The Ronaldo I've been watching for the past decade-plus -- let's say since the day the teenage Messi scored that copy-paste Maradona wondergoal against Getafe -- is so defined by being Messi's mirror image that imagining Cristiano without Leo seems like describing the shape of air. Yes, fine, the comparison between them is overworked. Consider: Here on one side was a natural genius of movement, someone with a deep and heartfelt connection to a club that seemed to mean more than any other in the game, a little guy, not big or strong or fast-looking, but able to outplay the opposition because he saw space the way poets see poetry. Someone faster, stronger, shinier, and more selfish than anyone else on the pitch. His days were a gaudy parade of mirrored aviators and aggressively popped pastel polo collars and yacht railings and velvet ropes. He'd look out with that dry-ice stare he's got, and if you imagined putting yourself in his head, seeing what he saw, it was too easy to picture, like, little red X's popping in over the faces of all the human beings. (Ronaldo's jaw, while impressive, is more trapezoidal.) His euro-glitter fashion sense and frank participation in his own megastardom were hard to reconcile with any Vince Lombardi quotes, and I've read a lot of Vince Lombardi quotes. Ronaldo's Manchester United versus Chelsea, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Penalties took place on what was basically a mud slick.
On the other side you had -- well, the exact opposite of that. Someone who always seemed vaguely annoyed by the presence of his own teammates, like the kind of megalomaniacal rock frontman who gets to the studio and insists on recording all his bandmates' tracks himself. Messi came across as a mystically wise elf-boy who spoke no human languages and lived only for the enchantment of soccer. The world stared at him, but you never had the sense that he returned its attention, never saw real curiosity or interest or engagement in anything except what he himself could do. So was I really seeing him, or was I doing the thing I thought he was doing -- failing to perceive the full, irreducible existence of the other person? Billionaire football was still a novelty at that point. Maybe you remember the part where Didier Drogba got sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic. If an elderly duke attacked you without provocation, you might slap him away like that, timidly. He ended up with 42 in 49 appearances that year; he was 23 and playing against Premier League defenses. Nicolas Anelka missed the decisive one, though John Terry's miss was the one everyone talked about; he ran up to take his shot and slipped.
I sometimes lose sight of that fact, which probably says more about me than it does about him. It was just so much fun to see Ronaldo as a foil for Messi.
Twelve years ago, when the world was new and he and Messi were young, it started to become clear what the next era of soccer was going to look like, and you had two choices about how you were going to live in it. If you are one of the six people on earth who chose option (1), congratulations: Please teach me to be a better person. Because I saw him that way, and most people I knew saw him that way, and Anglophone soccer Twitter overwhelmingly saw him that way, I sort of missed the part where hundreds of millions of people developed a passionate connection with him and came to view the world as a fable in which he was good. After Ronaldo's $130 million transferpalooza from Real Madrid to Juventus in July, throngs of fans swarmed his medical evaluation in Turin. The crowd surged forward, everyone desperate for a spot at the front where they might see him, plead for an autograph, catch his eye.
So when Ronaldo moves to your club, you have the normal ecstasy of gaining a new star to root for, yes, but you also have something more. He's not the insouciantly fauxhawked Ferrari-crasher of years past; these days, I'm guessing he spends more time driving his million-euro supercars the speed limit.
You have the sense of a vast and epochal significance settling over your stadium. If you watched him last season, you could almost start to let yourself think he'd lost, not a step, nothing as serious as that, but a fraction of a step, an infinitesimal quasi-step.
And you get to participate in that, feel the pulse of that. because I have the sense that I've missed something important about him over the years, and now that we're coming to the end of his career, I'd like to know what it might be. He led Portugal in what was widely seen as his last-ever World Cup, though he says he wants to play in more.
Then he left the club where he's spent most of his prime, where he's won (hang on, checking Wikipedia) 19,000 individual and team honors, for Serie A, a league that would be very pleased if you could remember it exists. Everything canceled out except him and the ball and the goal.
Namely: (1) You could try to see that both Messi and Ronaldo were human beings, complex and changeable, and you could understand that the story of their careers would not be a simple moral fable but would encompass all the contingency and ambiguity of any human life, and would therefore elude interpretation. People held up mobile phones from too far back to be able to record anything except other people holding up mobile phones.
They waved his jersey -- the lines to buy one stretched blocks -- and called his name.