Cristiano Ronaldo: Football’s hazy God
As Juventus entered the second leg of their tie against Atletico Madrid 2–0 down, the narrative was there for the taking. Having reached two of the last four Champions League finals, faltering at both attempts in the final hurdle, the rationale behind purchasing a thirty-four-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo seemed obvious. Juventus had gone about as far as they could with several variations of fantastically talented players and still come up short. Whereas the coach is usually the first to blame for a team’s near miss with success, the blame couldn’t really be leveled at Massimiliano Allegri. Aside from his time at the club being one of the most successful in their storied history, his artful navigation of the departure of players like Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, and Leonardo Bonucci has created something of a cushion for the Italian. The only thing that made sense was to back the man behind their continued success to the fullest extent.
However, even after supplementing a superpower with a nuclear weapon, Juventus found themselves a mountain and a valley away from their goal. The purpose of buying someone like Ronaldo was to come as close as possible to ensuring success in a competition that has become a necessary component of becoming the global brand they, PSG, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and others all intend to be. And yet they were ninety minutes away from being left at the table with a pretty hefty bill and a bad taste in their mouth.
What ensued was about as wondrous for Juventus fans as it was genuinely brilliant. While Allegri intended to mitigate Atletico’s defensive-pressing gameplan in the first leg through risk-averse passing and possession, Atleti’s aggressive pressing in combination with Miralem Pjanic’s flu-ridden performance denied Allegri any affirmation in what was likely the correct theoretical approach. Everyone, by now, is painfully aware of Diego Simeone’s tactics and overcoming them is no easy feat. What made matters worse for Allegri is that the game state now completely favored what Atletico are famously good at- defending. Creating enough space for their attackers without over-exposing themselves was the mega-ton problem he’d have to solve.
With refinement instead of stubbornness as his abiding ideology, Allegri masterminded a similar approach in the second leg. He still intended to offer little for Atletico to exploit, but he ensured that his team set up to have the best chance at digging themselves out of the hole they’d dug in the first game. By employing an equally intelligent and fierce counter-pressing midfield duo of Emre Can and Blaise Matuidi on either side of their main distributor, Miralem Pjanic, Allegri ensured that whatever risks Pjanic and the rest of the attack-minded creators took were accounted for. (Take-ons, speculative shots, and crosses all fall under the banner of risk because of the danger posed by Atletico’s counter-attack)
This mitigated midfield risk in addition to the use of Joao Cancelo and Leonardo Spinazzola as unrelenting crossers of the ball, constantly searching out choreographed runs with the time afforded to them by Juve’s forward spacing, underlines the complexity and thoughtfulness of Allegri’s coaching. He also used the very best of Mario Mandzukic’s hold up play in combination with the accuracy and directness of his central defenders Bonucci and Chiellini in a similar fashion. The entire approach addressed the gravity of their situation while never erring into the rashness of overexposing themselves in places Atleti would’ve wanted them to. It’s a tactical explanation to what was a tactical affair, and yet we are already seeing another, potentially dangerous explanation for Juventus’ success.
While all of what I’ve explicated about Juventus’ approach that night may be true, there’s another factor I’m clearly ignoring. The man on the end of each of the three goals scored that night and the one all of the forthcoming headlines are bound to focus on- Cristiano Ronaldo. His performance, like many in his ornately decorated career, an example of individual brilliance at the hands of a concentrated team effort.
I, however, am not here to talk about why I’ve ignored Ronaldo’s influence. The case of his rape allegations has been covered by individuals and institutions far more qualified than myself, and it would behoove anyone, football fan or not, to seek that coverage out.
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I am here to talk about whether the conversations of a media sphere to which I contribute creates an environment that allows this kind of knowledge to go unrequited.
Now, as we sit in the fertile wake of a game rife with possibilities for content, we’re seeing the beginning of what we’ve always seen; the lionization of a character because of his actions on a football pitch.
And that’s completely normal. The positive attributes for which Ronaldo has become synonymous with are all things that at least ostensibly affect a game of football- but what adverse effect does that have on how we view Ronaldo the person? What does constantly calling someone “a god” produce?
The answer, at least now with all of his shortcomings out for the world to see, seems obvious. Though we might think the hyperbolic praise of one of the world’s greatest athletes stops at the sideline, the active ignorance of an entire community has confirmed the opposite is true. A constant association of positive traits with someone who we judge through actions that are almost entirely removed from any kind of morality has made it so that any negative connotation is instantaneously washed out by a blinding ray of positive light. As if one might be absolved of stealing from a grave if you can put a couple past Getafe.
Furthermore, I don’t think the harmful dynamic this obfuscating form of glorification creates begins and ends with overly-hyperbolic praise. One of the issues many tactical and analytical contemporaries have is with the analysis provided by mainstream programming. Many have found that the five minutes of ‘analysis’ seen between halves or during segments of football talk shows is shallow, devoid of insight, and dull. While all of those things may be true, we do tend to find that the knowledge espoused in those segments often aligns with what ’s heard in the local pub or park pickup game. Conversations about how Ronaldo’s ‘grit’, ‘sheer determination’, and ‘will’ have all, within just 24 hours, been designated as the main cause for his team’s success.
The problem with this sort of reductive analysis is far greater than the frustrations of tactics or stats focused writers. While I’m entirely sympathetic to the reality that limited TV segments give guests and analysts no more than a few seconds to explicate themselves, the issue with this boiled down analysis of sport is that it appears to perpetuate the dynamic that blurs the line between athlete and person. When Tim Howard, Steve Nash, Gary Lineker, or Gary Neville are only given thirty seconds to offer some insight into what has happened, they are, more often than not, going to go for the most direct explanation than that which is more nuanced. It takes far longer to explain how Pjanic’s intelligent distribution both created chances and limited Atletico’s ability to counter-attack than it does to lionize Ronaldo as an immense physical specimen of sheer will. Both have obvious effects on the game and are observable to some degree, but in the case of Ronaldo, it becomes a bit more complicated. Separating a person from achievements that have nothing to do with the positive moral traits we constantly push on to them is difficult when the only way we’re allowing these actions to be seen is through this reductive lens.
The point being: not only is boiling down Juve’s victory to a product of Ronaldo’s will objectively incorrect, it’s not outlandish to say it foments an environment that helps him circumvent the law. Obviously, lawyers, international legal battles, and the structure of adjudicating justice are all elements in the process, but the active support and ignorance of millions of fans is a part of this too. His biggest sponsors have done nothing but pay lip-service to the issue and that’s because they can. Ronaldo, like many public figures, has become more than just a person. He’s an amalgamation of ideas. Visit the comment section of any selfie or mirror pic and anyone can see what he means to a lot of people. He’s become an icon of hard work, ambition, and determination. To say that the physical embodiment of these positive traits is capable of not only rape, but the open denial and cover-up of such acts is difficult to accept.
To say that I have the solution, at 23, on how to appropriately cover a figure like Ronaldo is wrong. I don’t. After all, there are questions to be raised about the club I support, the products I buy and use, and the society in which I live and how they stack up to the ethics of my behavior. But, as I said, Ronaldo and figures like him, represent so much more than just themselves. They represent ideas and expectations. If we can’t hold these figures to, at the very least, face the process to which we are all subjected to when acting within a society, how can we hope to ever address problems much larger than the one standing in front of us, flexing.