“And they found you amusing for a while, the people of this city. But the one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying. In spite of everything you've done for them, eventually, they will hate you. Why bother?”
Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe immortalized these lines with his impeccable portrayal of Green Goblin in the 2002 movie, Spider-Man. But if you have heard these lines recently, chances are, it was not a clip from the film, but a compilation of the greatest moments of Cristiano Ronaldo.
For the majority of his illustrious career, Ronaldo was regarded as a ‘hero’ by the football fraternity. Of course, like all trendsetters in every realm of life, he has had his share of passionate haters, but the universal adulation trumped the unjust vilification quite easily.
Until, at 37 years of age, just as his career arrives at its dawn, Ronaldo finds himself transitioning into public enemy number one. His contract with Manchester United has been terminated, and just before his first match at the FIFA World Cup 2022, the Portuguese icon is a free agent.
Before you launch accusations of exaggeration and unnecessary sensationalisation, I must admit that Ronaldo is unlikely to be at all perturbed by this. He is all too familiar with denunciation and bad press. In a year or two, he will hang up his boots, enjoy his post-retirement life with family, and venture into other vocations. The records, the goals and the accolades will remain as a chapter in football history.
Yet, he will leave behind a generation like mine who grew up idolising him, copying all of his hairstyles and shenanigans. A generation whose growth coincided with the meteoric rise of Ronaldo, who learned all about ‘Dreaming 101’ not from teachers and elders, but from the Madeira kid whose dreams knew no limitations.
For that generation, irrespective of how his tenure ended at Manchester United, irrespective of the player’s numerous frailties, and irrespective of whether he redeems himself again or nosedives into obscurity, the term ‘GOAT’ will never be plural, and ‘Ronaldo,’ more than the player himself, will always be symbolic of breaking boundaries.
How I Became a CR7 Fan at Six
I was three years old when an 18-year-old Ronaldo arrived at Manchester United. Reminiscing his first three years at Old Trafford will hence be about recollection of what I picked up from the highlights.
He has arrived at the scene with 27 goals in 137 matches – just that the limelight was not on him. Playing for a star-studded Manchester United team, who were managed by arguably the greatest coach of all time in Sir Alex Ferguson, any teenager would be intimidated to even think of stealing the limelight from the already established stars.
But Ronaldo, who always had little to no approbation of pre-defined limits, did exactly that in his fourth season. It was August of 2006, and I was six years old – still too young to make any calculated decision, but not young enough not to fall in love with the game after witnessing my first World Cup – 2006 Germany.
A common character trait of kids from our generation, that is, the ‘troubled millennials,’ is the urge to be a rebel. Surrounded by brothers who were Manchester United fans, I hence chose to be a household anarchist by pledging allegiance to Chelsea.
But there is only so much a six-year-old can do, and though not willingly, I had to watch the Red Devils’ matches with my brothers. My hushed prayers will be aimed at United’s defeat, but I could not help admiring a young lad in red, who was carelessly flamboyant yet meticulously elegant, who would care less about the stature of the player he is up against and simply challenge anyone.
This is how I, despite not supporting the team he played for, became a Ronaldo ‘loyalist.’ Over the next three years, Ronaldo went on to win the Ballon d’Or, Premier League Golden Boot and numerous other accolades.
With each accolade, the admiration grew stronger. For the social outcasts, who in their tender age, sought desperately for any source of external motivation, Ronaldo was the quintessential one-stop solution.
The Rise and Rise of Ronaldo
Then came 2009. Ronaldo joined Real Madrid for a fee of £80 million – a world record at that time. I was nine at the time, and the puerile football judgements were already being replaced by more level-headed deductions.
The move worked out wonders from a personal perspective, simply because he played in a league where my team did not compete, and I did not run the risk of being called a traitor by supporting a rival player. The growth of Messi meant that a clear faction among school kids, but Ronaldo was not the one to let his fans down.
In his nine seasons at Real Madrid, Ronaldo won absolutely everything that he could. He became the all-time top-scorer of one of the most successful teams in the world, won five Ballon d’Ors, and amid all of that, won the UEFA European Championship with Portugal.
As he grew from a wonderkid to one of the best players to ever grace this game, I grew from a regular fan to a sports journalist.
The example might sound too personal, and from a logic-tainted perspective, it might also sound inane, but those who were ever inspired by Ronaldo as kids will corroborate how the player’s ascendancy had a universal effect.
By 2018, Ronaldo had all that he could have ever wanted. But known for not settling in comfort zones, he sought a ‘new challenge,’ and hence ended up in the Italian side Juventus. Over the next few years, the once-giant club will spiral into disorder, but Ronaldo will always do his job, scoring 101 goals in 134 matches and also winning two league titles with the same team, who after his departure, is now fighting for relevancy in the mid-table.
The Last Dance and the Downfall
Three years later, it would be the ‘last dance.’ Rumours suggested a move to Manchester City, but making a sensational U-turn, the now-accomplished icon landed on the same ground which saw his incredible rise.
Within 24 hours, the ‘CR7’ shirt sales would break all records. In his first match, Ronaldo enthralled Old Trafford with the same charisma from 12 years ago by scoring a brace against Newcastle United.
What could possibly go wrong? A lot, as it turned out.
Ronaldo did well to be Manchester United’s highest goal-scorer in the 2021-22 season, but the club itself underperformed, finishing sixth in the league and not winning any of the club competitions either.
For a player who always aimed for first place in any competition, sixth was a level too low to adapt to. In an attempt to change fortunes, the management brought in a new manager in Erik ten Hag, but the two never got together despite multiple attempts.
It all came crashing down when, in an interview with Piers Morgan, Ronaldo opened up on his troubled ties with ten Hag and the club, and also went after his former teammates who had now turned his critics.
The saga, however, finally ended with a mutual termination of contract. “It's sad to see it end this way,” said Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo’s ex-colleague. The same sentiment was echoed by all of the Manchester United fanbase.
The chapter has ended, and very soon, the curtains will be called on Ronaldo’s career. But what will be left of it are not mere numbers and statistics, but the spirit he inculcated in society’s outlaws, for whom, the phenomenon will always outlast the player.