People love Cristiano Ronaldo. I sometimes lose sight of that fact, which probably says more about me than it does about him. Twelve years ago, when the world was new and he and Messi were young, it started to become clear what the next era of soccer was going to look like, and you had two choices about how you were going to live in it. Namely:
(1) You could try to see that both Messi and Ronaldo were human beings, complex and changeable, and you could understand that the story of their careers would not be a simple moral fable but would encompass all the contingency and ambiguity of any human life, and would therefore elude interpretation. Or...
(2) You could just kind of not do those things.
If you are one of the six people on earth who chose option (1), congratulations: Please teach me to be a better person. I landed on option (2). I didn't do it on purpose, really. It was just so much fun to see Ronaldo as a foil for Messi. Because I saw him that way, and most people I knew saw him that way, and Anglophone soccer Twitter overwhelmingly saw him that way, I sort of missed the part where hundreds of millions of people developed a passionate connection with him and came to view the world as a fable in which he was good.
They did, though. Or if not good, then at least meaningful. After Ronaldo's $130 million transferpalooza from Real Madrid to Juventus in July, throngs of fans swarmed his medical evaluation in Turin. Security officers set up barricades. The crowd surged forward, everyone desperate for a spot at the front where they might see him, plead for an autograph, catch his eye. People held up mobile phones from too far back to be able to record anything except other people holding up mobile phones. They waved his jersey -- the lines to buy one stretched blocks -- and called his name. As he walked past, inevitably wearing the type of cologne-billboard gray suit that makes you look like you've just climbed out of a helicopter, which for all I know he had, the crowd stretched out its hands. It was as if Christ had returned, wearing Tom Ford.
Some version of this madness plays out around high-profile soccer transfers, of course. Santi Cazorla was unveiled at Villarreal this month in an actual magic show. But it feels different where Ronaldo is concerned, in ways that can't entirely be quantified. The pitch is higher. The tone is more intense. Ronaldo has more Facebook followers (122 million) than anyone else alive. He has more Instagram followers (139 million) than anyone else alive who isn't Selena Gomez. Why on earth would you want to read his thoughts about anything on Twitter, but he's in the top 10 there, too, with a mere 73.9 million followers. And for the past three years, Ronaldo has topped the ESPN World Fame 100 as the most popular athlete on the planet, ahead of LeBron James and Messi.
The hurricane of attention at whose center he sits is reality-warping to a degree no other athlete -- not Messi, not LeBron -- can equal. So when Ronaldo moves to your club, you have the normal ecstasy of gaining a new star to root for, yes, but you also have something more. You have the sense of a vast and epochal significance settling over your stadium. I'm sorry for putting it in bombastic terms, but the phenomenon is bombastic. This thing you care about is suddenly the headquarters of a World Force. And you get to participate in that, feel the pulse of that. Some part of it becomes yours, too.
I'm thinking about Ronaldo because I have the sense that I've missed something important about him over the years, and now that we're coming to the end of his career, I'd like to know what it might be. Maybe the end is putting it a little too strongly. He's not about to retire. Most of the time he's still Apollo in cleats. He won the Ballon d'Or last year, for chrissakes; it would be a desperate stretch to suggest he's not still one of the best players in the world, or that he won't continue to be for a few more years.
Still. He's 33. He has four kids. He has responsibilities. One of these days he's even going to start paying taxes. He's not the insouciantly fauxhawked Ferrari-crasher of years past; these days, I'm guessing he spends more time driving his million-euro supercars the speed limit. If you watched him last season, you could almost start to let yourself think he'd lost, not a step, nothing as serious as that, but a fraction of a step, an infinitesimal quasi-step. And in top-level soccer, an infinitesimal quasi-step can be the difference between being very, very good and being magic.
This summer seems to represent a natural line between two major phases of his career. He led Portugal in what was widely seen as his last-ever World Cup, though he says he wants to play in more. Then he left the club where he's spent most of his prime, where he's won (hang on, checking Wikipedia) 19,000 individual and team honors, for Serie A, a league that would be very pleased if you could remember it exists. Everything that comes after this moment, it seems safe to say, is his late career.
So what can we take from this moment?
I sometimes wonder how we'd think about Ronaldo's career if Messi had never played soccer. The Ronaldo I've been watching for the past decade-plus -- let's say since the day the teenage Messi scored that copy-paste Maradona wondergoal against Getafe -- is so defined by being Messi's mirror image that imagining Cristiano without Leo seems like describing the shape of air. Where are the outlines? Yes, fine, the comparison between them is overworked. It's overworked because it's irresistible.
Consider: Here on one side was a natural genius of movement, someone with a deep and heartfelt connection to a club that seemed to mean more than any other in the game, a little guy, not big or strong or fast-looking, but able to outplay the opposition because he saw space the way poets see poetry. On the other side you had -- well, the exact opposite of that. A pouting superman. A cologne-drenched action figure. Someone faster, stronger, shinier, and more selfish than anyone else on the pitch. Someone who always seemed vaguely annoyed by the presence of his own teammates, like the kind of megalomaniacal rock frontman who gets to the studio and insists on recording all his bandmates' tracks himself. Cristiano and his own reflection: Siamese Dream!
I mean, the image didn't come out of nowhere. He played up to it. Maybe not on purpose -- that would have been less believable -- but simply by living his life. His days were a gaudy parade of mirrored aviators and aggressively popped pastel polo collars and yacht railings and velvet ropes. Messi came across as a mystically wise elf-boy who spoke no human languages and lived only for the enchantment of soccer. Ronaldo was Leonardo di Caprio's character in "The Wolf of Wall Street," only talented and with no sense of humor.
If you saw Ronaldo this way, if you let yourself go down the mental track of assuming that he was everything Messi wasn't, inescapably you'd start to view his on-pitch demeanor through that lens, too. You'd read nuances into his looks. Maybe they were real. The way, for instance, Ronaldo always seemed so -- isolated? Is that the word? Not quite, because isolation implies privacy, and however closely Ronaldo guarded his personal life, he was too flamboyant to seem truly private. It was more that with him, the arrows all pointed one way. The cameras were aimed at him. All eyes were on him. Hands reached out for him. The world stared at him, but you never had the sense that he returned its attention, never saw real curiosity or interest or engagement in anything except what he himself could do. What we interpreted as his narcissism was more like the inward continuation of our own gazes. We were his spectators, and so was he.
I don't need an athlete to pay attention to me before I can love him. But Ronaldo had this way of surveying the pitch. Maybe he was about to take a free kick. Maybe the second half was about to start. He'd look out with that dry-ice stare he's got, and if you imagined putting yourself in his head, seeing what he saw, it was too easy to picture, like, little red X's popping in over the faces of all the human beings. There's the goalkeeper -- X. There's my manager -- X. Midfielder, winger, referee -- all X'd. Up into the stands -- thousands of red X's. Everything canceled out except him and the ball and the goal.
It's nice to think that anyone you're cheering for is at least, you know, minimally invested in the reality of other people. Ronaldo seemed like he wasn't. He seemed like a cinephile who happened to have been incarnated as a movie screen.
On the other hand, he was probably the most gifted athlete in the history of the world to stand so totally outside the square-jawed value-complex most beloved of English-language sportswriters. (Ronaldo's jaw, while impressive, is more trapezoidal.) His euro-glitter fashion sense and frank participation in his own megastardom were hard to reconcile with any Vince Lombardi quotes, and I've read a lot of Vince Lombardi quotes. So was I really seeing him, or was I doing the thing I thought he was doing -- failing to perceive the full, irreducible existence of the other person?
A match I sometimes think about is the 2008 Champions League final. Remember that one? Ronaldo's Manchester United versus Chelsea, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Billionaire football was still a novelty at that point. Everyone made Chelski jokes. Maybe you remember the part where Didier Drogba got sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic. Little tiny slaps. If an elderly duke attacked you without provocation, you might slap him away like that, timidly.
Anyway, it was a fantastic match, much of it played in a driving rain. The pitch turned to slush. Ronaldo scored the opening goal. He ended up with 42 in 49 appearances that year; he was 23 and playing against Premier League defenses. But Frank Lampard equalized just before halftime. The second half was an operatic slog. Penalties took place on what was basically a mud slick. Nicolas Anelka missed the decisive one, though John Terry's miss was the one everyone talked about; he ran up to take his shot and slipped.
It's not Anelka's or Terry's penalty misses I remember, though. It's Ronaldo's. Or not the miss, actually (which wasn't really a miss -- Petr Cech saved the shot), but what happened after it. I remember Ronaldo lying face down in the mud, sobbing. First in agony, because he thought he'd lost the match, then in joy, because his side had won it after all. In a way, the joy was more affecting than the heartbreak. It was probably the first time up to that point that he'd ever made me feel something like sympathy (as opposed to amusement, or irritation, or occasionally that little gaspy feeling you'd get when he'd pull off an outrageous backheel).
What killed me was how relieved he was. I was watching from thousands of miles away. But I felt palpably that this was not the happiness of someone to whom something good has just happened. It was the happiness of someone to whom something terrible, something unimaginably painful, has almost happened, and then not happened. He made a mistake and the universe almost ended, but then, miraculously, life continued, and he wept.
I remember in one of the biographies of him, the one by Luca Caioli, there's a line about what happened after the match: his teammates celebrated together at the goal while he lay sobbing by himself near the touchline. "He wants to be alone," Caioli writes, "to savor the most beautiful moment in his footballing career so far. 'In the end it was the happiest day of my life,' he says later."
Ronaldo cries a lot, actually. Mostly after big matches. Always when he does there's that sense of someone going a little to pieces after reaching the far side of unbearable expectations. When he loses, it's the total finality of failure. When he wins, it's the lifting away of pressure. Given his reputation, you expect him at moments like that to project the image of a man who's saying "look at how great I am." Instead it's more like "I did what I was supposed to do, I can look myself in the eye, I didn't screw up."
Increasingly, that's what I think about when I think about him. Take away the specter of Messi and what you see is not a preening disco Bond villain but someone in whom the drive to be perfect is so desperately acute that surviving it looks like a test of sanity. Think about how he plays: so wound up, so intense, so high-stakes, always, always, always. It's the maximalism of fear: Do everything or you might miss something. Work harder, try more, strain the sinews in your neck when you smile. Of course someone who's wired like that would seem cut off from other people. Other people can't really help him; they can only oppose him, judge him, or hold him back.
What if the rest of it came down to the same quality? I mean all the stuff we read as egocentrism or vanity -- the clothes, the cars, the yachts, the logo slathered on all he surveys. Couldn't you see those things as the anxious compensations of someone who can't help trying too hard because he only feels secure when he's the best, is perfect, in everything?
Which is not to say that half a billion social-media accounts follow him because their owners profoundly identify with merciless drive. But at least you feel a vulnerability behind it. And one of the strange things about love in public life is that it's often given to the people who most seem to need it.
He's been accused of awful things. According to news reports whose veracity Ronaldo disputes, at least three women have claimed that he sexually assaulted them in 2005 and 2009. I believe them, which obliterates much of the sympathy I am capable of feeling for him. But sports fans have a terrifying ability to inhabit parallel universes where any uncertainty around an athlete's wrongdoing exists. It wasn't caught on tape? Then we can collectively will it out of existence. This is sick in so many ways, but -- I'm speaking only for myself -- it's hard to detach from the phenomenon once the gears start turning. The silence itself becomes persuasive. You could argue with people insisting he's innocent, or telling you not to care; how can you argue with an entire culture that simply carries on as if this thing (which, after all, you can't see or hear) isn't there?
Accusations are hushed up, charges are dropped, and no publicly available evidence exists. Ronaldo splits into two Ronaldos, and it's so easy to assume that the one on television, the one you can see, is real. So as in the case of Kobe Bryant, even people who dislike Ronaldo seldom say anything about the possible crime that might lie in the shadow of his public persona.
That persona has seen him become, much more than Messi, the paradigmatic soccer star of this era. Messi is an exception in almost every way; Ronaldo is the norm, but the norm exaggerated, blown up, taken to a spectacular extreme. He's the most mercenary and the most global player in a mercenary, global age. He's constructed his life as an Instagram account, highlighting everything expensive and enviable, keeping all the flaws out of the frame. Then he's X-Pro II'd it for good measure. Look at him: Cristiano leaning thoughtfully on a sun-dappled balcony, baseball cap on backwards. Cristiano at a long table surrounded by wineglasses and stylish friends. Cristiano arching an eyebrow in a black suit. Cristiano flexing in a sleeveless shirt, biceps gleaming. Of course millions of people love him. He's designed himself to collect hearts.
I can't agree with the people who love him, but there's one point on which I don't quite agree with his critics, either. That is, one of the knocks on him has always been that he isn't genuine. The most piteous and humanizing and damning thing I can say about him is that I think he might be.
You can read a Spanish version of this story here.