Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Naked Madeiran Emperor

The Naked Madeiran Emperor.
RONALDO'S LACK OF PERSONALITY STILL DULLS HIS SPARKLE

The world is yours, if you want it enough.

It's a simple idea which has sold a zillion self-help books, metamorphosed into a pseudo-science ('the law of attraction') and been used to justify free-market economics and vindicate the 'The American Way' which Superman defended.

It was also Tony Montana's neon-edged mantra in Scarface, a credo which led him to heaven and hell.

This banal philosophy of feeding desire ad infinitum could well sum up the life of Cristiano Ronaldo, about whom a new biography and documentary film have just been released. He followed his dream so closely and strove for success so hard that poverty on a provincial island proved no obstacle to his race to the top.

He is the king of the football world, smashing every scoring record as he goes. But like the American dream, beneath the façade, grey emptiness looms unerringly into view.

Discussion of Ronaldo's stature as a sporting great is timely as has turned 30 and has probably peaked as a player, although there is no evidence yet of waning powers.

There are persistent rumours Real will cash in on their star before his contract expires in 2018. For now the Madeiran magician still dazzles, but decline is of course inevitable and five years from now he will not be the player he is today. Years of working his body to the limit will take their toll before long.

While the movie, a big-budget bio-pic from the team who made Amy and Senna, pledges to delve deeper than ever into the psyche of the Portuguese superstar, the prolonged hymn to his greatness it sings leaves us feeling we know almost as little as we did before.

Beyond confirming that CR7 leads a hermetically sealed life far from the reaches of the press and is close to his mother, there are slim pickings for the interested observer.

His professional accomplishments are of course outstanding, but is that where the analysis should end? Some say it should and content themselves with worshipping the on-field deeds of their idol, unbothered by what makes them tick.

Ronaldo considers himself the best footballer in the world, as he has repeatedly announced, perhaps the greatest of all time, but the finest sportsmen are men like Muhammad Ali who transcend what they do for a living.

One could argue that private and public life are in the end inseparable and always seep into each other, as shown by troubled stars like George Best, Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona.

But frustratingly, for want of substance, we have to content ourselves with judging Ronaldo during the 90 minutes alone.

He won the FIFA Ballon D'Or last season with a colossal 61 goals across all competitions, netting more than one per game. He has scored 453 times in league action and 55 times for Portugal up until now.

Those are amazing tallies, although the top-heavy nature of La Primera probably skew his goalscoring stats. 

Interestingly, last season his right foot beat his left foot 46 goals to nine, which could be used as a mark against him being a complete player. His acceleration, control at speed and quick feet however remain supreme.

Comparisons with Lionel Messi are as inevitable as they are pointless: Real's No.7 and Barça's No.10 are different types of attackers who excel in contrasting formations.

Place them in each other's teams and they would flounder. The only conclusion you could probably draw is that when it comes to the two La Liga idols, Ronaldo is more perspiration to Messi's inspiration.

The Portuguese always looks clean-cut and lean while Messi has passed through podgy phases with lazy hair, while still playing brilliantly. 

Ronaldo's aces are his quick feet and rapid acceleration, where Messi has more creativity on tap every time he puts his head down and dribbles.

The record scorer for Real Madrid is also Portugal's all-time top gunner, but Ronaldo is popularly perceived to have failed at international level, an arena where Diego Maradona excelled.

This impression is unfair, as Portugal do not have a deep player pool and with Ronaldo they have reached the World Cup semi-final and the European Championship final.

Messi has to deal with the same brickbat, but neither would be the first great club player unable to haul an international team of lesser lights alongside them - George Best and George Weah spring to mind for instance.

Ronaldo's biggest minus point when assessing him is off-field. He appears so lacking in anything resembling a deep or engaging personality that one is led to question the intrinsic worth of sporting achievement without the accompanying humanity.

In his defence, using his impoverished childhood as a spur for success may have stripped him of an everyday emotional development. To that end it seems unfair to slate him for being so demonically driven when he has reached the top from much further down than where Messi started.

The Real Madrid star began life in genuine poverty on the island of Madeira, sleeping on the floor of a corrugated shack while his father drank himself into oblivion. 

Even his mother, with whom he now enjoys a genuinely strong bond, tried to forcibly miscarry while pregnant with the future legend.

While such natural handicaps curse many for good, they proved to be stimuli in Ronaldo's head, where a haunting fear of falling back into poverty, unlikely now given the riches he has amassed, has stayed stubbornly present in his consciousness, as it did for Brian Clough.

The apparent arrogance both those football men sprung naturally from their survival-of-the-fittest upbringings.

Ronaldo counting the luxury motors in his garage or asking his friends and ever-present agent Jorge Mendes to remind him he is the best player in the world serve are a means of self-validation.

They are proof for him of the advances he has made all the way from his rotting shack, as well as a testament to a nagging insecurity and a persistent inability to change his outlook.

His self-adoring tendencies in short seem to be a cry for attention from an unwanted child, season after season.

His head is so focused on winning that despite the persistent prodding of the press, he has no wish to stir things up with rivals, any more than he deigns to enlighten us as to the nature of his professional performances.

His most recent widely-reported soundbite, when he claimed that in his own head he was better than Messi, was of little illumination and no lasting importance.

Of course he thinks he is better than the Argentinian. He is the consummately professional sportsman, who always gives the clichéd 110%. Just look at that extraordinarily physique; Ronaldo is a man-machine.

The immaculate skin and accompanying body may well belong to an android, an awkward impression not dismissed by the player's robotic demeanour off-field.

He gives so little away to journalists in Spain that the cameras home in on the smallest facial expressions, usually shakes of the head or tutting as he trots off the pitch after a defeat, but they in themselves are so slight and inexpressive as to reveal next to nothing.

The elongated faux-outrage over the leaked photos from Ronaldo's 30th birthday celebrations in Madrid last year showed how desperate the hacks were for any nugget about his private life; the photos tweeted by the DJ showed nothing more than players singing and laughing over the odd drink and nothing like the sort of antics British players often get up to.

While at Manchester United police dropped rape charges against Ronaldo for lack of evidence after a hotel dalliance with a woman, and he has subsequently dated models, most notably the Russian Irina Shayk, but CR7 goes to such lengths to avoid the paparazzi they are left to invent stories, like the recent crazy one claiming he is dating a gay friend.

Is there anything new to learn about the Real superstar then? Maybe not. When Ronaldo himself says in the movie, "Winning - that is the most important to me. It's as simple as that", such a banal cliché seems to describe perfectly how he thinks: He is an open and shut case.

His aloof and mechanical demeanour might have kept the wolves from his door but the paying public has an understandable expectation of more from their idol than the bolted gate the Portuguese always shows them.

Click on his website and you won’t find him smiling for his millions of fans. Instead you get deathly serious faces in colour set against brooding black and white backgrounds. Ok, we get it, you are a great player.

There comes a point when confidence slips into arrogance and Ronaldo has clearly crossed the line. He was expelled from school aged 14 for throwing a chair at a teacher, an event a mature adult would regret and apologise for in later life. Instead, the millionaire remains unrepentant today from his lofty perch: "He disrespected me," remains his cold assessment.

Aside from his super-agent Mendes, the most important male in his life is his son, and these scenes in the film finally bring out some sorely-needed empathy.

His sole custody of 'Cristianinho', while refusing to name the mother ("I've never told anyone and I never will") remains curious for someone so attached to his own one, but again Ronaldo is not forthcoming, only insisting his boy "will understand 100%" when he comes to telling him why he only knows his father.

In the film he goes on to claim his narcissism is a natural accompaniment to his fame and fortune, which seems trite and inadequate as an excuse.

A shining example of discipline and hard work he surely is, but as a role model he falls short, appearing charmless and obsessed with professional rendition all of the time. Give me a John McEnroe over a Bjorn Borg or an Alex Higgins over a Steve Davis any day.

Perhaps his childhood poverty and alcoholic father, who boozed himself into the grave when Cristiano was 19, are to blame for his emotional isolation, but his entourage of yes-men, hero-worshippers and financial hangers-on now combine, in biographer Guillem Balague's words, "to create the narrative and keep him on his pedestal."

Footballers are rarely blessed with charm or wit of course and the combination of bypassing education while accruing immense wealth so young in life is not the best recipe for a well-rounded character.

The BBC's award of Sports Personality of the Year often seems inappropriate when handed to a person plainly lacking in what most of us understand as embodying that quality.

Footballers who do enlighten or amuse off-field are therefore to be applauded but are not as rare as you might think.

There is the boyishly manic Giovanni Trapattoni, the erudite Clarke Carlisle or the deeply political Brazilians Romario and the late Socrates for instance. 

Or how about spending time with the Gallic charm of David Ginola, the comic faux-arts of Eric Cantona, the ego of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or the mesmeric Brian Clough? It is clear our fan experiences have been that much richer for their colourful personalities.

Compare listening to those vibrant characters to having to sit through an audience with Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi for that matter. Even if a complex personality is too much to demand from a great player, one could at least be pleasant and affable like Gary Lineker.

There is an unwritten obligation if not to be a role model then at least to charm or entertain off-field too, and in this regard the world's best football player (in his own mind at least) manifestly fails to take the crown.

Will fans miss Ronaldo as fondly as they do the charming Pele, who fought his way to the top from an equally impoverished childhood? It is unlikely.

The reviews for the documentary, with which he closely participated, could hardly have been less auspicious:

"A grossly uncritical slice of hagiography," said The Times, "A vulgar vanity project," thought the Radio Times and The Guardian called it "carefully controlled and meticulously sanitised."

Uniquely among British critics, The Independent's Anthony Wonke gave it four out of five stars, calling it "revealing and often surprising" - was he watching the same film?

While Ronaldo's relationship with his son is genuinely touching, that with his father would have been interesting to probe given he still displays a photo of him on his wall, but again the CR7 brand eschews any insight.

It is a shame he did not take this opportunity to reveal the deeper self and unknown sides to his character instead of embarking on a grand PR promo.

'They do their talking on the pitch' remains the usually proffered and lame excuse for a lack of introspection in sport stars. What a pity so many fail to carry on that magic when they leave the field.

Ronaldo remains a fabulously skilful goal machine, paid unimaginable riches as the market demands of its most valuable income stream, and with a flawless body to match.

His gargantuan wealth (an estimated $300 million) and aloofness embody the bloated stardom of modern soccer; a package that earns hundreds of points, millions of replica shirts and billions on the balance sheet, but which is worth far more in price than in value, cursed with an inner poverty no money can cure.

(c) Sean O´Conor & Soccerphile

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