You watch Cristiano Ronaldo score that meaningless penalty against Atletico before ripping his shirt off and flexing the sort of muscles which are just a little too perfect to be the result of a normal regimen and you hate him.
He’s easy to hate, a pro wrestling heel in a global game. He flops. He’s hopelessly, almost crudely, vain. He’s pretty and he dates pretty people. Ronaldo ticks every single box on the sports fan hate list, no matter where in the world you are or what sport you watch. The boos which greet him almost everywhere he goes outside Madrid (and a lot of places inside it) are proof of the vitriol people feel towards him.
I get it.
But watch the celebration after the aforementioned penalty in the Champions League final closely, frame by frame if you have to. There’s this split second between the shot going in and when the shirt comes off where you can see him thinking, very deliberately, about what to do next. The look on his face betrays him. He’s planning the right pose in the correct spot for the maximum impact.
It was annoying to see that sort of naked calculation going on behind his eyes, yes, but I also felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. There was something about the celebration which made Ronaldo, richest team athlete in the world and in the discussion for greatest of all time, seem incredibly small. The disrobing and subsequent Incredible Hulk style flexing seemed, to me, a mark of deep insecurity and discomfort with his role as global soccer playboy.
struck the same pose in the 2012 Euros after a goal against Germany. He’s also described in less than flattering terms by most soccer fans, alternately portrayed as a perpetual child or a dangerous lunatic. He drives hot cars slathered in camouflage paint and sets off fireworks in his house. And he has a self-absorption to rival Ronaldo’s, wearing shirts which plaintively ask “Why always me?” and creating team sticker books which feature only his face. His unpopularity is only less pronounced than Ronaldo’s because, while very good, he’s not remotely in the same league as the Real Madrid star.
The thing about both of these men is that they’re linked by much more than unpopularity and similar shirtless goal-scoring celebrations. Both grew up under conditions of poverty, familial problems and (in the case of Balotelli) racism which most of us can’t imagine. The weirdness and egoism both men display can only be understood through the lens of those circumstances.
There’s no special insight into those exact circumstances here which hasn’t been covered before. Biographers will write definitive accounts of both men’s lives one day soon. Suffice it to say that Ronaldo grew up in terrible poverty on Madeira, an archipelago southwest of Portugal’s mainland. His father, a gardener, drank hard enough to kill him in 2005, and his mother chipped in as a cook. I don’t know firsthand what Madeira’s like, but given that Portugal’s economy ranks near the bottom of the EU, I imagine growing up in a tin-roofed hut in one of the country’s remotest areas is a type of poverty most people reading this will never have to face.
Balotelli’s biography is similar to Ronaldo’s in its hardship, compounded by the pervasive racism he’s lived with since his birth. The son of Ghanaian immigrants, he was put in foster care at the age of three, moving from his poor immigrant household to the more comfortable confines of a white neighborhood and family. Despite his taking the last name of his foster family once he began to live with them full time, he was never legally adopted by the Balotellis, meaning he had to wait until he was 18 to be granted full citizenship.
In reading about Balotelli’s life (he’s young and yet to hit his peak, so there’s less in-depth coverage of his life than there is of Ronaldo’s), you pick up on a sense of acute awareness on his part of his status as the Other in Italy. He’s a dark-skinned black man in a country that’s only 0.5 percent Sub-Saharan African. In solely soccer terms, he was the first black player in the history of the Italian squad and the only one on the 2014 World Cup squad. He’s been subject to unimaginable racial abuse during his career in Italy, maybe more than any currently active athlete of his stature in the world, at both the club and international level; in the lead up to this year’s World Cup, Italians were still hurling racial abuse at him, despite the team’s hopes quite probably hinging on his performance.
It’s a nice fiction that we put our childhoods fully to bed as we become adults. We’ve all got scars, large or small. The most successful among us have all been bullied once or twice, or had rough times with their parents, or been dumped before a dance. Then there are the jagged scars, the mean ones, left by broken homes and ghettoes and substance abuse. People don’t quite escape those as easily.
It doesn’t take a deep reading of their lives to realize that Ronaldo and Balotelli have those mean scars. You don’t just forget abject poverty, dead or left behind parents, and racism. You can’t. It’s not even really fair to suggest someone try.
People become self-conscious. And foolish, yes, but you can sense a hypersensitivity of their surroundings on the part of these two men. Everything they do is simultaneously deliberate and rash; image is everything, particularly if you’re poor or black or some other kind of outsider to the main bustle of the world. I see them keep the image up, only for it to slip at inopportune moments. Ronaldo’s precise pose of bluster and playboy gives way to genuine tears at the Ballon d’Or ceremony, as he’s humbled back down to the kid just playing football on the streets of Funchal. Or stamps of frustration and a switching off, as it seemed to in the game against Germany, all coiled loner in the pit of his stomach.
And we demand even more of Balotelli’s façade. Black athletes the world over, whether in the United States, Italy or elsewhere, must be “dignified” (read: silent) in the face of racism. Any slip of the mask opens them up to the familiar charges: not a team player, athletic but not smart, erratic, a loose cannon. Balotelli keeps it up better than his reputation would indicate; he shrugged off the most recent incidents as just something which happens in Rome. A “dignified” response, by any measure. But that lifetime of being expected to just take it has to boil over somewhere, so it’s fireworks and a muscle pose before he’s back to being a locker room cancer, an Italian Ron Artest (who was also, in the end, mostly benign).
Perhaps it’s no accident, then, given the struggles and the expectations, that the two footballers are massively involved in charity. All athletes chip in, if nothing else for the sake of image, but Ronaldo and Balotelli go a little bit further. One of Balotelli’s ex-girlfriends, after they’d been long broken up, stated in an interview that he quietly gives half his salary away to charities involved with poor kids in Africa. His open charity work involves school-building in Sudan and Doctors Without Borders. And there are strange but pervasive stories about him giving away thousands of euros to homeless people he meets during his nighttime excursions to the expected top flight clubs and restaurants.
Ronaldo is even more active, sometimes showing up out of nowhere to address an immediate need. He’s flown out to pay for the operations of sick children out of pocket on more than one occasion. One and a half million euros was donated to build schools in Gaza, a quiet yet effective political stand on one of the most incendiary issues in global discourse. He speaks, travels and spends money like water on good works at a rate eclipsing just about any other athlete on the planet.
The above reads like a puff piece. It’s not meant to; those are simply facts. There are any number of debates we can and should have about the place of charity and the salaries of professional athletes, all of which should culminate in the consensus that we live in a terrible, unequal world which shouldn’t have children dying from hunger or wealth disparities which create the need for rich benefactors to save everyone in the first place.
But in this world, the one we live where there’s more work to bridge that gap than can be done in a hundred lifetimes, I can’t be cynical about what these two footballers do. It’s the way they go about it as much as what they do. It’s mostly quiet for these men who are so beholden to their images as unfazed, ultra-cool males. Creating a circus with each hospital visitation would undoubtedly boost their images in a holistic sense, but might betray it in the narrow space of masculine pose which they try so hard to fully inhabit. And so I’m left with the only other feasible explanation: that they truly, genuinely want to give back because they know how god-awful things can be.
The lasting image of Ronaldo for me isn’t the dives or the pose. It’s from Miami, during a friendly last year between Chelsea and Real Madrid. A fan ran onto the field to embrace him. The cops, just off-screen, were undoubtedly getting ready to tackle and tase the guy. Ronaldo could’ve run or hit the guy; he didn’t know, after all, whether the young man was violent. I probably would have.
But Ronaldo didn’t do any of that. Instead, he calmly hugged the fan, listened to him, patted him on the head, and finally delivered him calmly to the police. The cop who picked him up is actually smiling as he does so, the last thing you expect a Florida cop with a free swing on someone to do. And Ronaldo, for his part, had this look on his face, superficially cool but deeply shaken. I still wonder what that fan said to him to have seemingly affected him, or if it was just the nerves of being charged by a fan seeping through, betraying the carefully crafted mask of cool he wears.
I get it. The annoyance at the antics, the dives, the occasional petulance, and all of the rest. Neither man is a saint, as evinced by Balotelli’s unseemly paternity fight with his ex-girlfriend. But soccer’s a sport with real villains. It’s populated with men who deliberately try to injure their opponents, like Ryan Shawcross and Pepe. Vicious racists, like Michel Morgenella. Men who serially cheat on their wives. Soccer’s history of drunks, lunatics, dopers and hooligans is nearly inexhaustible. The sainted Lionel Messi, best player in the world, is very likely a tax cheat and his team, Barcelona, just paid an exorbitant sum for the privilege of having Luis Suarez, a racist who can’t stop biting people, lead their line.
Infinite villains, yes, but each of us has only finite anger to expend. With so many bad players to choose from, we could do a lot better in who we choose to direct our worst feelings toward than a couple poor kids who have ended up, all told, mostly harmless.