What follows are my thoughts about Ronaldo: The Film, a brutally honest and hence misunderstood look at the life of one of football’s greatest icons behind the scenes. Hastily written while watching the movie, this is by no means a thorough review, and only reflects my attempts to view the film with the respect and honesty that it consistently offers to the viewer. Forgive the lack of organization.
There is a scene where Ronaldo is with the Portuguese national squad at their hotel in Brazil two weeks before the 2014 FIFA World Cup. He leaves the bus, autographs shirts and balls for fans, and then makes his way into the hotel. There is no expression on his face, perhaps because of he sees more fans clamouring for a mere glance; after 12 years of constant pleas for his attention, and people shouting his name at him, and flashing their cameras at him, it must weigh heavy on his shoulders, causing a fatigue as real as the accumulation of the pain in his thighs and knees. As he looks down at the floor in front of the lift, the same lack of expression etched on his face, he hears someone call out, “Give us a smile!” from behind him. The man obliges. Never have I seen a smile appear more quickly on a person’s face, and never have I seen a smile disappear, with the warmth in one’s eyes fading almost before you acknowledge its existence.
Later, after Portugal are beaten 4-0 by Germany in their opening game of the tournament, a fan shouted this to a dejected Ronaldo as the team re-entered the hotel: “Look here! It’s time to wake up!” Wake up?! The man was only carrying the hopes of 11 million people, and the expectations of hundreds of other millions, on shoulders held up by knees and thighs that were failing him. Later in the movie, in an act that honestly took me by surprise, Ronaldo even openly admits that he would not have gone to the World Cup if he had a chance to change things, such were the potentially career-ending implications of playing through injury. These are two of many moments in the film that subtly yet powerfully depicts the isolation of Ronaldo’s life. I am reminded of footage from the premiere of the movie, where Ronaldo poses in front of the paparazzi, facing a wall of camera flashes and calls for attention. The smile permanently etched on his face, he is performing an imperceptible yet clearly visible shuffle, constantly shifting his feet and body to face each camera. He is reduced to little more than a circus animal, beholden to the viewer’s word in a sick, distorted, voyeuristic game. Except that in this case, the game never ends. Ronaldo, the jewel in the crown of the celebrity athlete, is treated like livestock, with fans using him for momentary pleasure in the form of a digital snapshot, and paparazzi using his image to mint money.
While it is impossible to deny that Ronaldo is one of the few athletes who actively seeks this attention, and thrives on it, it is no small wonder most footballers are reclusive, private individuals, all too keen to shy away from the unending waves of attention pummeling them from every direction. The pressure is suffocating, like the weight of many atmospheres bearing down on you. Not for nothing does Ronaldo say he prefers the isolation, locked away in the solace of his own home, away from the glaring media and television. Not for nothing does he treasure these moments of isolation, the calm before he is “pulled back into that world”.
You have people climbing over fences to ask Ronaldo to follow you on Twitter, you have people reaching under a gate to record your every movement. The only disgusting and obsessed characters in the movie are you and I.
A mother is forced to take sedative pills because of the pressure of her son being judged in a boiling cauldron of the expectations and criticism of hundreds of millions of people. A son is forced to hear about this with a camera in his face.
A girl castigates the man for not signing a football. The paparazzi and fans hide behind the bushes, whispering when they catch a glimpse of a man walking his child to school. Reporters surround Ronaldo’s house waiting for a glimpse of that very new-born child, interrogating the new father.
Take the man Ronaldo succeeded both on and off the pitch — David Beckham. There are several documentaries about his life, both in Manchester and Madrid, and a considerable proportion of footage is of him in his car, separated from throngs of shouting fans wanting a whiff of his perfume or shampoo by a sheet of metal and glass. Beckham is treated like a trained animal. That he and Ronaldo are outliers in that they seek this attention is beside the point; they should not have to experience it in the first place. Their looks and ability should not be commoditized. One of the most telling clips from a documentary was one in which, after a long day with photoshoots or press conferences or television interviews or some such event, Beckham leans back in the driver’s seat, and talks about how he has few friends. Imagine that: David Beckham, the most recognizable person in the world, the most loved footballer of all time, has few friends. A haunting confession of the inner turmoil and solitude perpetrated and perpetuated by the celebrity thrust upon him, it is one of the few times you really gain insight into the psychology of a modern-day footballer. In his rather excellent autobiography ‘Luis Suarez: Crossing the Line – My Story’, released as he was waiting out a four-month ban, Suarez — another strong candidate for the most misunderstood person and under-appreciated footballer out there — says that he trusts very few people as a result of having been taken advantage of earlier in his life. This is what makes Ronaldo: The Film valuable.
People have called Ronaldo “self-obsessed”, and the movie a “vanity project”; who are we to judge a man who has achieved the absolute pinnacle of his sport? Are we, the fans who deign to critique every poor performance, clearly empowered by our own exalted achievements in the game, not the ones who are obsessed? At the premiere, dozens of people, some from the far reaches of the globe, lined up to take a selfie with the man, to be in his proximity for a few seconds and capture a moment to be stored away for eternity; are we not guilty of being obsessed with Ronaldo’s image as much as he is? Are we not to blame for treating him as a mannequin?
“All that I have I owe to that son.”
While I must make it absolutely clear that I have no intention of “analyzing” Cristiano’s family, especially his parents, since I feel that indicates a delusion that we somehow possess some divine right to judge another person despite not having spent a second in their shoes, I want to mention this one line spoken by Ronaldo’s mother, as she walks down a deserted road. She talks of the sacrifice, a word that forms the foundation for much of Ronaldo’s life, made by the family when Ronaldo moved to Lisbon as a child, and speaks about “that son”, as if she were talking about the twelve-year-old boy, not the grown man. Was that the last time Cristiano Ronaldo was “just” her son? Does she feel she owes all she has to the twelve-year-old boy who was not afraid of pursuing his dream? Even Ronaldo’s elder brother says, “He is our protector. Everything we have today, we owe to him.” As a normal human being with an entirely ordinary life, I cannot begin to imagine what the life of the Ronaldo family, isolated on an island surrounded by an ocean of strangers seeking to share that island if only for a few seconds, must be like.
Watching this movie, and learning about Ronaldo’s drive to win the Balon D’Or, to be recognized as the best in the world, and experiencing his struggles to reach his goal, you can’t help but ask the question: could he be the greatest footballer of all time? The Maradonas, Peles, Cruyffs, Zidanes, and Messis can all lay claim to that honour, and Cristiano Ronaldo is certainly worthy of the title, and of towering over every one else. Ronaldo stands out even in this exclusive list of legends in that he is arguably the only one who actively, unashamedly and unrelentingly pursued greatness, while the others had greatness thrust upon them, either by their God-given natural genius, or by the fans and media looking for a head to place the crown on. He saw greatness as his right, and can now pass on his glories to his son. What he has achieved has created history. What he has achieved will live on throughout history.
The whole movie builds up to the Balon D’Or ceremony, with Ronaldo’s thinly veiled personal ambition and Jorge Mendes’ thinly veiled conviction that his “special son” will be recognized as the greatest in the world, on show throughout; the tension as Ronaldo leaves the players’ lounge in a limousine, carving its way through the throngs of gathered supporters, is palpable; this is it, the culmination of a year’s work, a year’s dreams. However, the actual ceremony itself is a footnote — we next see Mendes and Ronaldo celebrating on the tarmac, pure joy etched on their faces as they make their way to the private jet, where the celebrate with the golden ball, the shining orb, the bright symbol of greatness. The ceremony was for the fans; no, it is the tense anticipation and the fervent celebrations, the highs and lows of life at that level of expectation, that the movie wants to show us. Everything else, the ceremonies, the goals, the free-kicks, are already at the tip of our fingers.
Don’t watch this movie with any preconceived notions and expectations. Don’t let your viewing experience be coloured by your footballing loyalties. Don’t be presumptious and stick to the notion of authorial intention — that it may have been the protagonist’s intention to draw your gaze to his house or swimming pool or private jets or cars. Don’t view this movie superficially. Give your undivided attention to a man who has sacrificed, struggled, endured, and worked to reach the promised land that all of us dream of, yet few will every achieve: Greatness. Be grateful for the opportunity to understand a man, a myth, who did not make this movie to be judged. He made it to be understood. As the credits roll, you will be left with little but admiration for the person and his sacrifices. Forget the vanity: don’t we all look in the mirror? Wouldn’t we all build a shrine, a museum of memories, in our own name if we enough worthwhile achievements and memories to look back on?
Towards the end of the movie, Cristiano says that when his career is over, he will put his boots aside. That’s it, he says. Enjoy him while it lasts. Enjoy the honour of witnessing the greatest of all time. The greatest athlete in the history of his sport, of any sport. We will be telling our grandchildren about Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro like our grandparents told us about Muhammad Ali. Why miss out an opportunity to learn more about the man behind the myth?