark, then, will he award his Portuguese teammates after Euro 2012? After all, Ronaldo has traditionally struggled while wearing the red shirt of his national team, scoring only once in the past three international tournaments dating back to 2006.

To witness Ronaldo wear the captain’s armband at World Cup 2010 was akin to watching a modern form of bear baiting. The world’s most complete individual player cut a forlorn figure, isolated and alone. "I feel a broken man, completely disconsolate, frustrated and an unimaginable sadness,” he declared after his team lost to Spain. “I am a human being, and like any human being I suffer, and I have the right to suffer alone."

The Euro draw has done him no favors, landing Portugal in Group B alongside twin powers Germany and Netherlands, not to mention a robust Denmark.  Portugal, a counterpunching team, lacks a creative midfielder, and it remains to be seen who will score the goals as the absence of a clinical striker has long been a tactical vulnerability.  

Ultimately, Portugal will go as Ronaldo goes. A preening, egotistical display inevitably will lead to an early exit, but as Diego Maradona showed at the 1986 World Cup, a truly great player can single-handedly will an otherwise average team to glory.  

One thing can be guaranteed: When Ronaldo takes the field, no one will take their eyes off him, whether they are urging him to succeed or clamoring for his failure. If he rattles off a piece of sporting poetry or falls flat on his face, Ronaldo has the sporting world on the edge of its seat.


 

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