The perverse joy in Cristiano Ronaldo having no reason to take his shirt off

In Depth

Cristiano Ronaldo winning his fifth (fifth!) Champions League is a phenomenal achievement. But it was kind of refreshing he didn’t have a reason to take his shirt off.

In 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United won the Champions League after a gripping all-English final against Chelsea.

The match was decided by the cruelest of penalty shootouts, John Terry’s slip giving United a lifeline before Edwin van der Sar denied Nicholas Anelka to win it.

That moment in history seemed to belong to Van der Sar, but as the Dutch goalkeeper fell to his right to win the match in Moscow, something strange happened.

Realising the trophy was theirs, nine United players launched themselves from the half-way line toward their keeper, while those on the touchline, staff and substitutes, formed a bouncing, joyous huddle.

Ronaldo, who had earlier opened the scoring but more recently sent a tame penalty into the palms of Petr Čech, did neither.

The winger went for a third option: falling to the ground in the centre circle, alone, convulsing with apparent emotion. The team was over there; he was here.

This was Ronaldo’s spot. This would be Ronaldo’s personal victory moment. Here, in the centre circle.

 

There was nothing sinister about Ronaldo’s little lonely moment of 2008. He would soon join his team-mates, and even told on-pitch reporters how he couldn’t think of leaving United right now, even amid strong interest from Real Madrid.

But that brief, face-in-the-turf solitude set a precedent for Ronaldo.

Future Champions League finals, ones in which he would be playing for Madrid, not United, would contain just a few too many moments of self-absorption — of treating the occasion as a showcase for his topless body.

This year, finally, he had to take a back seat.

Stealing the limelight

Real Madrid’s 2014 Champions League victory, a 4-1 win over city rivals Atlético Madrid, marked the end of a long wait.

A long wait for Real, who had endured 12 years of European failure in their quest for ‘La Decima’, but also for Ronaldo, who, as one of the world’s two best players, would have been frustrated to go six years without lifting this particular trophy.

It seems odd now, but Ronaldo was already 29 by the time he received his second Champions League winners medal. Six years in which to grow. Six years in which to mature.

Yet when the 2014 final rolled around, the world was treated to the second instalment of Ronaldo’s big-match solipsism — a sequel to his solo moment in Moscow.

Deep into injury time after 90 minutes, Real stalwart and all-round bastard Sergio Ramos grabbed a deserved equaliser. Extra-time goals from Gareth Bale and Marcelo put Real 3-1 up, meaning there was little to play for by the 120th minute.

That made Ronaldo’s reaction to converting a late, late penalty slightly confusing.

Off went his shirt; off to the corner flag he ran. These looked like the actions of a man who had just single-handedly won his side the Champions League, not one who had just hammered a superfluous nail into an already well-sealed coffin.

Unsurprisingly, that image of the roaring, muscle-tensing Portuguese became the Official Iconic Picture of the 2014 final.

Two years later, a similar thing happened. Again, the Champions League Final. Again, Real versus Atlético. Only this time a Ronaldo penalty would actually decide the match, not simply embellish it.

As Ronaldo scored Real’s fifth and final kick of the shootout, off came the shirt again. Further back pages were laid claim to.

And while it would be churlish to suggest that Ronaldo’s 2016 penalty didn’t deserve its wild celebrations, sceptics could still trace the faintest whiff of narcissism.

After all, this was a man who knew all too well the risks and rewards of taking the fifth penalty: four years prior, Ronaldo’s Portugal had lost their Euro 2012 semi-final to Spain in a shootout. Ronaldo, having volunteered to take the fifth (and potentially match-winning) spot kick, never got the chance, as Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves missed their attempts.

The 2016 winning penalty was slotted home with ease, but was it pragmatism or pride that put Ronaldo in that position? Hadn’t he learned by this point that the best penalty taker should go first, not fifth?

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A welcome reprieve

Accusations of egotism in the 2017 Champions League Final are moot, for obvious reasons: Ronaldo scored two goals and was man of the match. Do what you like, Cristiano.

This year, however, things were different.

Without necessarily trying to, no fewer than four players made headline news throughout the match: Ramos, Salah, Bale, Karius. You know the various reasons.

Ronaldo didn’t play badly, but his contribution was comparatively minor. Even the desperate-sounding hint, delivered immediately after the final whistle, that he might leave Madrid seemed like small news. Bale, after all, was saying it too.

That being said, Ronaldo’s quiet game did have some interesting knock-on effects. The TV cameras couldn’t not show him, but with not even a knuckleball in sight, the only lingering shots we received were of the forward’s reactions: how would one icon console another who had just suffered a nasty shoulder injury?

Better still, how would the scorer of a phenomenal bicycle kick in the quarter-finals react to his team-mate scoring an even better one in the final?

Ultimately, this rare sidelining of Ronaldo — Ronaldo the individual — has to be seen as a good thing.

You see, as incredible as his talent is and his achievements are, his personal celebrations ruin the fun for the rest of us.

If an entire squad is celebrating arm in arm, it’s easy to feel like you — up in the stadium or watching at home — are just one connection away from being arm in arm with them. The connections within the small group strengthen those of the larger group.

But if one player is away from the group, determined to show his unusually large neck muscles on TV, how do you convince yourself that you, in your expensive replica shirt, are part of it all?

So drink it in, one final time: Cristiano Ronaldo’s sheepish, sheepish grimace as he sees Bale’s wonder goal on the big screen.

The final might have had one too many sad moments, but this was, for the good of team spirit everywhere, one to cherish.

 

By Benedict O’Neill


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