IIn the aftermath of Cristiano Ronaldo’s surprising return to Manchester United last week, there was much feverish speculation as to whether he would claim the famous number 7 jersey once worn by United legends such as George Best, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona, and now a part central to his personal brand “CR7”.
But here there was more than iconography and nostalgia. The number 7 jersey already had one occupant: forward Edinson Cavani, and according to Premier League rules, Cavani had to retain it for the season. However, when you are as famous as Ronaldo, it turns out that you can create your own rules to a certain extent. When you see something you want, don’t get too obsessed with subtleties and limits. You take it as firmly and confidently as if it had been yours all along.
There was a kind of stunning ruthlessness in the way Ronaldo simply attached United’s number 7 jersey in a matter of hours – the necessary obstacles were cleared, the necessary rules were relaxed, the necessary arrangements were made. Daniel James was sold to Leeds. Cavani was persuaded to give up the number 7 jersey in favor of James’ former number 21, the jersey once worn by United legends Henning Berg, Diego Forlán and Dong Fangzhuo.
Still, with the possible exception of Cavani, they all got what they wanted. On its first full day on sale, the replica “Ronaldo 7” uniform broke United’s daily jersey sales record. At press conferences, the club spoke about the impact on social media of the transfer announcement: the 13 million likes on their Instagram post, the fact that Ronaldo’s move to United had surpassed Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain for 700,000 mentions on Twitter.
This is in keeping with the nature of the Ronaldo phenomenon in general – a tyranny of numbers, a bewildering whirlwind of records and statistics that the player’s many fans around the world like to blazon and trumpet as empirical evidence of their man’s supremacy. . The numbers are not the complement of a larger point: they are the point. It is a kind of curious grandeur, the kind that is not meant to be appreciated or discussed, but something that is aggressively imposed on you, brandished like a blunt weapon.
This is not to say that Ronaldo does not inspire feelings. It’s just that they aren’t the kind of feelings one normally associates with collective success in a team sport.
Delve into the wild howls of the internet, on sites like Reddit and 4chan and men’s fitness forums, and what Ronaldo mostly embodies is more than just goals and medals. For a certain cross-section of disgruntled young men from whom he seems to draw the core of his fanbase, he represents a kind of supreme masculinity: vindication, revenge, pride, indestructibility, physical dominance, the satisfaction of crushing your enemies. Ronaldo wins and, by extension, everyone else, including “manlet” Messi, loses.
To some extent, this is simply the blatant and belligerent nature of online idolatry. But more than any footballer who has ever lived, Ronaldo has also cultivated this brand of individualistic devotion around him. Look at one of Messi’s many commercials and he’s almost invariably entering some kind of social environment. Messi appears on a plane and starts kicking a ball. Messi appears at a gas station and starts kicking a soda can. Messi shows up at your flat party with chips.
Almost without exception, Ronaldo’s ads show him and only him. Ronaldo lit up against a dark background, holding a bottle of shampoo. Ronaldo alone in his empty mansion, surrounded by thorny plants and gold ornaments. A greased Ronaldo and grimacing doing sit-ups. If someone else is present it is invariably a woman, sensual and mute, moved to the brink of ecstasy by the mere presence of Ronaldo, his smell, his ability to perform keepy-uppies with a CGI moon.
These advertisements present a different and curiously insular worldview: one that goes beyond simple narcissism and reinvents the self as a kind of living project, a machine continually refining and improving in the name of conquest. There is no greater meaning in the world, beyond the meaning that you are going to impose on it. The fight is eternal and only one person can win it, so you will need a regimen. Do the sit-ups. Take the title online. Use the pearl mica white anti-dandruff shampoo. A woman wins.
Of course, Ronaldo is a much more complex and conflictual person than popular representations of him would have you believe. The way he came out of his impoverished Madeira upbringing through clear ambition and superhuman work ethic remains a source of genuine inspiration for many. And yet there are times when it is not entirely clear where Ronaldo the man ends and the cult of Ronaldo begins.
In 2018, Ronaldo was publicly accused of rape by Kathryn Mayorga, a former teacher who claimed in Der Spiegel that Ronaldo had imposed it on her in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2009 (in 2019, the police concluded that no charges could be brought criminal charges as the prosecution could not “be proven beyond a reasonable doubt”.)
Ronaldo has always denied raping Mayorga and described the accusations as “fake news.” Meanwhile, those around him immediately mobilized a counter-strategy. In the weeks following the publication of the Der Spiegel investigation, Ronaldo’s mother and sister posted a photo of Ronaldo in a Superman cape and urged their fans to do the same. Ronaldo’s attorneys described the allegations as “outrageous,” an attempt “to destroy a reputation built on hard work, athleticism and correct conduct.” To this day, Mayorga continues to be the target of vicious and misogynistic personal attacks on social media.
Of course, Ronaldo cannot be expected to be responsible for the thousands of creepy fans who post abuse on his behalf. But for whatever reason, his exploits on the soccer field have drawn to him a certain strand of angry young men, the guy motivated less by his unmatched penalty shoot-out or immaculate technical ability than by what they feel he opposes.
Or as his friend Piers Morgan put it in a recent Mail on Sunday column: “In a world ravaged by awakening that seems to increasingly celebrate failure and weakness more than success and in which leaving the sport is now considered inexplicably brave and heroic, Ronaldo is a refreshing and unabashed defender of victory and endurance. “
And so, while Messi leaves Barcelona in regret in a torrent of tears and shows up in Paris almost despite himself, Ronaldo apparently triumphantly returns to United, the master of his own destiny, once again bending the gravity of football to his will. That’s why the speed and manner of his arrival, and the effusive and reverential coverage that followed, felt like his own statement of power, cheating on Messi, Manchester City and Cavani in one fell swoop. Naturally, there will be enemies and skeptics arguing that Ronaldo is not pushing, that his best years are behind him, that United still don’t have a midfield. But how many sit-ups have they ever done?
The fight is eternal, and there are always new enemies to defeat and new ways to defeat them. As Ronaldo prepares for his second debut against Newcastle United on Saturday, the conditions for success remain unclear. The merits of his transfer will continue to generate debate until United ends their wait for a great trophy. But, ultimately, you can’t argue with the numbers.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism