Note from the editor: This story appeared in our Spring 2015 issue. You can support Howler by purchasing this edition or a subscription for yourself or a friend here.
Look, Cris, I never thought I’d say this, but here goes: you, the world’s most photographed Adam’s apple, and me, just some dude — I think we might have a future together.
You’re not surprised. I didn’t think you would be.
I’ve had relationships before, with some people you probably know, but I never went for your type. I fell for Bergkamp’s smarts, Pirlo’s grace, and Valderrama’s wit. Suárez gave me thrills. Zlatan was a prick, but have you read his book? The man can write! And nobody did deadpan like Balotelli. But you? I used to worry that you just wanted to speed your way past my defenses, when I was looking for a deeper connection. Some of your behavior I filed under “deal breaker.” Sepp Blatter made fun of you in a speech at Oxford and it legitimately seemed to hurt your feelings. You hired a surrogate to give birth to your son, which is cool with me, but then you named him Cristiano Ronaldo Jr. and your sister told him his mother was dead. So I have questions, you know? Like: Isn’t that a little fucked up? And: You do know who Sepp Blatter is, right?
What I’m trying to tell you is, I like you best when you don’t worry about other people’s opinions. I used to think I didn’t have to tell you that. Whenever I saw you dating a supermodel, or heard rumors that you had “CR7” etched into the windows of your own home, I would think to myself, Now there goes a supremely confident guy!
Soccer brought you trophies and fame and your own personal museum, with a giant bronze statue with what looks like an alien chestburster punching through the front of your shorts. Impressive.
How wrong I was. Sure, you won the Ballon d’Or first, but then Leo won four in a row. I don’t care how tan and smooth and supple your skin is — that’s gonna get under it! Speaking of Leo, I feel like you need to hear this: he didn’t mean anything to me. Sure, he had his charms — the dorky haircut, those little legs and arms, the Easter Island schnoz. But look at him now, skipping out on his own Messi and Friends charity matches. I swear, whenever I run into him these days, all I see is styling gel and tax evasion and Little Lord Fauntleroy but without the heart. He played as if the World Cup final was somehow beneath him. I’ve seen better efforts on The Biggest Loser.
Besides, Leo is boring. You on the other hand — you get angry, you get sad. When Spain beat Portugal in the semifinal of the European Championship and you didn’t even get to take the fifth kick, I felt you feeling something. Sometimes you seem happy, but it’s kind of a vindicated happy, like you just showed somebody who’d been doubting you. In other words, for a global superstar whose every public move is stage-managed to stamp out any chance of a real moment, you’ve got emotional range, man!
Are there things I wish I could change about you? Of course. I’d square those icicle sideburns and tell you to help out a little more on defense. You still act a little more fragile, in a physical sense, than someone with a body that ripped probably should.
But in the end, your persistence has won me over. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated to what they do. You’re undoubtedly an all-time great, but more than any of the others I put in that category, you got there by practicing your stepovers and studying your free kicks and denying yourself cookies. You once said that, “Without football, my life is worth nothing,” which is either the most heartbreaking statement I’ve ever heard from a soccer player or a remarkable display of self-knowledge. Probably both. But I see your point. Soccer brought you money and women. It brought you trophies and fame and your own personal museum, with a giant bronze statue with what looks like an alien chestburster punching through the front of your shorts. Impressive.
You know how to be your own man, someone who isn’t swayed by the fashion of the times but is strong enough to bend the arc of the universe, to become its center. In 2009, you strode into the greatest drama in modern soccer, mid-act. Barcelona was putting together the best three-year run of any team at any time — anywhere, ever. Those little guys stood for the primacy of possession, the triumph of the collective. They insisted on a moral dimension to the game that infuriated as much as it inspired. You were pummeled for saying people dislike you because you’re “rich, handsome, and a great player,” but I found it honest and refreshing, especially next to the heap of sanctimonious praise everyone was shoveling on Barça back in those days. Great heroes need great villains, and you were perfect for the role: vain, greedy, self-centered, undoubtedly excellent but not, in the face of that team, in those years, quite good enough.
These days, though, possession — slow, steady, and sleepy — is outmoded. Why create intricate patterns when you can stab directly through the heart of a defense? Why not shoot from distance when one of your devastating dips can make the goalkeeper grasp at thin air like Wile E. Coyote in gloves? Who wants to pass the ball into the goal when you can snap a header into the bottom corner? Speed on the break has replaced the cautious buildup as the deadliest form of offense. Possession is impressive, but the lightning strike is exhilarating.
The game you were playing all along is now the game everyone else wants to play. You won.
So, Cristiano, maybe it doesn’t matter that you don’t stand for the things I thought I loved about the game. I’ll probably still root against your team most of the time, because I like an underdog, and you’ll never be that. But I can give you what you want, the thing you need from people like me, the thing you crave so obviously that no matter where you go, the fans chant Messi’s name at you just to deny it: respect. Even though I’ll cringe every time you add a wing to that museum in Madeira, I want you to know you’ve earned mine.
P.S.: Not that my feelings are conditional, but if the rumors are true and Cristianinho was born in an American hospital, maybe we could give Jurgen a heads up?