If you showed pictures of professional athletes to people around the world, you would be hard-pressed to find a face more recognizable than Cristiano Ronaldo’s. His good looks, blazing speed and talents with a soccer ball have been on display from such an early age that it’s easy to forget that, despite his solidified legacy as an all-time great, Ronaldo is only 27 and entering the prime of his career. And yet, he is undoubtedly a man in the shadows. Ever since his early days spent playing for Manchester United where because of the shared name he was constantly compared to Brazil’s Ronaldo, the most dangerous striker in the world – Cristiano has battled burdensome comparisons.
Cristiano had scarcely escaped from his Brazilian counterpart’s shadow before the arrival of the brilliant Lionel Messi, who prematurely usurped Ronaldo from his perch as the top rising star in the game. You would be hard-pressed to argue that Messi did not deserve his four Ballon D’Or trophies (given to the best player in the world each year) compared to Ronaldo’s one; the evidence of his brilliance for Barcelona is clearer than ever given the team’s struggles during Messi’s recent absence due to injury. But if the adulation for Messi is most deserved, then the relative disregard for Ronaldo – as a player and as a competitor – has been overzealous to say the least.
It is not audacious to say that Ronaldo’s exploits on the pitch have been underappreciated. Since moving to Real Madrid in 2009, the left-winger has scored at a torrid pace of more than a goal per game. The level at which he has played this season is so undeniably sublime that it has forced even the most ardent Messi supporters to consider the possibility that the two are more equal in skill than was previously thought. Ronaldo has scored an unprecedented 35 goals in 27 games, and for the first time in his career, his performances for his country have matched his performances for his club. This has been the knock on both Ronaldo and Messi in the past – that they did not make their mark on the international stage the way Pele and Maradona did – but gradually the criticism has begun to erode. Ronaldo shut down the criticism for good in a recent two-game playoff against Sweden for a spot in next year’s World Cup. With deadly striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic posing a threat to Portugal’s qualification, Ronaldo performed like a captain rather than a solitary superstar, scoring all four of his team’s goals to fight off a dangerous challenger.
Ronaldo may be working to escape the shadow of Messi, but shaking off the burden of his own reputation has proven to be an equally, if not more, difficult task. Allegations that Ronaldo, unlike Messi, is a vain, egotistical primadonna have dogged the superstar throughout his career. FIFA President Sepp Blatter became the most recent promoter of this unfortunate stereotype when he expressed his preference for Messi while mocking Ronaldo’s domineering “commander” antics on the pitch. Despite his penchant for dives and drama – which are, unfortunately, by no means unique – Ronaldo’s reputation has always been based on superficial observations. Critics see his youthful exuberance on the field and “unmanly” advertisements off it and get the impression that Ronaldo is full of himself. But further investigation reveals a kind-hearted man, beloved by teammates. The real Ronaldo went above and beyond when he was introduced to a cancer-stricken fan, paying for an expensive experimental treatment. The real Ronaldo sold his 1.5 million euro Golden Boot award to fund schools in the Gaza strip. The real Ronaldo is the global ambassador for a number of charities, including Save the Children.
His kind heart and generous spirit are often evident on the pitch as well. In a crucial Champions League match at Manchester United earlier this year, Ronaldo showed great reverence and appreciation for the club and fans that made him a superstar. When he scored the eventual winning goal in the second half, Ronaldo eschewed celebrating with his teammates, instead choosing to remain stoic whilst giving a somber, almost apologetic look towards the Manchester United fans. “I didn’t celebrate the goal,” Ronaldo said, “because Old Trafford is a home where I played for six years, and I arrived there almost as a kid. It’s not about not celebrating. I want to win but I respect the people of Manchester. It was beautiful and emotional to play against my family.”
Ronaldo’s continued gratitude towards those who have supported him throughout his career reveals a man who understands and appreciates the value of common kindness. This is why he is the captain for his club and his country, and why his teammates all seem to love him. When fellow left-winger Gareth Bale signed a record transfer deal to Real Madrid this season, a more egotistical man than Ronaldo might have been threatened and treated the newcomer as an enemy. But Bale has sung Ronaldo’s praises from the moment he arrived: “He’s just given me encouragement every game, given me confidence. He has been sharing his first experiences when he first came here, and they have really helped me along. He’s been absolutely brilliant.” Hopefully by the time the World Cup comes around and Ronaldo takes to the world’s stage in Brazil, others will come to see the real Ronaldo.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. This is the final appearance of THE SPORTING LIFE this semester.
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