Why Cristiano Ronaldo divides opinion like no other athlete on planet

  • Soumya Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 30, 2016 14:30 IST
Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Cristiano Ronaldo makes clear that he defines himself -- or is defined by others -- as a sort of anti-Messi. (REUTERS)

Forty-nine minutes into the Portugal vs Hungary game during the group stages, Joao Mario swung the ball in towards Cristiano Ronaldo, who was lurking in the box. Portugal were trailing Hungary 1-2 and staring at elimination.

Ronaldo had not had a good tournament thus far. He had missed a penalty. He had bungled free kicks, which he usually would have buried in his sleep. He had not scored for Portugal for over a year. Before the game, annoyed – as perhaps only he can be annoyed – at questions about his form, Ronaldo had thrown an inquisitive reporter’s microphone in to a lake. Ronaldo was under immense pressure.

The pass from Mario was over-weighted. It dropped awkwardly between Ronaldo’s feet. Lots of players would have struggled to get a decent touch on it. Ronaldo adjusted his body, held his balance and, using the heel of his right foot, flicked the ball in to the back of the net. It was audacious. It was breathtaking. It was the sort of thing that typifies Ronaldo.

Read | Euro 2016: Ronaldo vs Lewandowski as Portugal face Poland for semis berth

A few days before this goal, we saw the other sort of thing that typifies Ronaldo. After debutants Iceland drew 1-1 with mighty Portugal, Ronaldo said: “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”

The remark was boorish, mean and in appalling taste. (Also not particularly clairvoyant given that Iceland are in the quarterfinals already.) The Iceland defender Kari Arnason, knowing full well exactly what riles Ronaldo the most, had the following riposte to make. “Obviously we’re not going to create as many chances as a fantastic team like Portugal but his comments are the reason why Messi is always going to be one step ahead of him. You wouldn’t expect Messi to say that.”

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo in action against Croatia's Milan Badelj (centre) and Marcelo Brozovic during their knockout stage Euro 2016 match at Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens, France. (Reuters Photo)

Ronaldo is a three-time world player of the year. His gifts are staggering, his trophy cabinet is overflowing. At club level, he has won several times over everything there is to win. He is one of the most prolific players ever. Ronaldo is the only player to score more than 50 goals in four consecutive seasons. He is the only player to have scored 15 or more goals in the Champions League on two occasions. No one but he has scored in four different European Championship tournaments.

Then there is his game. The ferocious pace; the ability to score from anywhere, and in any way he chooses; the hyper real leap with which he towers above defenders and heads the ball goalwards; the knack of being able to impose himself on a game, to be able to change its course in the blink of an eye.

All this garners him legions of hysterical fans. People who support Real Madrid because Ronaldo plays for the club. Slavering, hysterical fans who would give anything for a selfie with their hero.

And yet, he can be petulant, preening, arrogant, always seeking the arclights, ever ready to burnish his stardom and celebrity. That is why Ronaldo divides opinion like no other athlete on the planet.

Read | ‘Rich, handsome and a great player’: Here are Ronaldo’s 5 famous rants

Remember the stories about how Ronaldo was annoyed when Gareth Bale, the most expensive player in the world, came to Real Madrid as the latest galactico? About often not celebrating with his teammates unless he had scored? About the flashes of fury if a pass did not come to him?

We saw that most recently in Portugal’s match against Hungary. Ronaldo had not yet scored. Everyone was talking about how he had not yet scored. The game was eight minutes old. Nani was on the counterattack for Portugal. Ronaldo made the run, but the ball did not come. Ronaldo savaged Nani with a glare, threw up his arms in disgust and turned away.

Ronaldo warms up before Portugal’s game against Croatia in their Euro 2016 knockout match. (Reuters Photo)

Soon after, though, he set up Nani for Portugal’s first goal with a raking pass that cut Hungary open. He scored the second goal, and then the third, to draw the game, and drag Portugal in to the knockout stages.

There is that. And there is this. One cannot seem to exist without the other.

Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Ronaldo is not an unmediated account of one of the world’s biggest sports stars. It is a vanity project, and has the player’s blessings. It is best seen as an indication of how Ronaldo wants the world to perceive him. In the film, Ronaldo spends a lot of time in his trademark, pristine white underpants, his muscles sculpted in high definition, not a hair out of place. A man who has the self-assurance and narcissism to make white underpants such a fashion statement is not supposed to unite opinions.

Read | Cristiano Ronaldo aims for Euro record as he faces tough Polish defence

The film also makes clear – wittingly or unwittingly – that Ronaldo defines himself (or is defined by others) as a sort of anti-Messi. As Arnason’s remark (“Messi will be one step ahead of him. You wouldn’t expect Messi to say that”) shows, Ronaldo appears to be viewed too often through the prism of Messi. Would Messi have pouted so? Would he have turned taking a free kick into such a piece of theatre? Is Messi so fond of showboating and taking off his shirt – and shorts? Oh, no.

Kapadia portrays Ronaldo’s obsession with Messi – and with the Ballon d’ Or, the title of player of the year. From 2008 to 2015, either Messi or Ronaldo has won the title: Messi has won it five times, Ronaldo three. It is an indication of how utterly these two men have dominated their sport.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo scores past Hungary's Gabor Kiraly. (Reuters Photo)

Despite that, neither has won a title with their country. The closest Ronaldo has come is to be a losing finalist against Greece in the final of Euro 2004 in Portugal. Messi has appeared in four finals: two editions of the Copa America, one World Cup and, most recently, the Copa America Centenario. He has finished on the losing side in all four.

Messi will no longer play for his country. Ronaldo leads Portugal in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 against Poland on June 30. He cannot be unaware of what it would take for him to get the better of his fiercest rival in this respect.

The writer tweets as @soumya1910

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