Two Feet From Cristiano Ronaldo: The Portuguese National Team and Me

Jeremy BernfeldCorrespondent IJune 3, 2009

Last night, I saw Cristiano Ronaldo in his shower robe.


Now I know what you’re thinking, and I’ll tell you: I’m no hooker, masseuse, or trainer, but I am lucky.  Lucky enough to be on a post-graduation vacation to Portugal with my family, and lucky enough that our Marriott points put us in the same hotel that Portuguese national soccer team is staying in while they train for this weekend’s World Cup qualifying match against Albania.


And, oh yeah, lucky enough to see the best soccer player in the world walk by my room, faux-hawk and abnormally large Adam’s apple included.


I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to snap a photo of Cristiano in his robe, but I was able to get a few pictures of the team at practice.  (See above)  I’ll try to add more photos later, if possible.  There's no press allowed here this week, but I'll see what I can do.


Turns out, the gang’s all here.  I’m a football fan—American football that is—but even I know Nani, Deco, and Ricardo Carvalho.  They’re hanging around the hotel, in plain view but at the same time unobtrusive.  There’s no circus in the hotel lobby and I haven’t heard all-night parties or seen blonde bimbos stumbling through the halls.  Because, it seems, these athletes are different from those that I’m used to.


It’s rare that a fan gets personal with professional athletes, and I’m living the dream right now.  For a few days, it seems, we’ll be sharing the same space, eating the same food, and competing for the same bartenders.  I know I’ll lose every time, but I’m still more excited than David Ortiz when he gets walked.


Though I don’t know all of their names, I am awed to be in the presence of 20 of the best 500, or so, soccer players in the world.  And what’s even better, they’re not obnoxious! They seem like nice guys, not too cocky, not too loud. They even say hi when we pass in the halls.


As I write this in the lobby of the hotel, everyone is sporting Portuguese National Team jerseys. But it’s not like Boston where half the Sox jerseys would be pink; they’re green and red and they belong to real fans. If I’m awestruck at seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, they’re in heaven. But they’re not dumbstruck.


No one here rushes around demanding pictures or autographs, and no one makes a scene when they walk by.  Instead, locals confine themselves to a polite nod and a smile. It’s like they know what kind of pressure the young men are under to perform on the biggest and brightest of the world’s sporting stages and intend to deflect some of the light’s searing heat while they’re off the pitch.


This respect, in turn, allows the team to be gracious and available. They’ve opened two practices to the public, and most players seem happy to sign autographs as they leave the field after practice. They can give some of their time to the fans because they know greedy fans won’t demand it all.


Here I am, writing a piece on the line between fan and fanatic, between public idolatry and private lives, and I can’t help but laugh. A young player, tatooed and tired, is listening to Lady Gaga. On his cellphone. In the lobby.  I don’t know whether to chalk it up to being European or a professional athlete, but I know they’re not all perfect.


Seeing the players around the hotel has been eye-opening. They’re both separate and among the guests, both normal and extraordinary. 


The 24-hour hotel gym was closed for two hours yesterday, as the players finished their workout. Though frustrated in my attempts to work off enough calories to enjoy dessert yesterday, I resolved to try again today.  Hours ago I was pleasantly surprised to see that the gym was open, and as I stepped onto the treadmill I realized I was running next to Portuguese and FC Porto defender Bruno Alves.


After nearly toppling over, I smoothly picked up the pace and swore at my iPod, as if to blame it for my stumble.  I casually looked over at Alves to make sure he thought I was cool.  He didn’t care, he was on mile number four and hadn’t truly broken a sweat. 


As one might expect, the players are in peak physical condition.  I tired myself out after a light lift and a brisk two mile jog (hello dessert!), while these guys could run for days farther than I can drive.  But I did out-bench Portuguese and Belenenses defender Jorge Pires da Fonseca Rolando.  Booyeah.


I’ve never felt closer to professional athletes, because I’ve never been closer.  But at the same time, I’ve never seen them as my peers. Sure, they’re better athletes, but I can dance in a hotel lobby way better than that doofus.


The best sports fans are the most passionate, there’s no denying that.  But the only way fans can get closer to meeting their idols is by treating them as mortals. Staying with the Portuguese National Soccer Team has been awesome. 


Whoops, here comes Cristiano!