For all that he won at Real Madrid — four Champions League crowns, two league titles, four Ballons d’Or — there existed the sense that Ronaldo was not always happy at the club. According to Guillem Balague, Ronaldo’s biographer, the Portuguese star is “motivated by nothing less than the desire to be loved”. That is perhaps at the heart of his issues in Madrid: the need to be appreciated, to be treated as its single most important player. Maybe he wanted an improved contract, maybe he was unhappy with Real Madrid’s courting of Neymar, the sort of player whose arrival would have challenged his status as the Bernabeu’s biggest star.
Balague has another explanation for the lack of love Ronaldo, with his good looks and high-profile endorsements, sometimes felt in Spain: envy, a trait he describes as one of the country’s “national sins”. He writes: “In order to be a success in Spain, your self-esteem has to be at just the right level. Spanish people rarely admire someone who stands out from the herd and as soon as someone does, they get shot down.”
It is easy to paint Ronaldo as an unalloyed egotist. There is the story of him wanting, at Manchester United, the locker opposite the only full-length mirror in the dressing room. And the one about falling out with Marcelo once because he said Iker Casillas deserved the Ballon d’Or. One game stands out as an illustration of this supposed self-regard: the 2014 Champions League final, when Real Madrid was chasing La Decima, a historic 10th European Cup.
Real beat Atletico Madrid in extra time but Ronaldo refused to celebrate until he scored a goal of his own — a 120th minute penalty when his team was already up 3-1 — at which point he ripped his shirt off and roared. He appeared desperate for the limelight but Rio Ferdinand, once his colleague at Manchester United, felt the striker would’ve considered it a failure to not contribute a goal. “What I saw in his reaction was: ‘I’ve scored! Now I can celebrate properly!’ That’s the sign of a great player, not an egotistical one,” he writes in his autobiography.
Even his biggest critics must surely marvel, however, at Ronaldo’s staggering goal-scoring record for Real: 451 in 438 matches. He has adapted his game but remained at the top for an astonishingly long time, all due to an obsessive work ethic. Ronaldo will continue to score in Italy, whether he feels the love or not.
The writer covers sports for The Hindu and is based in Bengaluru