I love him, I hate him: the anatomy of a Ronaldo fan
Portugal’s love-hate relationship with their golden child is quintessentially Portuguese - they even have a word for it
The airport in his home town has been named after him. The president himself has dubbed him a “Grand Officer of the Order of Prince Henry”. Astronomers use his initials and shirt number to refer to a galaxy about 12.9 billion light years from Earth.
And yet, the locals aren’t so sure about Cristiano Ronaldo.
A friend from Porto, who know lives in Lisbon, tells the story of watching a game in a bar in Madeira when Ronaldo – a son of Funchal, the capital of Madeira – scored for Portugal.
My friend catapulted upright in joy, which erupted from him in whoops and applause. But after a second or three he got the feeling that all was not as it should be. And it wasn’t: around him his fellow Portuguese, to a man and woman from the same Funchal where Ronaldo was born and raised before going to bigger, brighter places, sat almost as stoic as if CR7 had put the ball into his own net.“They’re unhappy with him for not helping them more after the 2008 financial crisis,” my friend explained. “He did help them, but they say it wasn’t enough; he didn’t give every person on Madeira a lot of money.”
Ronaldo, who grew up poor as the fourth child of a gardener and a cook, is among the richest sport stars in the world, with an estimated net worth of R5.24-billion.
He has made something of a second career out of giving away significant chunks of his fortune, and in August 2015 he was named “the most charitable athlete in the world” by the website athletesgonegood.com.
Ronaldo can, of course, afford it and more. But his sense of duty extends further than throwing money at problems: in 2016 his video message to children in Syria was that they were “the true heroes” and “don’t lose hope”.That, it seems, isn’t good enough for some people in Madeira, where, according to my friend, “they say: ‘Does he think he’s better than us just because he’s rich and famous?’”
That view isn’t overtly noticeable in Lisbon, where Ronald’s likeness and jersey are ubiquitous. In one tiny shop, not a lot bigger than a phone booth, Superman looms large: for sale are his Portugal shirt and his home as well as his away Real Madrid jerseys along with two versions of Ronaldo pennants.The Portuguese see themselves as a small nation peering out at a world of giants, and Ronaldo as their prime ambassador to that world. So they are resigned to him going off to make his fortune and build his legend with clubs like Real Madrid. But that doesn’t mean they have to like him.Portugal’s complicated relationship with their best player yet (Eusébio doesn’t count since he was Mozambican and didn’t move to Lisbon to play for Benfica until he was 18) is among the most intriguing aspects for a South African who is in the capital during the World Cup.
You might think that relationship was uncomplicated forever on Friday when Ronaldo delivered a shimmering performance to score all his team’s goals in a 3-3 thriller against Spain, the ancient enemy itself, in the teams’ World Cup opener in Sochi.
At a fan park in the Praça do Comercio, just metres from the Rio Tejo, the crowd swelled to several thousand in the hours before the game.Scores of them improved their chances of a good view of the giant screen by clambering onto the statue of King José I on his horse, crushing snakes in his path, that towers over the square.
A public address announcer introducing Portugal’s team as the minutes to kick-off dwindled to single figures, had three words when it came to Ronaldo: “Cristiano! Cristiano! Cristiano!”
A fourth-minute penalty, banged hard, a weak 44-minute shot that somehow eluded David de Gea in Spain’s goal, and a vicious, hooking free kick from what would have been too close to goal for mere mortal players to level matters with two minutes on the clock, fulfilled the announcer’s oblique prophesy. And more.
Every goal was cheered as if Ronaldo had singlehandedly won the 11th war between the countries. That’s right: they’ve fought 10 in the past.
But, if anything, Portugal’s relationship with their golden child is suddenly more complex than ever. Now they have to like the preening, rich, famous, charitable, brilliant bastard, whether they really like him or not.And that in the throes of a World Cup in which Portugal hope to go at least as far as the third place they earned in 1966, when Eusébio scored nine goals in six games. Not that that hope is expressed above a whisper, if at all.
Nobody brags in this country (about anything, much less beating the world’s best at the world’s own game), nobody seems nervous (why would you be when you’re expecting your dream to be dashed), and nobody is under any illusion that the World Cup isn’t a trophy too far (“Yes, we won Euro in 2016, but this is much bigger,” is a commonly heard view).In a film at a museum in the most Lisboa of Lisbon’s neighbourhoods, Alfama, that seeks to preserves the legacy of fado, the peculiarly Portuguese bluesy folk music, a maestro of the art, singer Carlos do Carmo, says: “Football? Football is an opera injected straight into the vein.”That sounds like a compliment to the game, but Do Carmo smirks as he says it and motions like a heroin addict shooting up.
It’s gloomy but it’s real. It’s what the people here call saudade, a quality that Portuguese intellectual Aubrey Bell described in his 1912 book In Portugal as “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present”.
Saudade, he wrote, is “not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”.The closest this reporter has come to understanding it hangs in a shop window in downtown Lisbon, where a Portugal jersey will set you back €84.90. A Spain version? €89.50. That’s €4.6 in degrees of separation, or about R71.
It doesn’t sound like much if you don’t consider the who, what and where of it all. That, in prosaic terms, is what it means to be Portuguese: proud but not smug; hopeful but not expectant; in love with Ronaldo but also a little in hate with him.
Saudade. Feel it; it is here.