Cristiano Ronaldo and the Long Walk from Brazil
By Tom Jenkins
It had been a long time, in fact. A very long time, as it turned out, when Cristiano Ronaldo was dropped from the Portuguese national side. It had been something of an ordeal for Ronaldo in Portugal, where he had been the star of Real Madrid’s attack for much of his time at the club and was regarded as, despite his svelte physique, the most athletic footballer in football. Yet on a dark January night in 2002, Ronaldo was forced to quit.
The reason for his departure was simple—he had been caught carrying drugs on a European flight and, by the authorities’ account, was on a “drug binge” for the previous two weeks. While the incident on the night he was called up for national duty would seem to have been sparked by Ronaldo’s poor form—his form was only good when he played for Portugal—it was really a reaction to the growing tensions in his country, particularly after the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of racism in football and racism in general.
It was perhaps just as well that the incident did not become public. By the time Ronaldo was forced to quit his international career, he was already an established star in two very different leagues. He was the biggest star in Real Madrid’s attack, and one of the most prolific forwards in Europe, with 37 goals in the Spanish league season of 1995-96, the second highest haul of goals in the history of the competition. Moreover, he had already achieved the status of “futbol supercarga”—the ultimate player status in the sport, earned through the sheer weight of his on-pitch persona. He was the biggest star in the Spanish league, no less—he was the star of Spain’s team, the country’s main football representative and the country’s best performer.
As things turned out, Ronaldo would spend the next four years as a model for the public face of FIFA, first in a series of advertisements for Nike (he was paid $15 million for each of them), then as the face of the “world game” event for the 1996 FIFA Futsal World Championship. But those four years would be the least of his achievements in football.