Cristiano Ronaldo basks in adulation amid a cloud of allegations
Those Manchester United fans lingering in Old Trafford on Tuesday evening rose to applaud Ronaldo. They sang his name. He beamed in the adulation. Through it all, the camera was locked on his face, capturing his every smile, his every glance, his every move.Updated: Oct 24, 2018 09:59 IST
The camera stayed with Cristiano Ronaldo every step of the way. It was by his side as he exchanged high-fives with his Juventus teammates after the final whistle, clinging to him like a shadow. It was directly in his path, close enough to reach out and touch, as he walked over to celebrate with the jubilant Juventus fans.
As he strolled the length of the Old Trafford field, toward the tunnel, it stayed with him: one camera, two operators, the supplicants and the superstar locked in a perfectly synchronized pasodoble. They paused when he did, when his journey was interrupted by two pitch invaders seeking selfies.
The lens did not waver as stewards raced to tackle the interlopers; it did not flicker as one ducked and wove and made it through the impromptu cordon. It acknowledged their existence only when Ronaldo — admirably, if perhaps a little counterproductively — asked to be handed one of their phones and proceeded to grant their wish. He teed up the shot, leaned back, smiled, and took the photo: Ronaldo, a teenager and a handful of red-faced stewards.
Those Manchester United fans lingering in Old Trafford on Tuesday evening — those steadfast few who had not departed long before, who had not grown disheartened by Juventus’ obvious superiority, who had stuck this 1-0 defeat out to the bitter end — rose to applaud him. They sang his name. He beamed in the adulation. Through it all, the camera was locked on his face, capturing his every smile, his every glance, his every move. He was the center of the shot, the center of the world.
This is how it always was here, of course, in the six years that Ronaldo graced this stadium, this club, as he transformed himself — indulged and encouraged and nurtured by Sir Alex Ferguson — from a prodigiously gifted winger into one of the two finest players of his generation.
And yet while there has been some regret — who knows what United might have achieved had Ronaldo spent all of those peak years in red, rather than white — there has been no resentment. It would be possible, indeed, to believe Ronaldo has almost become an avatar for Manchester United, his former fans living vicariously through him, his successes some sort of distant solace for the travails of their present.
No surprise, then, that his name was cheered when the teams were announced, or that one or two flashes of that platinum brilliance were greeted by the crowd with wistful delight, or that there were those who waited until the last — and it was the very last: Ronaldo was never going to depart in a group — to show their appreciation.
But for all the mutual admiration, this should not be read as a feel-good story, a blissful trip down memory lane. This was a far more complex evening than Ronaldo, and his fans, would have envisaged when United was drawn to face Juventus in the Champions League group stage back in August.
Since then, the German magazine Der Spiegel has published the account of Kathryn Mayorga, who has said that Ronaldo raped her in a Las Vegas hotel in June 2009. She has filed a lawsuit in Nevada against him; her legal team claims that a nondisclosure agreement she signed nine years ago is not valid because of the stress she was under at the time. Ronaldo has strongly denied the allegations; he said, before this game, that he was confident that the “truth” would come out. The Las Vegas Police Department has reopened a sexual assault case from 2009.
That is the unavoidable backdrop against which Ronaldo, the adored hero, returned to Old Trafford; those were the circumstances under which his name was cheered by both sets of fans, under which he selflessly gave the pitch invaders a photo to treasure as they take their inevitable bans from the stadium, under which he was serenaded after he left the field, smiling and winking to the camera.
He has not been charged with any crime yet, of course, let alone convicted. But the allegation is serious enough that it is impossible not to reflect, after an evening of such ardent worship, on the nature of support, of fandom, and to ask how far that bond should stretch.
The language of sports, in these cases, is insufficient. Sports tend toward easy narratives, a simplistic causality. A player who has been embroiled in some sporting controversy, angered by an opponent or criticized by a coach, responds through performance: They battle back, they silence the doubters, they put all that behind them thanks to a goal, a win, a triumph. Off field — but in-world — issues can be settled, or redressed, on it.
That approach fails and flails, though, in cases like this, when what happens on the field is irrelevant. Whether Ronaldo is a “great champion” or not — as Juventus put it in the club’s tone-deaf response to the allegations — does not make any difference. He is a great champion. He might also be guilty of rape. Those two things are so unrelated that they should not really appear in the same sentence.
And yet there is a connection: It is impossible to know which cheers were for Ronaldo the player — the goal scorer supreme, the relentless winner, the triumph of self-improvement — and which were for Ronaldo the icon, the superstar. Increasingly, in an age where players attract as much or greater loyalty than even the clubs they represent, the two are inexorably entwined. Those fans did not run on the field seeking any Juventus player’s embrace, they went explicitly for Ronaldo. They came from the home sections of the stadium; one was wearing United colors.
Ronaldo will always have been a great player; whether he will always remain an icon depends as much on what happens in the quiet of a Nevada courtroom as in the tumult of Europe’s great stadiums. Until then, he will still be cheered; perhaps not always as rapturously as he was here, by his opponents, but cheered nonetheless. But there will always be that question, that doubt: What, exactly, do those cheers denote? Who, exactly, are you cheering for? And when, precisely, does it stop?