Note: This is a highly personal account of Cristiano Ronaldo’s tenure as a Real Madrid player. To throw in some relevant background, I have to say that I don’t attach much importance to individual accolades in a sport that uses eleven players plus subs, and that I also believe that it’s almost impossible to decide who the GOAT is in most sports, especially football.
First things first: I must admit that it took me a while to warm up to Cristiano Ronaldo. On the pitch, he has rare qualities in tremendous doses, and as a player in your team he’s simply invaluable, but for a long time the halo effect of his overall demeanour tended to hide most of those positives. And thus, between sequences of goals scored against Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid, and bizarre public statements that made him look like a proper ass, my relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo the player dragged on for at least seven seasons, on constant highs and lows one after the other.
Let me elaborate on that, and start with an example of a huge high. Ronaldo, in conjunction with a media credential given by the largest sports network worldwide, provided me with the immense pleasure of screaming “GOOOOOOOOOOL” in Hristo Stoitchkov’s ear in the Copa del Rey final in 2011. For reasons that could fill thousands of columns, Hristo is the personification of evil to me, so even though I’m almost always well-mannered in media zones, that header off Di Maria’s cross almost felt like an exorcism. I could not let that chance pass me by. I will tell my grandchildren about that moment. I should also thank Pep for starting Pinto in two Copa del Rey finals, but I digress.
Not many players deliver occasions like that, so for a few months I forgot – or rather, looked the other way – when he told off team mates on the pitch, openly exposing them to the wrath of the most opportunistic side of the Santiago Bernabeu, or in front of the media. That memorable header took place during his second season with Real Madrid, as he had just claimed the number 7 after Raul Gonzalez left. At that point, Ronaldo was already scoring goals like nothing I’d ever seen.
As I mentioned, that bipolar dynamic continued season after season. He scored in six consecutive Madrid-Barças and spent countless matches killing Atletico, contributing to keeping alive a brutal domination over our city neighbours. He had looked impressive with Manchester United, but after he joined Real Madrid his scoring numbers became almost unbelievable.
And after each broken record, another arrogant statement, another shockingly idiotic piece of behaviour, further examples that no level of idolatry from the general public was ever enough for him.
It’s paradoxical that such a successful individual so often shows traces of a total lack of confidence in himself, so much need for external approval, thriving too obviously on the siege mentality. It’s probably part of the fuel that he uses to maintain that impressive training discipline and care of his body. But if you don’t get the inside information about his routines and his professionalism, it’s really hard to like the guy, at least for an old-guard Madridista who has been raised by players of a completely different public profile. The fact that every player in the squad had to state that Ronaldo was the best player on Earth seemed so futile, but especially because it was so NON-madridista…
For a long time, to me he was an unbearable killer, but OUR unbearable killer.
My opinion about Cristiano began to change after I watched an interview with Sergio Ramos – unfortunately I haven’t been able to find it – immediately after Cristiano left the pitch following Real Madrid’s Champions League elimination versus Juventus at the Santiago Bernabeu, back in 2015.
Most players stayed on the pitch to thank the fans for their support, but Cristiano did not. Ramos was asked about it in the media zone and I remember almost verbatim his answer: “That is the way Cris is. He’s simply outstanding, but you have to accept that he has these moments. We don’t even take it personally anymore. He wouldn’t be such an amazing player if he wasn’t as driven as he is, but that has its downsides”.
That is the way Cris is, then. Even though that was a very painful elimination, Ramos’ comments made me see Cristiano in a new light. At that point, Cristiano had already reinvented himself, adapting to his changing, slower body, and had become the most devastating striker on earth. I started to understand the person behind the player a bit better, heard more glowing praise from members of the technical staff at Real Madrid – for instance, he would come back at 4am from a Champions League match in Eastern Europe and head directly to the training complex to take one of those hyperbaric chamber sessions.
And, indeed, Cristiano matured bit by bit. Not completely, but the complaints about team mates became less obvious on the pitch; he started to pass the ball when he was in scoring positions a lot more often; on a few occasions he even seemed genuinely happy when other players scored. And then, Zinedine Zidane arrived.
You may think I’m exaggerating, but there is a Cristiano Ronaldo before Zidane and a very different one under the French manager’s direction.
For starters, and as is well known, before Zidane arrived Cristiano would not sit for a single minute of a single match. That was probably one of the best examples of his selfishness: every match was a chance to run up his numbers, and the dying minutes against an almost relegated team in La Liga were as good, if not better, than a knockout match in the Champions League. When Benitez took over, Cristiano had the unbelievably stupid objective of playing every single minute of that La Liga season.
For such a disciplined professional, this obsession to play all the time was inexplicable. The effects on his Japanese-strike approach to football were obvious at the end of each season: he could barely move in his two Champions League finals against Atletico, as was usually the case with most of his May matches in a Real Madrid shirt before Zidane arrived. He would finish the season with 50 goals scored and no significant trophies, as the team kept misusing their most threatening weapon because he would not want to rest during the season. His own objectives were more important than the team’s, when it was obvious that he would not win the individual prizes he so much coveted if Real Madrid kept failing in the silverware section.
The numbers say otherwise, but surely, under Zidane we saw the best Ronaldo ever, even if he scored less. More effective, better integrated into the team, more liked by his team mates, in the best shape when required.
And thus, I finally embraced Ronaldo – as a Real Madrid icon, that is – after his vicious Champions League run in the 2016/17 season.
I know his scoring numbers in the previous seasons had already made him deserve a place in the Madridista pantheon, but one of Ronaldo’s main misconceptions, and probably that of many of his most adamant supporters, is that numbers are everything. If you factor in the mind-numbing scoring competition between Ronaldo and Messi, that might even sound logical.
Nope, numbers are not everything. At least not at the Bernabeu and, for what I know, neither at the biggest clubs at any sport.
Some athletes can win you over with a few gestures, others will never get to you even if they play one perfect match after the other. This way of thinking might sound unfair to some, but that is how emotions go, how you grow fond of some athlete: not by some mathematical formula, but by the connection they build with the fans.
Numbers and individual accolades will look good in your retirement and will probably make you very rich, but there is something extra that the biggest players have, and that has more to do with their demeanour and leadership than with their career figures.
In the aforementioned Champions League run, Ronaldo was all any Real Madrid fan – well, any fan of any team – could ever ask for, including the numbers. Of course he trounced team after team scoring against top defences like they were drunk teenagers. He was so decisive in a team sport that it’s still hard to believe that he did what he did. But he also showed a certain attitude we had not seen before: he supported his team mates, corrected positions, played keep-ball when it was the right thing to do, rested in the less important La Liga matches, and then, after killing Juventus in Cardiff, came back to win the domestic title as well… To my eyes, he had finally become all that he thought he was. His swagger was now justified, and in no small measure thanks to his coach.
Last season, I rooted for Cristiano like I had never done in any of the previous eight seasons. I thought I’d finally understood the character, and was able to interpret his highs – the screamer against Barcelona in the Supercup – and lows – the silly sending-off and ensuing suspension just minutes later in the same match – the same way Ramos did: that is the way Cris is. I accepted him, or rather his supposedly more mature version, wholeheartedly.
Little did I know that he had just roped me into the final succession of highs and lows.
Another fantastic Champions League season, at least up to the quarterfinals, gave way to the 13th title and his post-match statements. I could not believe what I was hearing as he uttered the words, still on the pitch, with his team mates starting to celebrate the title by getting closer to the fans.
Right or wrong, he couldn’t have chosen a worse occasion to vent his disagreement with the club’s management, a timelier moment to piss off most Real Madrid fans – if you’re a Ronaldo fan, you may think it was not that bad, but for any club fan it was terrible, unacceptable. It did not matter whether he was rightly frustrated with Florentino’s reluctance to increase his salary, or that he felt let down by the club in his battles with the Spanish tax authorities. He robbed fans and team mates of a very special moment.
For all his selfish lapses during nine seasons, he crossed a red line in Kiev, one distinctly different from all the boneheaded statements in the previous years. Off mike, not even his team mates resorted to the “that is the way Cris is” answer. They were as mad at him as any regular fan. With a handful of sentences, he’d wiped out the goodwill of the past nine seasons, and especially that of the last two. It was another demonstration of his staunch belief that he must be the centre of attention at all times, and that he’s more important than any club he plays for.
Of course, we’ll hear plenty of statements from him comparing Juventus with Real Madrid in the next few months. Again, that is the way Cris is: a Real Madrid legend whose humongous ego tainted his legacy with the club. We’ll have to remember him that way and nevertheless thank him for the many memorable moments he gave us in a white shirt.