It’s a now familiar scene: Cristiano Ronaldo’s teammate scores and while everyone else celebrates, he pouts because he felt it should have been him. It happened again when Alvaro Arbeloa (of all people) came sliding in to finish what Ronaldo thought would be an easy tap-in for Real Madrid’s final goal in a 3–0 win against Almeria.
As soon as the ball hit the back of the net, Ronaldo was visibly upset — presumably because he missed out on his 40th La Liga goal of the season to go two ahead of Lionel Messi as the league’s top scorer. He furiously kicked the ball back at the net and shook his head as Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao embraced behind him.
To the internet’s millions of experts on body language, this was a clear show of petulance and selfishness that reinforces his reputation for undignified behavior. But to Arbeloa, the man he supposedly disrespected with his tantrum, it was just evidence of what makes Ronaldo a player that any top footballer would want to have as a teammate.
“I’m not upset about Ronaldo’s reaction after my goal,” Arbeloa told reporters. “It just shows you his ambition to score. No one can be upset about that. He’s fighting with Leo Messi for the Pichichi.”
What sets Ronaldo apart is his competitive drive. His unquenchable thirst for goals is so strong that even when his teammate score, it serves as a reminder to him that he didn’t. Yes, this is a form of selfishness, but his teammates and coaches know that it’s a type of selfishness from which they all benefit in various forms. His work ethic sets an example, his brilliance expands the limits of what can be achieved, and though he scores the lion’s share of goals himself, he also sets up more goals for his teammates than any other Real Madrid player (15 assists this season, just two less than La Liga leader Messi) .
His 50 goals in all competitions have undoubtedly helped Real Madrid as they remain in the hunt for a domestic title and consecutive Champions League wins. So, in the eyes of his teammates, who cares if he has a public fit every now and then? They want to win above all else, too. And his state of perpetual competitive overdrive helps them do that.
“But Lionel Messi is just as good without having a prickly attitude,” some might say. And that’s true. But without his attitude, Ronaldo wouldn’t be as good as he is.
Ronaldo isn’t alone in that regard, either. NBA legend Michael Jordan, arguably basketball’s best and most celebrated player ever, was even more combative with his teammates, going so far as to punch several of them in the face at various points in his career. And that was just during practices.
Horace Grant, who won three NBA championships with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, recently told a story about this in a radio interview. Asked if Jordan would target “little white boys” in practice — a reference to Jordan punching teammate Steve Kerr (an incident Kerr describes as “one of the best things that ever happened to me,” since it helped him earn Jordan’s respect and strengthened their relationship), Grant said (via The Sporting News):
“No, he beat up a big white boy. Will Perdue. I mean, I hate to tell the story, but Will and I are still good friends,” Grant said. “Typical Phil [Jackson, Bulls coach at the time], running this play, and Will set an illegal pick on M.J. M.J. said, ’Will, don’t do it again.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ That’s Will. M.J. says, ‘All right.’ Phil says, ‘Run it again.’
“So naturally, we ran it two more times. Illegal pick. M.J. walks up to Will — boom. Lit him up. It was over.”
But instead of going after Jordan, the other players tried to keep Perdue from hurting their win machine.
“We grabbed Will — you’re not going to hurt M.J.,” Grant said. “M.J. can take care of himself, but, you know. … So, the next day on the plane, Will gets on the plane with a huge shiner.”
Grant added that even when he would get into it with Jordan, he never hit him, because “if M.J. goes out, the Bulls go out.”
On the surface, this is horrible behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated, but in a world where fans, coaches and players unanimously agree that winning and competition should be put above all else, it’s rewarded and encouraged. By being so competitive and emotional even in practice, Jordan made his teammates work harder, play better and win more. Ronaldo is arguably the same way.
Thankfully, he’s not punching his teammates, though. Luka Modric couldn’t handle that.