The Ronaldo phenomenon: how a player became a tyranny of numbers | Cristiano Ronaldo


IIn the aftermath of Cristiano Ronaldo’s shocking return to Manchester United last week, there has been much feverish speculation as to whether he would reclaim the famous No.7 shirt once worn by United legends such as George Best, Bryan Robson. and Eric Cantona, which is now an integral part of his personal brand “CR7”.

But there was more than iconography and nostalgia involved here. The No.7 shirt already had an occupant: striker Edinson Cavani, and by Premier League rules Cavani was required to keep it for the season. Yet when you’re as famous as Ronaldo, it turns out that there is a measure to which you can make your own rules. When you see something you want, you don’t dwell too much on the intricacies and limitations. You take it, as firmly and confidently as if it had always been yours.

There was a breathtaking sort of cruelty in the way Ronaldo simply annexed the United No 7 shirt in a matter of hours: the necessary obstacles were removed, the necessary rules relaxed, the necessary arrangements made. Daniel James was sold to Leeds. Cavani was persuaded to drop the No.7 shirt in favor of James’ former No.21, the shirt once worn by United legends Henning Berg, Diego Forlán and Dong Fangzhuo.

Yet, with the possible exception of Cavani, everyone got what they wanted. In its first full day of sales, the ‘Ronaldo 7’ replica kit broke United’s daily record for shirt sales. During press briefings, the club spoke about the impact of the transfer announcement on social media: the 13 million likes on their Instagram post, the fact that Ronaldo’s transfer to United had beaten the transfer of Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain with 700,000 mentions on Twitter.

Two Manchester United fans wearing freshly purchased Cristiano Ronaldo shirts look at the banner on the front of the stadium the day before their second leg against Newcastle. Photograph: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

It fits with the nature of the Ronaldo phenomenon as a whole: a tyranny of numbers, a mind-boggling maelstrom of records and statistics that the player’s many fans around the world love to emblazon and deceive as empirical proof of their man’s supremacy. The numbers are not the complement to a larger point: they are the point. It’s a curious sort of grandeur, one that isn’t really meant to be appreciated or discussed, but rather something aggressively imposed on you, wielded like a blunt weapon.

That’s not to say Ronaldo doesn’t inspire feelings. It’s just that these aren’t the kind of feelings you normally associate with collective success in a team ball sport.

Immerse yourself in the howling wilds of the internet, on sites like Reddit and 4chan and men’s fitness forums, and what Ronaldo stands for above all is more than just goals and medals. For a certain sample of disgruntled young males from whom he seems to draw the core of his fan base, he represents some sort of ultimate masculinity: vindication, revenge, pride, indestructibility, physical dominance, the satisfaction of crushing. your enemies underfoot. Ronaldo wins, and therefore by extension everyone – including the “manlet” Messi – loses.

Games and goals

To some extent, this is simply the brazen and warlike nature of online idolatry. But more than perhaps any footballer who has ever lived, Ronaldo has also cultivated this brand of individualistic devotion around himself. Watch one of Messi’s many commercials and almost invariably he fits into some sort of social setting. Messi arrives on a plane and starts kicking a ball. Messi arrives at a gas station and starts banging a can of soft drink. Messi shows up at your party flat with crisps.

Almost without exception, Ronaldo’s commercials only feature him and him. Ronaldo lit against a dark background, holding a bottle of shampoo. Ronaldo alone in his empty mansion, surrounded by thorny plants and golden ornaments. Oiled up, grinning Ronaldo doing sit ups. If anyone else is present, it’s invariably a woman, sultry and mute, moved to the verge of ecstasy by the mere presence of Ronaldo, his scent, his ability to conduct interviews with a CGI moon.

A huge Nike CR7 advertisement on the side of the Football Hotel in front of Old Trafford
A huge Nike CR7 advertisement on the side of the Football Hotel opposite Old Trafford. Photograph: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

There is a distinct and oddly insular worldview presented in these commercials: a vision that goes beyond mere narcissism and reimagines the ego as a kind of living project, a machine continually refined and improved in the name of conquest. . There is no greater meaning in the world there, beyond the meaning that you will impose on it. The fight is eternal and only one person can win it, so you will need a diet. Do the sit-ups. Take the degree online. Use Pearl Mica White Anti-Dandruff Shampoo. Win a wife.

Of course, Ronaldo the Person is a much more complex and confrontational individual than popular portrayals of him would have you believe. The way he came out of his impoverished education in Madeira through clear-headed ambition and superhuman work ethic continues to provide true inspiration to many. And yet, there are times when it’s not entirely clear where Ronaldo the man ends and where the Ronaldo cult begins.

United record

In 2018, Ronaldo was publicly charged with rape by Kathryn Mayorga, a former teacher who claimed in Der Spiegel that Ronaldo forced himself on her in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2009. the charge failed could “be proven beyond a reasonable doubt”.)

Ronaldo has always denied raping Mayorga, calling the allegations “false news”. During this time, his entourage immediately mobilized a counter-strategy. In the weeks following the publication of the Der Spiegel investigation, Ronaldo’s mother and sister posted a photo of Ronaldo in a Superman cape and urged his fans to do the same. Ronaldo’s lawyers called the charges “outrageous,” an attempt “to destroy a reputation built through hard work, athleticism and behavioral correction.” To this day, Mayorga continues to be the victim of vicious and misogynistic personal attacks on social media.

Of course, Ronaldo can hardly be expected to take responsibility for the thousands of creepy fanboys who publish abuse on his behalf. But for some reason his exploits on the football field have drawn a certain group of angry young men to him, the kind less motivated by his unrivaled penalty kick or pristine technical ability than by what they think he is. ‘he’s against it.

Fan kneels in front of Cristiano Ronaldo during Juventus match in Lyon in February 2020
A fan kneels in front of Cristiano Ronaldo during the Juventus game in Lyon in February 2020. Photography: Laurent Cipriani / AP

Or as his friend Piers Morgan put it in a recent Mail on Sunday column: “In a world ravaged by revivals that increasingly seems to celebrate failure and weakness more than success and in which to stop doing of sport is now inexplicably seen as courageous and heroic, Ronaldo is a refreshing and unashamed advocate of victory and resilience.

And so, as Messi reluctantly leaves Barcelona in a flood of tears and shows up in Paris almost in spite of himself, Ronaldo seemingly returns triumphantly to United, the master of his own destiny, again bending the seriousness of football to his will. That’s why the speed and manner of his arrival – and the gushing and reverential cover that followed – seemed to be his own statement of power, cutting off Messi, Manchester City and Cavani in one impressive stroke. Naturally there will be enemies and skeptics who will argue that Ronaldo does not push it, that his best years are behind him, that United still do not have a midfielder. But how many sit-ups have they already done?

Combat is eternal, and there are always new enemies to be defeated and new ways to overcome them. As Ronaldo prepares for his second debut against Newcastle United on Saturday, the conditions for success remain unclear. The merits of his transfer will continue to be debated until United end their wait for a big trophy. But at the end of the day, you can’t argue with the numbers.

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