“He was screaming at me: ‘Cristiano! Make the right decisions! Cristiano decision making!’”
Cristiano Ronaldo flashes his pearly whites as he recalls the bellowed words of Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who he calls his “father in football” and his great teacher.
Sport has asked the Portuguese superstar which lessons still resonate inside his head. “Oh, many things,” he replies in near perfect English. “When you’re a young player, you don’t understand decision making properly: when to take a touch, when to dribble. He taught me the basics that took me to where I am today. I remember that in the beginning – they always say I didn’t do the decision making great. So he taught me how to do this.
“I feel proud that he pushed me so hard. One of his best qualities is that he pushed players when they needed it – and in that period of time, I needed it. I needed him – and Roy Keane too, our captain – always screaming to me: ‘Cristiano! Pass the ball!’ But it was good! At the end of the day, I feel happy, because I learned a lot from them.”
It was 12 years ago this year that Cristiano Ronaldo, a Sporting Lisbon teenager with spaghetti in his hair, ran amok against Manchester United in a pre-season friendly. Keane himself recalls it in his autobiography: “He was up against John O’Shea. Sheasy ended up seeing the doctor at half-time because he was actually having dizzy spells.”
Since that day, the dizzying rise to the top has continued. The move to Manchester United; seasons of improvement into becoming one of the club’s best ever players; an £80m transfer to Real Madrid; becoming this famous club’s record goalscorer in just over six seasons. Yet that doesn’t mean everything in Ronaldo’s life is perfect.
Arrogance and vanity
We’re in Madrid talking to the 30-year-old around the release of a documentary, Ronaldo, put together by a team of acclaimed filmmakers who were given behind-the-scenes access for a year. Early on, we hear Ronaldo say that he’s aware that some people view him as “arrogant” and “vain”. Does he feel misunderstood?
“It is what it is. I cannot complain. If you worry a lot about what everyone is thinking, you’re not going to live your life. Of course I try to do the right things, to be an example… but after that, you have to live your life. Nobody is in my shoes. They don’t know me. They don’t live the way I live, they don’t train when I’m training, they don’t go play and [have] people boo. The easy way is to criticise. But I’ve played sports as a professional for 13 years. I’m used to it like that.”
Laid bare, his words hint at bitterness, but his delivery in person is breezily matter-of-fact. Many footballers are wary and monosyllabic in interview settings – perhaps fearing how their words will be twisted or cowering under the glare of a cabal of PR people. Yet Ronaldo is animated and engaging, shifting around on a hotel sofa with child-like energy. It’s almost disappointing. Sport was semi-hoping for the scowling prima donna who smacks the turf after he fails to score (even if a team-mate just has).
The film covers the start of 2014 to the beginning of this year, bookended by Ronaldo winning his second, and then third, Ballon d’Or awards. It’s obvious how much both successes mean to him, yet this is fuel for critics who claim that, if there’s a flaw in this superlative footballer, it’s that he’s too much of an individualist.
The question is why – for a player who’s won the Champions League with two different clubs, plus every major domestic trophy in both England and Spain – does a voted-for award matter so much?
“To be recognised as the best player in the world is fantastic – but it’s not the most important thing,” he replies. “For me, the most important thing is to be at a level, year by year. This is the challenge for me. This is the most difficult thing. And people who understand football, they recognise that.
“Of course if you win [team] trophies, it’s better. But I feel good, I win things both individual and collective – but of course I want more. I expect to play another five, six years – and I want more and more. This is something that I love.”
World Cup woes
The film is not, however, a slavish account of Ronaldo’s triumphs. It also includes Portugal’s World Cup campaign, in which their number seven, labouring with a knee injury, is unable to lift his country out of the group stage – scoring just once, against Ghana. The agony of disappointment is writ large on his face, but it’s someone else’s pain that makes for the documentary’s most emotive scene.
Ronaldo is extremely close to his mother, Dolores. At one point, while watching her son play against the USA in a World Cup game on TV in Madeira, she gets up mid-match and leaves her sitting room in distress to wander alone down a deserted suburban street. The anxiety of seeing it is simply too much.
“It’s very, very complicated,” Ronaldo says of how it makes him feel. “When you feel your family and your friends are more emotional, more nervous than you, it makes me feel a bit nervous too. They should be more relaxed than me, but sometimes it’s the opposite.
“But they live so intense the sport and my life, that it’s part of it. Especially my mum. My daddy died ten years ago, and I don’t want my mum to die in the next five or ten years. I want that she can live. So I try to make her calm: ‘Relax, it’s football – it’s not life.’ But it’s hard, because she lives so intense. So intense, all the time.
She saw the game, she’s nervous… [sighs] and it’s hard.”
Ronaldo lost his father José to an alcohol related liver condition when Cristiano was just 20. “He drank every day,” says the player openly. Not having his father around to see and share in his achievements – and not to know him as a man now – is a regret that Ronaldo shares in the film.
Yet, in other ways, he remains an opaque figure; wandering around his glass mansion like some improbably chiselled aftershave advert come to life. Some of his confessions – “I consider myself an isolated person” – chime with the view of him as an ultra-competitive individualist. Someone singular and obsessive in his pursuit of perfection.
What he has quite clearly is a genuinely close and loving bond with his scene-stealing son, Cristiano Junior (naturally). The little tyke enjoys fun-time activities with Pops, including ‘work out which car has gone missing from our gigantic garage’ (turns out it’s not the Porsche, it’s not the Roller – it’s the Lambo). A game we can all recall playing with our own fathers. Then there’s the fun of press-ups with Dad, trips to the Ballon d’Or ceremony and – yes – bumping into one Lionel Messi.
Well, we got this far without mentioning him. Yet Ronaldo is at pains to point out that, despite what you may have heard, he has a perfectly cordial relationship with Barcelona’s own resident genius.
No Messi situation
“It’s normal,” he says of the press speculation that the rivalry between them is of a deeply personal nature. “It’s to sell papers – and for the media it’s great to say that. But on the one side, while it’s very normal, on the other side… I don’t know why they do it. Because my relationship with him is good.
“In the past eight years, we are on the stage together all the time – and I never, ever, had a problem with him. He’s a fantastic professional, a fantastic player. It’s just the press making that story. But it’s normal.”
It might be “normal” for the world’s two best footballers, playing in equivalent positions for Spain’s best teams and fiercest rivals, to be constantly compared. But it seems odd how divisive an issues it is; that you have to choose between the two – that somehow a compliment given to one is seen as a slight on the other.
Especially when – it seems obvious to point out – they’re both superb. In terms of sheer consistency alone – of never seeming to have a season ‘off’ – they’re two of the greatest players club football has ever seen. Both are worth enjoying while they’re here, because we’ll be boring our grandchildren with tales of their exploits.
Not that Ronaldo is finished yet.
“Why not?” he says when we ask him if we’ll see him back in the Premier League again. “In football, you never know what will happen tomorrow. I feel great here – it’s a fantastic club – but tomorrow, I don’t know. People know I love Manchester United. It’s great there – they support me a lot… I’m very good here at Madrid, but in the future: nobody knows. Let’s see what’s going to happen.”
With that, we have time for just one more question. Because he’s been part of his own documentary, Sport wonders, which current sporting figure would he himself like to sit down and watch a feature-length film about? It’s a question that briefly stumps him. Not because he can’t think of any, but because there are too many names to consider.
“Football players, basketball, athletes – I follow a lot of them. All the guys I like are at the top level. For example, I watched the [2015 World Championships] athletics – the qualification. I saw Usain Bolt win, then Justin Gatlin did – and I loved it! I couldn’t wait to see the final. I like sport, I like other sports – so it’s a hard question for me to answer.”
So Sport departs, struggling slightly to reconcile the petulant player with the bright, cheery chap we’ve encountered. Usain Bolt’s name has just come up, but it’s another great runner’s words that resonate in our head. Michael Johnson once told us that the reason he looked so surly on the track before a race was because he tried smiling once – and he finished second. “Laser focus” was required for him to be at his optimum.
“I needed to be in a nasty attitude, really – a little bit pissed off,” he explained. “That’s where I needed to be, but that may not work for everyone.”
Perhaps Ronaldo is the same. That intensity might be what he needs to carry on to the pitch to squeeze the absolute maximum out of his astonishing talent. Whatever he’s doing, it works. It might have taken him a while to master decision making – but most of the choices Cristiano Ronaldo makes seem to work out pretty well for him now.
..This interview appears in the current edition of Sport magazine.