The Tears of a Genius Football's Love-Hate Relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo

No one scores more goals, and no one plays better than Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese player ought to be the star of the European Championship -- if only it weren't for his moments of insanity.
Von Cathrin Gilbert und Lothar Gorris

Cristiano Ronaldo is lying on the center circle, his face in the grass, looking as if he were sobbing. The other Manchester United players have already joined their goalkeeper and the fans in the stands. It would be interesting to know why Ronaldo is weeping. Is he ecstatic over his team's victory in this epic battle, which finally ended after almost three hours? Or is he ashamed because he failed? He lies there for about two minutes, and yet no one pays any attention to him.

In the Champions League final against FC Chelsea, which took place on May 21 in Moscow, Ronaldo scored Manchester United's single goal. He dominated the match with his dribbling and running and he could have been the great hero of the evening. But then it came to the penalty shootout and one of those Ronaldo moments. He kissed the ball, briefly tried to fake out the goalkeeper, and tapped the ball -- right into the goalkeeper's hands. It was a bad penalty kick -- embarrassing and arrogant.

When he returned to his teammates, there was no consolation or sympathy. He stood there for a moment, looking as if he didn't belong, kicking water bottles through the center circle. When FC Chelsea missed the second penalty kick, Ronaldo sank to the grass. He is probably the world's best football player, but that doesn't mean that fans adore him.

Fans love players like FC Chelsea's John Terry, who wept on a friend's shoulder only a few meters away from Ronaldo. Terry also failed in the penalty kick, but he slipped and couldn't help it. In those few minutes, he must have aged by years, his crumpled face revealing how much he took the failed penalty kick to heart. Terry plays a straightforward, tough game. He is one of the best defenders in the English Premier League and a player who doesn't spare anyone -- neither the opponent nor himself, especially not himself. He is a soldier of football, a team player and a fighter, one who shows greatness even in defeat. He is everything that Cristiano Ronaldo will never be.

This year Ronaldo's team, Manchester United, won the English championship and the Champions League. Ronaldo scored 31 goals in 34 league matches, breaking the 40-year-old club record of Manchester United legend George Best. He also scored the most goals in the Champions League. He will be the head of the Portuguese team at Euro 2008. Trainer Scolari has named him team caption, and of course Ronaldo will try to do what Portuguese football legend Luís Figo never achieved: win the European Championship.

Ronaldo's body can do things that others cannot do. No one is as fast and agile, nor is anyone more inventive or cunning. He plays for himself, eager to shine and outwit the opposing team. Ronaldo is constantly trying to prove that he is the best, an aim that was also in evidence at the Champions League final in Moscow's Lushniki Stadium. He is the boy wonder of football, 23 years old, and it would be a disaster if he ever grew up. The question is whether things would maybe work just as well without his lunacy and without these Ronaldo moments.

Probably not.

Worlds Apart

He has been in Manchester since 2003 and now earns €156,000 ($242,000) a week. His house, which he leaves only for football matches or for photo shoots, has a swimming pool and a movie theater. A professional football player in England lives in a sealed-off world.

It is a world which appears to be sealed off even from Ronaldo's mother, Maria Dolores dos Santos Aveiro. She lives on Madeira, an island in the Atlantic settled by Portuguese seafarers. She sits in her living room, her cabinets brimming with her son's trophies. The British tabloids are stacked on her lap. She has put on her horn-rimmed glasses, but she doesn't speak English. She knows the letters, but the words make no sense to her. "I look at everything they write about Cristiano," she says. "It makes me feel closer to him."

He bought his mother a row house with a view of the ocean, and he flies her in to attend Champions League matches. She was also in Moscow, of course, but Ronaldo hasn't visited his mother at home in Madeira in two years.

He comes from Santo Antónia, a poor neighborhood high up in the cloud-covered hills above the capital. The house where his parents used to live is now just a ruin.

He was a difficult child. If he felt unfairly treated, he would slap other children in school. He once threw a chair at a teacher. At 12, he left Madeira to attend a boarding school operated by Sporting Lisbon. He was 17 when he played as a pro for the first time, scoring two goals in his second match. After a match between Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United, it was the ManU players who urged manager Alex Ferguson to sign the talented youngster.

Ronaldo was 18 at the time, and he cost Manchester €18 million ($28 million). He was supposed to replace David Beckham, and he was even given Beckham's number seven shirt, which was Ferguson's idea. George Best and Eric Cantona, the great rebels in Manchester United club history, also wore the number seven on their backs.

At first they called him the "circus horse" in England: too much show, not enough toughness. With the gel in his hair, the diamonds in his ear, his dancing around the ball, his arrogant smile and his dives out of nowhere, Ronaldo behaved like someone who in fact deserved a good beating.

'I Can't Do Everything'

In 2004, at 19, he played his first European Championship for Portugal. At 21, he was one of the more flamboyant players at the World Cup in Germany -- until one of those Ronaldo moments happened in the quarter final against England. Wayne Rooney, one of his teammates at Manchester, had kicked a Portuguese player in the groin. Ronaldo demanded that the referee eject him from the field. When Rooney was sent off, Ronaldo winked at his trainer. In the penalty shootout, he scored the goal that sent England home.

The cover of the British tabloid The Sun featured a photo of Ronaldo superimposed on a dartboard, with the player's winking eye as the bullseye. The Sunday Mirror demanded that he be denied entry into Great Britain. England's former captain, Alan Shearer, suggested that Rooney give his Portuguese teammate a slap in the face the next time he saw him.

After the tournament, Ronaldo fled to Madeira. "He sat in front of the TV for hours," says his mother. He talked about switching to Real Madrid and said that he had never liked England much anyway. ManU manager Ferguson flew to Madeira to convince Ronaldo to return. "It wasn't easy for Cristiano," says his mother.

Ferguson has always seen Ronaldo's eccentric tendencies as a willingness to take risks, and his arrogance as the search for the unique. Under Ferguson's guidance, Ronaldo has matured into a world-class player over the last two years, a player who no longer sparkles merely when his team is ahead. He has reduced his propensity for step overs and dives. He has also been named England's Footballer of the Year twice since then.

Ferguson knows what he has in Ronaldo. He was the first to embrace him on the field in Moscow. After that, Ronaldo was asked to step up onto the stand, behind ManU icon Bobby Charlton, to receive his medal. By the time he had the trophy in his hands, his breakdown on the field was already ancient history.

'Cristiano Means No Harm'

It is 4 a.m. and still raining outside when Ronaldo talks to the press at Lushniki Stadium. "Why do you still want to talk about the penalty kick?" he asks the reporters. "I won the Champions League, and the medal is hanging around my neck." He tells them that he never had any doubts that his team would win the match. "I botched the penalty kick, but I did score a goal in the match. I can't do everything. That's impossible."

The journalists also ask him about the ongoing rumors of a switch to Madrid. On the day of the match, Ronaldo's manager allegedly met with representatives of Real in Moscow. Their offer consisted of €90 million ($140 million) for Manchester and a €9.5 million ($14.7 million) annual salary for Ronaldo -- after taxes. Madrid wants Ronaldo the football genius, as well as Ronaldo the circus horse, who dreams of becoming an actor one day. He is easy to market -- just as easy as Beckham, who also came from Manchester.

Ronaldo finally put an end to weeks of speculation Thursday with a statement, published on the Brazilian Web site Terra, saying that he wanted to leave Manchester United for Real Madrid. "I want to play for Real Madrid, but only if it is true they are eager to pay me and Manchester United what they have been saying they will," said Ronaldo. "However, it does not depend on me."

Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon responded by saying he was flattered by Ronaldo's decision: "For Madrid it is an honor to know that a player like him thinks that playing at Real Madrid would be good."

Although Alex Ferguson's reaction is not yet known, he is likely to be disappointed with the development. Reports Friday suggested that Ferguson was prepared to break off his holiday in France to visit Portugal's Euro 2008 training base in Switzerland, in an attempt to dissuade Ronaldo from leaving the club.

Whatever happens, the British media will never be particularly fond of Ronaldo. British journalists see him as a man who is most in love with the image he sees in his bathroom mirror. On the day after the Moscow game, their reports were filled with speculation over his possible switch to Madrid and his peculiar tears on the pitch.

"Cristiano means no harm," says his mother in Madeira. "He's always been that way."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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