What do the Portuguese make of Cristiano Ronaldo?

The Portuguese star, Cristiano Ronaldo, is, as anyone who follows football knows, a polarizing figure. His detractors and critics point to his allegedly selfish play on the pitch, propensity to dive, prioritization of individual – rather than team – goals, and his constant preening, which somehow, it’s implied, undermines his footballing efficacy. Although the Portuguese are, in general, more forgiving towards Cristiano Ronaldo – someone who regularly “puts them on the map,” – than are many other football fans around the world, there is no shortage of domestic detractors.

This past summer, while in Lisbon (which coincided with Euro 2016, which Portugal won), I spoke to many Portuguese who were, rather remarkably, “rooting for the national team (or selecção, as it’s known in Portugal), but not necessarily Ronaldo.”  Some of this antipathy was rooted in Ronaldo’s inconsistency as a long-time member of the selecção and, ultimately, his inability (prior, of course, to this past summer) to have ever led the squad to a major tournament trophy.

Anyone in Portugal who watched Euro 2016 endured a barrage of advertisements featuring Ronaldo, the country’s most famous, and arguably most controversial, soccer player. “CR7,” as he is known by his initials and jersey number, was the pitchman for seemingly every product sold: from banking to high-speed internet services; some associated with multinational corporations, but many others offered by local companies exclusively for the domestic market.

With the passing of the legendary Mozambican-born Eusébio in 2014, Ronaldo is now the undisputed face of Portuguese soccer (Luís Figo would be the only other candidate worth mentioning – and he, too, serves as the pitchman for a number of Portuguese companies). Yet, despite Ronaldo’s commercial prominence and his virtually incomparable footballing skills, he is not universally embraced by the Portuguese population.

Long before he became “CR7,” Ronaldo was an exciting, promising player, who first drew significant international attention as a 19-year-old on Portugal’s Euro 2004 squad (which ended in tears for Ronaldo, when Portugal lost 1-0 to Greece in the final) and, again, two years later at the 2006 World Cup (Portugal made it to the semi-finals to Zinedine Zidane’s France). But, Portugal’s successes in these two tournaments were essentially the high-water marks for the squad. Unmet expectations prevailed in the decade, or so, that followed (a semi-final loss to Spain in 2012 being the exception). As Ronaldo was raising trophy after trophy with Manchester United (where he played from 2003-2009), and then Real Madrid, many domestic fans felt some disappointment, perhaps even a tinge of bitterness.

Of course, Portugal’s national team lost a number of supremely-talented players – teammates of Ronaldo – during the decade that followed the 2006 World Cup. And, even this year’s Euro-winning squad was conspicuously devoid of the type of talent that featured in past squads. Moreover, during these challenging years, Ronaldo was often asked to play out of position – most often as a lone striker – which limited his effectiveness and, thus, his contributions. Consequently, Ronaldo rarely made the type of impact while playing for Portugal that he did as a member of his club teams – understandably so, one might argue, given that his teammates at United and Madrid were and are all world-class players who starred or star for their own national teams.

Beyond criticism for his perceived shortcomings as a footballer for the selecção, however, are the blatant attacks on Ronaldo as a person. Leading these defamation efforts has been Correio de Manhã, a Portuguese tabloid newspaper, which enjoys the highest circulation in the country. This antagonism came to a head in June when Ronaldo grabbed the microphone of a reporter from television station, CMTV, whose operator also owns Correio de Manhã, and threw it in a nearby pond as the reporter was aggressively posing a question to the Portuguese footballer. Some five years earlier, Ronaldo won a court case against the newspaper for publishing personal material about him that the judge ruled “failed to serve the public interest.” Hardly chastened, the tabloid continues to aggressively seek to dig up stories of Ronaldo’s personal life and has persistently suggested that he is gay in attempts to question his masculinity.

If Ronaldo is scrutinized both domestically and internationally, he seems to have avoided these same levels of criticism in Madeira, his birthplace, (population less than 300,000). Born in 1985, in Funchal, the capital city of the archipelago, which enjoys “autonomous region” status within Portugal, Ronaldo grew up poor, in a household with an alcoholic father, who passed away some eleven years ago. Despite these hardscrabble beginnings, which generate some empathy for the player, Ronaldo has become, by far, the most famous Madeiran. With a museum highlighting his career, the recently-opened Pestana CR7 hotel, and an impressive – if rather odd – bronze statue of Ronaldo, Funchal was already a mecca for supporters of the superstar footballer. However, the decision this summer to rename the international airport in Funchal to the Madeira Cristiano Ronaldo Airport suggests that CR7 is approaching something resembling immortality in the land of his birth.

If only mainland Portugal was as uniformly, and uncritically, supportive.

Todd Cleveland

Historian Todd Cleveland is completing a book, “Following the Ball: The Migration of African Soccer Players across the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1949-1975” (Ohio University Press).

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