”’I hate Ronaldo’ was one of the most popular phrases searched for on Google this year’ says a story in The Sun in December 2007. ‘The web search engine yesterday released its annual list of what surfers looked for – with Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, 22, topping the hate poll.’
‘Topping the hate poll’ would be quite a phrase to read about yourself, yet Ronaldo must now be immune. To many he is the pinnacle of the sport, but just as many see him as football’s perfect villain, its bête noire. Ronaldo is arrogant and conceited, two parts athlete and one part prima donna. If there was one perfect candidate to inspire a Hollywood biopic, it would be Ronaldo. As Daniel Taylor memorably wrote in the Guardian: ‘It is difficult not to come away with the feeling that Ronaldo must shout his own name during sex.’
There is no doubt that a touch of humility would make Ronaldo more personable, appreciated even. “In football I don’t have a lot of friends,” he says. “People I really trust? Not many. Most of the time I’m alone. I consider myself an isolated person.”
Yet the accusations go further than mere arrogance. The allegation is that Ronaldo puts the good of the self over the good of the team, his own personal records and milestones mattering more than trophies. That is equivalent to football treason.
Even if that premise is true, it is clear that the two are not mutually exclusive. Since August 2006, Ronaldo has scored 431 goals for Manchester United and Real Madrid. During that time, those teams have won four league titles (with Barcelona as competition), four domestic cups and two Champions League trophies. And still, Ronaldo – with his obscene amount of goals – isn’t a team player.
It’s also a claim refuted by his teammates. “Learning off the best player in the world is just incredible,” Gareth Bale told the Daily Telegraph last year. “He’s helping me become a better player.”
“As a team-mate, Cristiano Ronaldo is a perfect ‘10’,” says Gerard Pique. “I admire him professionally because he sets an example to follow both as a player and as a person.”
Patrice Evra goes even further, dismissing the notion of Ronaldo’s arrogance completely: “He is not arrogant. He suffers as a result of his image as a fashion guy but honestly, he is the greatest professional I have ever trained with. He never has enough of it. This lad has to be first everywhere in everything.”
Evra’s first claim is probably a little fanciful, but Ronaldo’s commitment to his own development could never be questioned. If supporters demand that footballers dedicate themselves to their art, Ronaldo is the perfect servant.
“Ronaldo was a natural talent, a rough diamond, but he crammed in thousands and thousands of hours of graft to turn himself into the perfect player,” former Manchester United development coach Mike Clegg recalled in 2013. “He would be in the gym with me doing core work, then he would do activation, then his actual football training.”
“After training, Cristiano would come back into the gym and do some power work for his legs,” Clegg continued. “Then he would go home, eat the right food, swim, sleep, where I am sure he dreamed about football, and come back in the next morning. He did that for five or six years and, knitted together, that made him become the player who was sold for £80million.”
Furthermore, there is an irrefutable link between Ronaldo’s ego and his quest to go beyond his potential. Some see the ego as an enemy, but Ronaldo uses it as an ally. Coming from a humble background, his desire to be the best in the world has been the backbone of his dedication to his sport. Even at primary school, his teachers remarked that, when playing football, Ronaldo needed – rather than wanted – to be a winner.
“I am not the humblest person in the world, I admit that,” Ronaldo says. “But I like to learn. I don’t mind people hating me, because it pushes me. When I go to play away they are always against me, but it’s good.”
This is an interesting admission, for it paints Ronaldo’s arrogance not as an affectation, but an engine. Like Jose Mourinho’s own famous siege mentality, Ronaldo treats anyone outside his own sphere as an enemy. Ronaldo apparently sees his entire career as a simple battle: Me vs the world.
There is a wider point to be made here. There is a deep-rooted dislike of over-confidence in sport, a trait that the English in particular seem to loathe. Perhaps this is a hangover from a time when sport was pastime rather than business, demanding a certain standard of decorum. Football’s laws still refer to ‘ungentlemanly’ conduct.
It’s an impossible balance. We are happy to idolise our sportspeople, lavishing them with praise, but will show disdain towards those who sing their own praises. We want players to dedicate themselves to becoming elite, yet we do not want that dedication to be self-serving.
This inevitably creates blurred lines. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrogance has gained a cult following, while Muhammed Ali’s public boasts have become iconic. Eric Cantona was self-confident to the point of parody, his swagger and bravado the defining aspect of his style.
To criticise Ronaldo for his ego is to misunderstand the role that such confidence plays at the highest level. There is a necessity for self-confidence in sport, because it provides belief; nobody ever won a race they did not believe they could win. Arrogance is borne out of a desire to cover up vulnerability. At the highest level of sport, vulnerability is exploited as a weakness; arrogance is the comfort blanket.
Ego also allows for setbacks to be acknowledged and then vanquished, with psychological studies revealing that those with high self-confidence are likely to enjoy increased long-term performance. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success.
Sports psychologist Bill Beswick, who has worked with Manchester United and England, takes that line. “Ego is very powerful and can be the driving force behind performance. Roy Keane had intense self-belief. He maximised his ego to make the absolute best of himself.” There is a difference between Keane’s ego and Ronaldo’s, of course, but that is only natural. Just as players rely on speed, strength and technical ability in differing quantities, so too with ego.
It is not difficult to understand why Ronaldo is disliked. He will forever be a divisive figure, a stunning on-field record undermined by his personality in the minds of millions who will never meet him. Those are the pitfalls of success and fame.
Yet those wanting him to tone down or address his ego are foolish in the extreme. Not every player needs to be arrogant to succeed, but for some it helps to drive them forward. For Ronaldo, it is his raison d’etre.
“You have to see the good things from the haters,” Ronaldo says. “I need the enemy.” He shouldn’t worry; they’re not going away any time soon.
Daniel Storey – Follow him on Twitter here