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‘Cristiano Ronaldo constantly needs people’s love and appreciation’

The star’s biographer, Guillem Balague, chats to The42 about his tough upbringing and perpetual insecurity.

Ronaldo has scored 41 goals for Real Madrid this season.
Ronaldo has scored 41 goals for Real Madrid this season.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

CRISTIANO RONALDO IS a complex figure, which perhaps explains why he provokes complex responses.

This season, he has scored an incredible 41 goals in 40 appearances. With well over 300 goals in Spain, he is also Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer while no one — including Lionel Messi — has managed more goals in Champions League history.

In addition to countless individual accolades including three Ballon d’Ors, he has helped Real win seven trophies during his time there, including one La Liga title and their historic tenth European Cup triumph.

Anyone else would be loved unconditionally and forever considered a club legend, but oddly, it does not appear to be the case with Ronaldo.

Notwithstanding all he has achieved, Real Madrid fans are hardly enthralled by the Portugal international — they have even booed him on occasion.

For those fans to treat undoubtedly the best player at the club with such disdain is a remarkable development. Yet Real’s fan base are notoriously hard to please — as numerous managers have discovered — while several star players such as Gareth Bale have also bore the brunt of the Madrid faithful’s frustrations over the years.

There is no one reason for certain fans’ dislike of Ronaldo, but it can at least partially be put down to the fact that they hold him responsible for many of the club’s current problems. Ronaldo’s lacklustre performance in the reverse fixture against Barcelona — a 4-0 loss — provoked the ire of a number of supporters, and many haven’t forgiven him since.

Ronaldo’s frequent ego trips — his obvious annoyance when teammates score instead of him and his somewhat selfish style of play replete with consistent instances of poor sportsmanship also, perhaps unsurprisingly, fails to endear him to fans.

In an article for The Guardian, Daniel Taylor elaborated on this inherent arrogance, this unpleasant narcissism that wins him few admirers. After watching a film based on the superstar’s life, Taylor proceeded to give a brutally honest assessment of his flaws: “The film is a remarkable vanity project and, even more than before, it is difficult not to come away with the feeling that Ronaldo must shout his own name during sex,” the journalist wrote. “He and his agent, Jorge Mendes, appear to have a relationship of mutual worship. Mendes, Ronaldo says, is “the best, the Cristiano Ronaldo of agents” and it is difficult to keep count of the number of times they get lost in each other’s eyes, reminding one another of their success and wealth and shiny brilliance.”

Spanish football expert Guillem Balague has also recently written a biography of Ronaldo. Unlike his previous book on Lionel Messi, Balague’s latest work was not authorised by its subject, despite the author’s best attempts to persuade the Real Madrid star to collaborate with him.

Nevertheless, Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography remains a consistently intriguing and insightful portrayal of the 31-year-old Real Madrid and Portugal player.

Balague persuades some notable figures from Ronaldo’s life to give illuminating interviews, with Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, Xabi Alonso, Diego Torres, Ivan Campo, Ramon Calderon and Manuel Pellegrini among the many high-profile figures featuring.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Semi Final - First Leg -Barcelona v Bayern Munich - Nou Camp Balague previously wrote a book on Lionel Messi. Source: David Davies

Having finished a book on Messi, Balague says that focusing on Ronaldo was the next logical step and adds that, despite many perceptions to the contrary, the two superstars are not that different.

I wondered if the journey was similar or not, so I went and travelled to Portugal and Manchester, and I found out that the journey was very similar. It’s how they dealt with the things that happened to them that makes two different personalities,” Balague tells The42.

The theme of Messi and Ronaldo’s intense rivalry is one that recurs throughout the book. It even opens with an anecdote that links Balague to these two footballing geniuses.

Balague recalls how Ronaldo threatened legal action against him after his Messi biography claimed that the Portuguese superstar nicknamed his Argentine rival “motherf***er”. It ultimately proved an empty threat and Balague writes of the experience: “It was not pleasant to be put under the microscope, but it gave me some idea of what players experience when they are judged by supporters for 90 minutes once or twice a week. And then again the next day by the media. Relentlessly.”

Although the incident didn’t ultimately land Balague in legal trouble, it probably also discouraged Ronaldo from assisting with the project. Nonetheless, as the journalist himself suggests, perhaps it is for the best that he could write from an entirely neutral perspective, given that Ronaldo’s control-freak tendencies would hardly have done much for the book’s objectivity.

Thankfully, therefore, Balague manages to produce an account that is both entertaining and not in the slightest bit sycophantic. It naturally begins by exploring the star’s childhood.

Born in Madeira — a Portuguese archipelago – Ronaldo, like many great footballers, had a turbulent childhood. He was an unwanted child, whose mother, Dolores, initially considered aborting him. His father, Dinis, had fought in the Portuguese colonial war in Angola, and struggled with alcoholism thereafter. The father’s excessive drinking led to his premature death when Ronaldo was still just an inexperienced 19-year-old getting used to life at Manchester United.

His mother, meanwhile, encouraged a young Ronaldo to prioritise football over homework, and didn’t stand in his way when Sporting signed him up as a 12-year-old, offering a potential escape route from a life of poverty in the process.

She was not a mother that intervened and helped,” Balague explains. “It was somebody that let him go when he was very young. I think she still feels guilty about it, even though it’s what made him.

“People that reach those heights, on the one hand, they reach levels that no human has ever reached before, but on the other hand, he had to leave a lot of what he needed behind, he had to challenge himself, he had to go through bullying, he had to go through different cultures.

“These people at the top are all the same. They are a rock falling down the mountain and there is nothing that stops them on the way. They’re very focused, determined and they don’t think of failing, because failure would be like dying along the way.”

Soccer - International Friendly - Argentina v Portugal - Old Trafford Ronaldo and Messi have spent their careers trying to outdo each other. Source: EMPICS Sport

Elaborating on the comparisons with Messi, Balague continues: “In a way, they were both born with that compulsion to improve, which is what makes them. Along the way, they got the footballing intelligence to realise what they need to be at the top. In the case of Messi, it was to be in a team that allowed him to do so, and allowed him to maximise his potential.

I think they’re both natural born stars. That for me is more important than what the physique has given. Obviously, they have adapted.

“Ronaldo has African roots, which helps with his physique. Messi is short, so that helps him with balance.

“Physique helps them, but what is natural that they are born with is a gene that allows then to always want to continuously improve and be never happy where you are — you want more and more.”

One of Ronaldo’s most famous games early on in his career was his participation in a pre-season friendly for Sporting against Man United, where he allegedly persuaded the Red Devils to sign him with a mesmerising performance. Roy Keane adds to this myth in his recent autobiography, writing: “I saw how good Ronaldo was that day.

He was up against John O’Shea. Sheasy ended up seeing the doctor at half time because he was actually having dizzy spells.

“The club concluded negotiations after the game and we always joked with Sheasy he had actually sealed the deal by playing like a f***ing clown.”

In truth, this story has been partially exaggerated. The clubs had already agreed on a deal to bring Ronaldo to Man United, although Balague says the Portuguese star’s display was so impressive that night that Alex Ferguson decided against immediately loaning him back to Sporting, which had been the initial plan, and instead put him straight into the Red Devils’ first team.

When Ronaldo went to Manchester on the first trip, he thought he was going just to see the facilities before coming back,” Balague recalls. “He didn’t even bring luggage with his stuff. But the agreement took place the night before the game.”

While he was generally a success on the pitch, Ronaldo’s time in England was far from problem-free. Several passages in the book outline how United’s senior players would routinely bully and mock the youngster, in what were no doubt regarded as character-building exercises. As well as struggling with the dour Manchester weather and the hostile reception invariably afforded to the winger by opposition teams, he also fell out with star striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, which prompted Ferguson to sell the prolific Dutchman.

And despite the manager doing as much as possible to protect his prized asset, there were still two occasions prior to Ronaldo’s actual departure where the winger seriously considered leaving Old Trafford. The first was in the aftermath of his involvement in Wayne Rooney’s sending off at the 2006 World Cup, where he mistakenly thought English fans and teammates would never forgive his infamous wink, while the star also sought a move on the first occasion that he learned of Real’s interest in him.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Arsenal - Old Trafford Ronaldo and Alex Ferguson have maintained a close relationship to this day. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“The possibility of leaving was always there — he was never going to be there forever,” Balague says. “Carlos Queiroz told me that getting five years out of him (at United) was already a success. Normally, Portuguese players move around and a team like Barcelona or Real Madrid is the big reference, so he was always bound to leave.”

His latter years at United saw Ronaldo develop from a skinny and erratic winger to a world-class star and physical specimen of the highest order. Balague insists he was always destined for greatness, but the book meticulously details how the likes of Queiroz and René Meulensteen worked relentlessly with Ronaldo, going over video footage of past performances on a regular basis and helping him to iron out the inconsistencies in his game.

At a particular time when he was injured and suspended and it was blurred in terms of what his real target was, René focused him and gave him some structure,” Balague explains. “I wouldn’t say he was crucial in terms of his career, but he was one of the people who made Ronaldo what he was. They say he’s like a rock falling down a mountain, but on the way, he gets pushed in the right direction by people he meets.”

His eventual £80 million (€94 million) move to Real Madrid elevated Ronaldo to god-like status initially, with an unprecedented 80,000 fans packing the Bernabeu for his unveiling in the team’s colours. However, football is a fickle game, and seven years on, the star’s relationship with those same fans has soured, with many urging the club to cash in on Ronaldo while he remains close to his footballing peak.

The book also details how Ronaldo and his associates have worked tirelessly in an attempt to create a more positive, PR-friendly image of the superstar, but to little avail.

The impression that he had and people around him had was that he wasn’t getting the individual recognition that makes him happy and that they thought he deserved. They thought it was down to the things he said, so they tried to change his image a little bit.

“But that’s a little bit contradictory with the things that motivate him as well. He doesn’t mind being whistled, though not by his own fans — he is frustrated at Real Madrid that his own fans have a go at him constantly and blame him for a lot of what’s going on. But he doesn’t mind the other ones doing so.

“He wants to portray to the world that he’s a perfect father, a family man, focused at work and they do this through movies or interviews and so on. But some of the stuff that makes him is what other people don’t like or what opposition rivals don’t like. He pumps his chest out and it’s the way he celebrates and stuff like that, which actually is very much part of him.”

Source: JavierNathaniel/YouTube

This inescapable intensity still extends to Lionel Messi, who he remains obsessed with, as anyone who watched the recent film will have noticed.

There’s more mention of Messi than winning the 10th European Cup with Real Madrid. He is obsessed, but that’s what happens when you have a nemesis. It is a person that you hate and love at the same time because he’s pushing you to your limits.

“But the relationship has changed. He used to call him something bad, but in the last two meetings for the Ballon d’Ors, there’s been a clear effort from both parties to treat themselves as rivals and no more than that. There used to be uncomfortable silences in the past, which I’ve been told by the likes of Iniesta and others that were there. They were just really awkward moments, but now it’s changed.

“They have kids, they’re more mature, there is a lot of respect there, but there is no friendship or anything like that.”

The picture of Ronaldo that emerges from both the film and Balague’s book is of a sad and almost tragic figure, irrevocably burdened by greatness and unable to appreciate his vast accomplishments. There is consequently just one simple question left to ask: is he happy?

There is something endearing about him and it is, I think, that he constantly needs people’s love and appreciation,” Balague says. “It’s a series that never finishes. When he retires, it’ll be worse.

“You can see in the film that he just needs people around him all the time, he needs people to tell him the right things all the time, he needs to laugh, he needs to have his friends with him, it’s almost like a drug, he absolutely needs it to feel fulfilled.

“Whenever he’s had a house, whether it’s in Manchester or Madrid, it’s a house with a key in the door, so everyone can come in and out. He absolutely needs that, because all of them live on him. They’re more than happy just to follow his rules.

You wonder sometimes what happens to these people’s dreams, aspirations and ambitions, including his own family. But he’s happy that they’ve abandoned some of that to look after him. But it’s not enough with his mum, his son and his sisters looking after him. It’s like a monster that needs to be fed constantly.

“He lives with a running machine and the day the running machine stops, he falls, I’m pretty sure. But they’re preparing him for it, so now he’s got CR7 hotels, he’s developing other businesses, he’s got his own perfume and all that.

“I think he’ll have fun doing that and at some point, he wants to be a Hollywood star and he wants to still be on the stage, so the job of the people around him will be to keep him on the stage for as long as he needs to stay there, which probably will be forever.”

Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography by Guillem Balague is published by Orion. You can buy it here

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Paul Fennessy

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