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The Cult: Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo cannot countenance being second, and will not tolerate a modicum of failure. As such, he's exactly the sort of character who belongs in The Cult.
Illustration by Dan Evans

With Portugal's triumph at Euro 2016, Ronaldo has finally tasted success on the international stage. Naturally, that means it's high time for him to be inducted into The Cult. You can read previous entries here.

Cult Grade: Second Is Nowhere

There's so much 'like' in football, of various grades and shades. True love, however, is the rarest but simplest of things. Winning seems pretty much irrelevant to it and, if you think of players you instinctively know are loved by fans – Matt le Tissier, Francesco Totti, Steven Gerrard, Alan Shearer – there is a common denominator, namely that the fans could realistically feel the players loved them back. Love, particularly in the case of those four, makes you do silly things, like leaving glaring gaps in your trophy cabinet that might otherwise have been filled. Just because you love the place, and want to try to make it work there and not elsewhere. In return, whether you succeed or not (and to some degree none of them did), you get true love. Because you were prepared to give a part of your own life away, to make other people happy.

In an imaginary conversation I had with a Real Madrid fan I know, she – I prefer to speak to imaginary girls – said "Si, it's great to have Ronaldo in the team. He scores a lot of goals." And with that, and a definite reluctance to expend any more emotion, she had not a lot else to say. Because, regardless of La Decima and La Undecima, regardless of all the goalscoring records under the Madridista sun, she knows the truth – that her club has been put in service of Ronaldo, rather than vice-versa. His desperate quest to be the record everything exists purely to fuel a process that I'm sure, deep down, he knows well: smashing his head with ever greater force against a ceiling on which stands, untroubled, a small, rabbity-looking Argentinean.


Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates winning La Undecima

I became increasingly obsessed, especially in the context of the Euros, with watching what it's like to be in a team with Cristiano Ronaldo. The impression I get from watching Madrid, from the looks passed around by his teammates, is one of extreme ambivalence. Occasionally it's very jolly, often it's a complete ball-ache. Say that you're Toni Kroos, you like the fact that when you go away to Eibar and you're not really up for it, you have a player on your team who is so utterly obsessed with being the scorer of the most goals in history that he'll get you a result. But you'll probably get told off at some point. Given a few of those saddened looks at your errors of judgment, like an eight-year old discovering that instead of saving the game first you just switched off the PlayStation.

For Portugal, it seemed like being in a team with Ronaldo – at least until the semi-final, when suddenly his teammates were not just there to thwart his desperate ambition – was to make a mockery of the idea that football is meant to be fun. You've strived your whole life to don the shirt of your country, and you then have to deal with glares and hissy fits from some guy who treats you having the ball as akin to an errant bellhop carrying his luggage.

Even from the sidelines, Cristiano cannot help but berate his teammates

There is, of course, a set of fans who really like Ronaldo, with the same deep affection you'd have for a jazzy sports car you bought that turned out to have full Transformer capabilities, and was then able to carry your team's banner forward after a few years of stuttering. Not coincidentally, those fans are from a club where there was a name immovably bigger than Ronaldo's – Sir Alex Ferguson – and at a time in his career when Ronaldo didn't appear to have been driven around the bend by his own ego, and could just enjoy his flourishing talent.


At Madrid, obviously, no manager can ever be bigger than the players, because they usually get about four hours with them before the next manager arrives. And also, at Madrid, I guess the deranged reality began to really sharpen in Ronaldo's mind: if being alone in first position is the only place that matters to you, then you must accept – unless you want to go completely doolally – that if you're not first, you're nowhere. More nightmarish images of a small, rabbity Argentinean.

Ronaldo cannot escape his one, eternal rivalry // EPA Images/Juanjo Martin

Ronaldo has peaced out a little in recent years, with the securing of La Decima and another Ballon d'Or. I'll bet you a shiny new penny that about the sweetest thing he felt upon winning Euro 2016, as he gazed upon his delirious countrymen, was that it would be basically impossible for a craven, celebrity-blowing FIFA not to give him the Ballon d'Or this year too.

*crosses fingers and prays Pepe wins it*.

Entry Point: Medium

Here's a beautiful irony: Ronaldo's biggest contribution to a final, the sine qua non tests where the true legends self-select, was to be substituted so that his teammates could stop worrying about him and focus on being a team. Yes, that header in Moscow for United, nullified by wanting to take 'a Ronaldo penalty' rather than just score a penalty in the shootout. Against Greece in 2004, against Atletico twice: nada. Nothing more, at least in the last two, than a passenger, awkwardly trying to watch a Ronaldo movie in his head to pre-empt his actual contribution, a movie that he'd decided would end with him taking with his shirt off. By comparison, in the finals of 2009 and 2011 Messi scored crucial goals for Barcelona.

Ronaldo's injury in the Euro 2016 final may well have been a blessing in disguise // EPA Images/Ian Langsdon


At the end of the Euro 2016 final, Danny Murphy, in his customarily insightful way, said: "The history books won't remember him being substituted, they'll just remember that he won it". It's touching, really, that Danny Murphy is probably imagining a big dusty actual 'Football History Book', as opposed to a Wikipedia entry for the tournament where, when a kid from the future goes searching to find out more about this Ronaldo guy, his brow will furrow at 'sub:25'.

In the recent present, when Portuguese kids fell asleep that night after Saint Denis, to the sound of their elders staying up to get tearful about the bravery of Pepe, there will be but one name, drifting through their happy minds . . Eder. That's the innocent glory of football, and love: it can't be bludgeoned from the fans by statistics, it can't be cynically determined. Who knows whether in his darkest moments of self-reflection – which, to look at his shiny Teflon face, quite possibly never happen – Ronaldo wishes he could go back to being part of a team, as opposed to condemned to wander alone around football pitches, desperately exposing his thighs and his six-pack and clutching at every record that exists just to prove a point that, in his obsession with it, can't be proved. The only thing he's really determined is that if you play a final feeling like you and only you can be the star of the show, you psych yourself out and end up contributing naff all.


The Moment: Si, Ballon d'Or Presentation, 2014

There are so many funny moments to savour in this blessed contest, this awards ceremony which decides whether the crooked little FIFA hobbits in Switzerland think Ronaldo or Messi has been better in any given year. Nonetheless, Ronaldo's "SI!" moment is the best. Manuel Neuer, 'the 3rd wheel', keeping a straight face for most of the envelope-cam, until he feels himself pretending to be in suspense as to whether he might win it and a little smile tweaks him; Thierry Henry, handing over the trophy, never once making eye-contact with Ronaldo and avoiding every chance to do so, and then trying to hide a smile when CR7 takes a big, deep breath before speaking, like an old seaman on the bridge of his ship, surveying a distant tsunami.


Still, the moment to launch a thousand Vines was the winner's final utterance. After trotting out love for all the people and institutions he sees beneath him, out came the unearthly bellow, the violent ghost of his ego. He made the noise you make when, even if only for a night, you feel you've earned the right not to care about a single other person on the planet. Second, all 8 or so billion of them, was briefly nowhere.

Closing Statements

"My father was funny when he was drunk, but I didn't get to know him for real, from the heart. I don't know why he drank, maybe he was frustrated with his life. I wanted a different father, one who would be more present to see my achievements." Cristiano Ronaldo, in the documentary Ronaldo.