Sunday, May 26

Cristiano Ronaldo’s fragile ego is rather sad for someone who has achieved so much

A clip did the rounds on social media after the Carabao Cup final last weekend. We won’t share it here because the dum-dums responsible don’t need any more attention than they have already received, but it essentially involved some supposed Liverpool fans near the steps up to the Wembley Royal Box filming the defeated Chelsea players as they trudged to collect their runners-up medals and directing a series of witless taunts at them.

They hissed at ‘the snake’ Raheem Sterling, who left their club almost a decade ago. They also politely enquired after Moises Caicedo’s mother, who was seemingly a factor in his decision to move to Stamford Bridge rather than Anfield in the summer: absolutely normal behaviour from grown adults.

None of the players involved even seemed to raise an eyebrow in response, which was pretty amazing when under the circumstances and with family members having been brought into it all, you would understand if they went full Cantona.


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Actually, maybe it isn’t that amazing: as a footballer you must have to develop some sort of deflector shield, an impenetrable bubble around your head so you literally don’t hear stuff like that, or if you do it just drops into some dead space in your brain, never actually registering with your consciousness. There’s no upside to reacting: you appear petty and in the finest tradition of a parent telling their child not to rise to the bullies, you give them more satisfaction than they deserve.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to Cristiano Ronaldo, who did react to taunts from the crowd and has been duly punished for it.

Ronaldo has been given a one-game ban by the Saudi Pro League and penalised to the tune of 30,000 Saudi riyals (£6,332; $8,000) in fines and fees for making what has been described as an ‘obscene gesture’ at fans during his Al Nassr side’s recent 3-2 win over Al Shabab.

Ronaldo playing for Al Nassr (Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

This was seemingly in response to something that he has been subject to for much of his career: chants of ‘Messi, Messi’ from the stands. Ronaldo cupped his ears then half squatted and made an odd hand gesture near his crotch: if you were being completely innocent it might look like he was polishing a tabletop, but if you weren’t it might look like… well, you get the idea.

A few things sprang to mind after this. One is that, in opposition to Sterling and Caicedo, it’s clear that it doesn’t take much to get a reaction out of Ronaldo, one of the most famous men on the planet who is presumably very used to being shouted at by a faceless crowd.

He and Messi have been involved in this sort of terminally tedious death grapple for about 15 years now, the pair constantly pitted against and compared to each other. You can thus see why it will have become incredibly tiresome, to say the least, particularly given they haven’t actually played in the same league as each other since 2018 and haven’t been on the same pitch in a competitive game together since 2020.



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Neither now plays in Europe and both their most significant achievements are now almost certainly in the past. The Messi-Ronaldo rivalry isn’t really a thing anymore, at least not to the rest of the world.

But clearly, it still is to Ronaldo, a little insecurity worm that has burrowed into his soul and is lodged there. Why else would he bother to respond at the mere mention of Messi’s name?

The two situations aren’t perfect comparisons and are partly only brought together here because they both happened in the past week or so, but it is remarkable how Sterling and Caicedo could ignore much more personal abuse from closer proximity, while all it took was mention of another man’s name to provoke a reaction from Ronaldo.

It’s very far from the first time, too. Just last November, Ronaldo shushed a crowd during Al Nassr’s game against Al Ettifaq when the ‘Messi, Messi’ chant was rolled out by another unimaginative bunch. In the wider scheme of things, this is all very minor stuff, but you do wonder about the fragility of a man’s ego that the mere mention of a rival player’s name even registers, let alone inspires a response of any kind, let alone one that gets you suspended.

The whole thing probably isn’t ideal for the Saudi Pro League project, either. Ronaldo was their marquee signing and he has been a success in that he has scored buckets of goals and attracted plenty of interest, but it wasn’t in the plan for their key player, one of the main legitimising factors for the league, to be suspended like this.



One year of Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia

Throw in Jordan Henderson leaving after six months and the continued soap opera around Karim Benzema and it’s been a mixed bag since they started throwing money around the place.

For Ronaldo, it’s difficult to put your finger on what it is about all this that is so bleak, but it could be because it’s all so undignified for everyone involved. Despite being a quasi-super-human and an absolute freak of an athlete, he has limited time left in his career, so it just feels slightly sad that this is how he is spending his last days as a footballer.

Playing in a substandard league — which was not the plan, no matter how hard he insists otherwise — still haunted by the ghost of the man he has been compared to for his whole career, but who hasn’t really been relevant to him for close to half a decade. It could all have been very different.

Ronaldo and Messi playing against each other in 2020 (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Perhaps this is the internal hell of the hyper-driven mentality of someone like Ronaldo. Nothing but being considered the best is good enough, so even the mention of the one guy who could deny him that title, in his generation at least, is enough to set him off.

He will dry his eyes on his incredible wealth and an extraordinary list of achievements, but you’re left with a sense that he will never really be satisfied when the time comes to look back on his career.

For someone who has achieved as much as he has, it all feels quite bleak.

(Top photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)