Cristiano Ronaldo tells us who he is through his body. It is his personal creation, still perfect at 36: that impossibly narrow waist and straight back, the abdominal muscles of a Socialist Realist statue, the standing leap of a basketball star, the sulky looks of a boy-band singer, and the ultramarathoner’s heart whose beat will hardly rise on Saturday when reigning champions Portugal meet Germany at Euro 2020. God made his footballing rival Lionel Messi, but Ronaldo is proud of having made himself.
The odds were stacked against Ronaldo when he was born on the island of Madeira, the poor periphery of poor peripheral Portugal. His mother had wanted to abort him, but Portuguese law did not allow it in 1985. His father, a veteran of the Angolan war, was “drunk almost every day”, Ronaldo later recalled. The unwanted child acquired a constant need to prove his right to exist, theorises one biographer, Jan-Cees Butter.
A homesick adolescent in Sporting’s academy in Lisbon, he was teased for his Madeiran accent. Aged 18, his brilliance took him to England and Manchester United. A year later, Portugal lost the Euro 2004 final against Greece, but by then he was already remaking himself.
Intelligent enough to analyse his game, he realised that his lone trick — the step over — would not make him the world’s best player. Nor could he head well, tackle or take free-kicks. He taught himself those skills, and through daily repetition memorised a repertoire of feints.
A skinny sprinter, he did not look destined for a long career, but through obsessive workouts — he can do 142 sit-ups in 45 seconds — he encased his body in muscle. Even on holiday, he exercises constantly. His ice-baths and instant glare whenever he suspects he is in the company of amateurs terrify his teammates into professionalism.
He became a model for the Portuguese generation that emigrated after the financial crisis, said Raquel Vaz-Pinto, a political scientist at the Portuguese Institute for International Relations and Security. She defined his message as: “If you have talent and ambition, if you sacrifice a lot, you are going to succeed.”
Ronaldo in numbers
Number of international goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, three off the world record held by Iran’s Ali Daei
Champions League titles won, one with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid. He is the competition’s top scorer
Number of followers on Instagram as of June 2021. He has more followers than any other celebrity
He remade himself again in 2014. Warned about chronic damage to his left knee, he converted himself from an all-rounder into a scoring centre-forward who typically takes at most one touch before shooting. He leaves defending to teammates, the extras in his personal drama.
In the Euro 2016 final, playing for Portugal’s first-ever major prize, he went off injured after 25 minutes, then coached from the bench as if the manager did not exist. Portugal beat France in extra time, and in his speech to the squad, Ronaldo cast the trophy above all as a personal event: “This was the prize I was still missing in my career. A prize I won thanks to you.”
He has won the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player five times, compared with Messi’s six. The argument about who is better is as silly as debating whether Michelangelo outshines Leonardo. The two players’ personal duel improved them both.
“Messi was good for Ronaldo and Ronaldo was good for Messi,” said Kylian Mbappé. The young French forward, considered the best player of the new generation, grew up with Ronaldo posters in his bedroom, and believes he is no match for either man.
“If you tell yourself that you’ll do better than them, it’s beyond ego or determination — it’s lack of awareness. Those players are incomparable,” Mbappé said in an Esquire interview this spring.
Messi and Ronaldo belong to the cohort of modern greats who have defied ageing thanks to improved professionalism, nutrition and medical care: tennis stars Roger Federer and Serena Williams are 39, while Tom Brady won this year’s Super Bowl aged 43.
Ronaldo’s drive remains undimmed: every defeat is a personal insult, every teammate’s failure to supply him a tragedy. He is equally perfectionist off the field: he helped get his brother Hugo off drugs and gives quietly to charities. Three of his four children were born to surrogate mothers, who are not involved in the child rearing, as if no mere partner could meet his parental standards.
Yet for all his 148m Facebook followers, the most of any human, Ronaldo’s achievements have not made him universally beloved outside Portugal. Unfairly, brilliance on demand can seem mechanical. Opposing fans taunt him with chants of “Messi!”, while the Hungarian crowd on Tuesday tried homophobic abuse. Unfazed, he scored twice in a 3-0 victory.
In the pre-match press conference, he nonchalantly wiped billions off Coca-Cola’s share price by removing two Coke bottles set in front of him, and praising water instead.
Ronaldo now has 106 goals in 176 international games. Leading a stronger Portugal team than that of five years ago, he is closing in on Ali Daei of Iran’s international record of 109. He does not seem anywhere near finished.