Cristiano Ronaldo Interview: The Real Madrid Star Reveals His Weaknesses
When you’re one of the world’s greatest anything, reverence and criticism tend to come in equal measures. Reverence, duly, because you’re one of the greatest; criticism, inevitably, because you’re up there on a pedestal to be shot at. But when you’re the world’s greatest footballer, acclaim and condemnation are merely the tip of the iceberg. Only somebody of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ilk could be likened to God and Satan in the same newspaper, within the same week. Only Ronaldo could make more news, while injured, than any other footballer within the same period. Only he could score 50 per cent of his team’s goals, and assist a further 30 per cent, and yet be accused of disrupting the team’s attacking flow.
Before I set off to interview him in London in 2010, I updated my Facebook status, informing my friends of who I was going to meet that evening. Before I’d even made it to the train station I had 38 comments. By the time I was sat in a makeshift interview room waiting for the man himself, it was closer to 100. It then dawned on me that he is not only a great footballer, but one of the most famous and culturally significant human beings on the planet. From your missus to your magazine editor – not discounting your Man United fan – everyone has an opinion on Ronaldo, or CR7 as he is now known on the continent. Some hate him and some love him, but very few reserve judgement.
My view, for what it’s worth, is that his time-keeping skills could do with a bit of work. Because he’s late. More than an hour late. I try to occupy myself; read over my questions, check my Dictaphone battery, pretend to text on my phone, pace up and down, check my Dictaphone battery again. And then there’s a knock on the door, a slight pause and in strolls a glistening bronzed Galactico with deltoids like camel humps.
Considering he’s one of the highest profile men on the planet, Ronaldo is remarkably aware of his surroundings. Unlike some footballers I’ve crossed paths with, he takes responsibility for his actions off the pitch, as well as on it. And as such he looks me in the eye and apologises for his poor punctuality. “Air traffic control delayed my plane’s take-off in Madrid,” he explains.
And while I doubt his particular hold-up consisted of a penned-in Ryanair queue with a handful of screaming babies and a splattering of hungover holidaymakers, there’s something humbling about the fact that even he has to put up with airport congestion. But enough about that, we’re here to talk football. Which is a good job too, because it happens to be Cristiano’s favourite topic of conversation…
It was your dream to play for Real Madrid, has it lived up to expectations?
“For sure. Real Madrid is special, and I am enjoying it a lot there. It can be difficult when you come from a different league in a different country, and injuries didn’t help me to settle quickly, but I’m feeling very comfortable in Spain now. When the team plays well, obviously it helps me a lot, and I have been joined by a lot of fantastic players in the changing room and a truly great manager too. I do believe I’m playing for the biggest club in the world. Now we need to prove that on the pitch.”
Apparently there are two Real Madrids: one with you and one without you…
“There is some talk about that in the Spanish papers, but everything depends on the results. People do statistics for when I play, and when I don’t play, when there are goals and when there aren’t, and so on. But I don’t think a team should depend on just one player. It is a big club with some of the best players in the world, so I just say Madrid is a fantastic team – whether I play or not.”
Have you noticed many differences between La Liga and the Premier League?
“The Premier League is definitely quicker and more physical, while La Liga is patient and technical. In terms of standard, those at the top of each division are similar. But I think at the bottom of each division there is a greater difference because the lower teams in England battle hard while the lower Spanish teams try to play football more. Either way, they are tough to break down.”
So have you had to adapt your game for La Liga?
“There’s not really much to adapt to. In Spain there are fewer direct balls from the defenders to the strikers and from that point of view more matches actually seem to suit my style of receiving it deep and running at defenders. But good players can play in any environment – the Champions League has shown that. Having developed in England over the six years I was at United, I feel able to cope with any physical battles. Plus, playing international football has also taught me that it doesn’t matter who I am playing for or against, or what style the match is, I can still make an impact.”
Cristiano is a more impressive physical specimen in the flesh. He is tall – every millimetre of his 6ft 1ins – without being lanky, and his top half is brimming with sculpted muscle. He’s wearing a tight tracksuit top this evening, and a pair of ripped stonewash jeans that look like they could’ve come from the sale rack at Topman, but will almost certainly have been handmade by a notorious designer at 10-times the price.
His demeanor, too, surpasses expectation. While he can come across brash and petulant on the pitch, any sense of the marauding arrogance so many people label him with is vacant here. He talks maturely – and articulately considering English is his third language – yet, at times, he retains the youthful gaze of a mischievous kid in a playground. It’s this balance of aspiration and unpretentiousness that makes him all the more marketable for big brands such as Nike, Emporio Armani, and the Portuguese bank Espírito Santo, who ran an advertising campaign earlier this year in which Ronaldo sings in a recording studio.
“I like to sing in the shower,” he says. “So I thought it’d be a bit of fun.”
Cristiano is the very model of a modern major footballer. He’s athletic, skilful, marketable, intelligent… all these things and more. All the money, adoring fans, cars, girls and plush mansions can be overwhelming for a lad who, aged 14, left the dusty austerity of his childhood home on the island of Madeira to pursue a career as a footballer, and was named the world’s greatest less than a decade later. But while he finds time to do the showbiz thing – guest-listing at LA nightspots with Paris Hilton and rubbing shoulders with movie stars during his summer off – he still values his humble roots…
You are one of four siblings, how important is family to you?
“My family have always been important to my life. It is those closest to me who have given me confidence, and made me what I am now. For that I am thankful and really proud. Every day it helps me a lot to know that they are there for me.”
You left home at a young age to pursue your dream at Sporting Lisbon. At what point did you believe you were going to make it?
“In the beginning I had no idea really, I just played football because I enjoyed it. Even when I was 15 or 16-years-old, I didn’t really know if I was going to be a professional footballer. But I believed in myself, and people were always telling me good things. Then, when I started to train with the first team at Sporting, I started to realise that I could be a good player.”
‘A good player’ is something of an understatement. Are you the best player in the world?
“Right now it’s not for me to say. I was voted the best in the 2008 Ballon d’Or, but Messi won it last year. There are so many great players out there. I couldn’t say if it is me before them.”
How important are individual awards to you?
“Of course I want to win more of these individual awards but the decision is out of my hands. I can only continue to play at my best level. The priority is always the collective trophies – the team is the most important thing to me. But personal awards provide a different kind of success, a sense of pride in my own achievement. It’s always nice to show these awards to my family, they can recognise it’s something special.”
Which fellow footballers have you looked to for inspiration during your career?
“I do not look to anyone. Of course there are players I enjoy watching and playing with: Rooney, Messi, Torres, Ribery, Cesc, Kaka and Benzema are some of my favourites. They are all great players. But I don’t copy people. I am my own man and my own player.”
You mentioned Wayne Rooney. You and him had a great partnership at United, do you keep in touch with him?
“Yes, I still stay in contact with a lot of friends in Manchester. Rooney is a great player; I have always known how great he is. He has a winning mentality and you never lose that. I would like to play with him again some day if possible.”
Who in particular do you stay in contact with at United?
“I speak to Rooney, and call or text Rio, Vidic, Evra and Nani. Just because I left the club does not mean my relationships with these guys ended. I spent many years playing with them and they are still my friends. In fact I still speak with Alex Ferguson, too, but what I talk to the boss about is private!”
You were used to a fair bit of stick from opposition fans in England, but how have you been treated in Spain?
“It has not been on the same scale to be honest. In England – not in every stadium but in most of them – they would boo me every time I got the ball. But I think people have started to learn that when they boo it only spurs me on and gives me more confidence and power. So if people in Spain want to start, then this is not a problem for me at all!”
In spite of abuse from the terraces and criticism from pundits, journalists and – more often than not in the last year or so – FC Barcelona officials, Cristiano’s performances are invariably brilliant. And you can’t take that away from him.
After setting the Premier League alight for the best part of five years, the new king of Madrid had the pressure of a world record £80million price tag and 100,000 passionate Madrileños, who turned up to his coronation last July. But unlike Zidane before him, the latest chief Galactico eased into life in La Liga effortlessly. After notching 20 goals in 18 games of an injury-interrupted debut season, Ronaldo is again operating at a ratio exceeding a goal-a-game since welcoming fellow Portuguese Jose Mourinho to the Santiago Bernabeu in the summer. Aside from a blip against an imperious Barcelona side in the recent El Classico, Cristiano has been the heartbeat of Mourinho’s formidable new generation, constantly breathing fresh, vibrant life into the Los Galacticos cause.
In an era of elite athleticism in football, and in a league that demands the industrious to win the ball and the playmakers to create, Ronaldo not only carries the piano for his team, he plays a concerto on it as well. The fact that Real fans had a 10-metre silver statue of him erected in a busy Madrid city centre square earlier this year, is indicative of the love affair the locals have with their latest Rey Supremo.
Have you hit your peak? Or is there more to come from you?
“I try to improve every day. I have my own goals and I work hard, train hard and believe that I can continue to get better. I am not perfect; there is a lot more to come from me, and I think I am at the right club to develop at this stage of my career.”
So what do you need to improve, then?
“I don’t think I am a complete player. The moment I start thinking that will be the day things go wrong. I can improve my free kicks, my dribbling and my left-foot shooting in particular. In training, I try to work with the same intensity I had when I first started to learn football, because a major part of being the best footballer I can be is practice.”
Do you love football?
“Of course. You could take away the money, the crowd, the fame and everything like that, but I would still play football because I love it. I have been in love with the game since a very young age. Even now, if I see a ball or a pitch or a goal, I can’t help myself wanting to have a kick around. The extra things that football has given me and allowed me to experience have been wonderful, but essentially I play because I love the game.”
What would you like your legacy to be?
“I want to be one of the legends of football history. When I finish my career I hope people will look to me and say ‘Cristiano is a fantastic player and a great example to kids.’ I am an entertainer and I believe football should be entertainment, so I hope that deep down people who really love football will love me too.”