Ever since the United States drew Portugal in the group stage, the hatred for Cristiano Ronaldo has risen to a fever pitch. I watched the epic game at a fan fest in Rio de Janeiro surrounded by hundreds of American fans, and every time Ronaldo touched the ball there was a chorus of boos and heckles, and wild cheers every time he missed a shot. The Wall Street Journal called him “Soccer’s Perfect Villain”. On this very blog, the estimable Alex Massie threw a nice hunk of red meat into the boiling cauldron of Cristiano-hatred by suggesting that Ronaldo was the next superstar to fall victim to Bill Simmon’s famed “Ewing Theory”, a claim that falls apart once you actually look at the tremendous success Ronaldo’s teams have had throughout his career: two Champions League victories, four league titles, three domestic cups.
Full disclosure: I’m biased. As a Real Madrid fan I love Ronaldo. Like, really love him. So I feel like it is my duty to defend a player who is actually probably underrated.
The vast majority of the hate Ronaldo gets is for superficial reasons. People hate him because he likes to style his hair, they hate him because he has animated mannerisms on the field, they hate him because he wears flashy clothes, because he dates a supermodel, because he likes to take his shirt off, etc. etc. etc. They never hate him for anything that’s actually of substance, which make the haterz just as shallow as they accuse Ronaldo of being.
That’s because if people looked past all that and looked at what Ronaldo really is, they would actually find a lot to admire.
Ronaldo’s merits as a player should be beyond reproach. He isn’t a natural-born soccer genius like Maradona, Ronaldinho, or Messi. Everything that Ronaldo is today as a player, he’s worked for. When he debuted at Manchester United at 17 he was a tricky winger with some very quick feet. Over the years he’s added all sorts of facets to his game: he’s become the most feared header in the world, his shot is just as effective with his left as with his right, he’s a deadly set piece taker, he’s unstoppable on the counterattack, and he rarely misses penalties. His stratospheric goal-scoring numbers are not an accident; they are the product of a player who has worked incredibly hard to turn himself into the total attacking player. One who can score from anywhere on the pitch, anytime.
But let’s look at Ronaldo the person. Everyone assumes he is petulant, arrogant, entitled. This is probably because he eschews the banal, repetitive and ultimately hypocritical clichés that professional athletes typically feed the media. Ronaldo is honest about wanting to be the best, and in a culture where great athletes are expected to erect a façade of false humility, that tends to annoy people. But it is that type of ambition, that type of desire to defy anyone who would doubt him that drives him to achieve his greatness.
Is he a narcissist? Probably. But don’t you need to be a bit of a narcissist in order to believe that you can lift your team when everyone else has given up? There are few people in this world who can handle being in the eye of the storm. There are fewer still that actually revel in it. Those people tend to be the ones that others follow.
This kind of irrational self-belief can often be contagious in a team environment. Just ask the talented but often-gloomy Karim Benzema, whose father came out today and said that Cristiano’s help was a key factor in his son’s ability to overcome tough moments at Real Madrid. Or you can ask Angel Di Maria, who was about to be booted out of Real Madrid until Ronaldo intervened on his behalf.
Does he have a habit of showing off his ridiculously well-sculpted torso? He does, indeed. But that incredible physique is what gives him such overwhelming athletic ability on the pitch. Late in matches, when other players are gassed and their legs are heavy, Ronaldo is as fresh as a daisy. Is it his insecurities or his competitiveness that drives his obsession with fitness? Probably both, but who cares? It’s part of what makes him a great player.
At 29, this is probably Ronaldo’s last World Cup in his prime. It hasn’t been his finest hour, mostly because his squad is poor and he hasn’t been anywhere near healthy. It’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to put together the kind of World Cup that he would’ve liked to. It will ultimately hurt his legacy, like it's hurt so many other great players who weren’t able to have classic World Cup performances. That’s a shame, because the kind of numbers he has put up in the last five to six seasons are pure science fiction. I suspect that this failure will only fuel Ronaldo. He’s not the kind of man to let something like this get him down. And that’s why he’s so great.