A Year After Internet Infamy, Ronaldo Sculptor Gets Another Shot

Kelly NaqiContributor IMarch 29, 2018


FUNCHAL, Madeira — On Feb. 9 this year, Electrico FC's futsal team landed at Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport for its match the following day against CS Maritimo. Upon exiting the terminal, they look around until they spot what has become the airport's defining feature: an infamous bronze bust of the building's namesake just outside the arrivals door.

The team, wearing the club's green tracksuits, buzzes around the bronze likeness, giggling. They begin taking selfies.

"What do you think of Ronaldo's bust?" the players are asked.

Goalkeeper Joao Silva jumped right in. "I think it is ridiculous, truly hideous!" he says in Portuguese, and his teammates laugh, nodding in agreement. "The eyes, the mouth, everything! Oh man, I don't like it, I don't like it!"

"Why are so many players taking photos with it if you [guys] don't like it?"

"Because it's a symbol of Madeira," he cackles. "And because it's ridiculous!"

MADEIRA IS A VOLCANIC island 300 miles off the northwest coast of Africa. It's an autonomous territory of Portugal, known for its lush, rugged landscape, jagged cliffs, subtropical climate and for being the birthplace of the sporting world's global icon, Cristiano Ronaldo.

But a year ago, Madeira also became known for something else: playing host to perhaps the world's most laughed-at sports sculpture. For a day or two anyway, the Ronaldo bust—unveiled at the airport in Madeirabecame almost as widely known as the Real Madrid forward himself. 

Fahad Shahud @fahadism

To the makers of the sculpture - #YouHadOneJob #RonaldoBust https://t.co/oooRxDuI4t

B/R Football @brfootball

Some of the all-time great Cristiano Ronaldo moments https://t.co/57Tx9VhbUm

The man behind the bust that nearly busted the internet is 41-year-old Emanuel Jorge da Silva Santos. A lifelong Madeiran, he's followed Ronaldo's career since the early days.

"Ronaldo ... is a force of nature whom every kid that has a dream should follow as an example," Santos says firmly, in his native Portuguese. "He has a gift. ... His whole path shows ... he has always had that ambition to be the best.

"Not intending to be arrogant [or] anything like that, but this talent that I have was born with me. ... If there is a possible comparison for Ronaldo's gift, his being in the sports area and mine in the artistic one, I have always wanted to show the world that I had this talent."

Armanda Gouveia, Santos' wife, sees a simpler connection.

"[Ronaldo is] from Madeira Island, from our island, and for [Emanuel], that meant a lot because they have fairly similar life stories," she says. "Cristiano Ronaldo came from the bottom, as Emanuel did, and he was able to turn his life around. The objective [of making the Ronaldo bust] was to pay homage to Cristiano Ronaldo. [Emanuel] also thought this was going to be his launch pad in a supposed career as a sculptor."

"In a way," Santos says, "I'm trying to show who really is Emanuel Santos."


SANTOS IS DRIVING TO his mother's house, where his six-year-old son, Tiago, plays with his cousin, Margarida. The house has been expanded since Santos grew up there with his six brothers and two sisters, all living in two rooms.

"We [also] had a small bathroom and a tiny kitchen," he says.

Santos' mother, Maria, stayed at home to look after the children, while his fisherman father, Manuel, worked seasonally from March through September, catching mainly skipjack tuna.

"When the [fishing] season passed, some fishermen stayed on the land and dedicated themselves to agriculture," Santos says. "Others [like my father] would go to other places to fish, to catch green fish, trout, when they couldn't find work in carpentry or on construction projects."

Santos and his brothers would take turns accompanying their father to the ocean to catch that night's family supper.

Emanuel Santos' upbringing as the son of a fisherman indirectly led him to a life of working with clay and eventually to a studio space under the Madeira Airport.
Emanuel Santos' upbringing as the son of a fisherman indirectly led him to a life of working with clay and eventually to a studio space under the Madeira Airport.Kelly Naqi

"To fish, we had to turn over some rocks near the sea to catch the bait to put on the fish hook," Santos says. "Either my mother or father would take some of the fish we caught [and] they would cross all these mountains, walking to the north of the island, where you can see a lot of agriculture. They would go there and exchange the fish for the potatoes and vegetables we used to eat. They'd leave very early in the morning and come back by the end of the day, or at night. It was very complicated."

There was no extra cash to buy their children toys, so Santos and his friends figured out a way to make do.

"I skipped classes to go and take out clay and mess around with it and make my own toys at the time," Santos says. "When I was five or six years old, there was a big rock beach about 200 to 300 meters from my school. There was a special spot surrounded by bamboo. The dirt was moister and and we could get clay from there."

"He had a certain aptness to ... work with clay," says Carlos Silva, Santos' friend of 35 years. "If it was something to play [with] at that moment, it lasted only for that day or the day after."

"I made horses with cowboys at that time, and boats and cars," Santos says. "The bamboo was also used to make carts and other toys, like small wheels."

Silva still marvels at what Santos made. "Things that I and our other friends didn't know how to make, he made it." Silva says as he begins to laugh. "He was our savior."

Santos dreamed of attending university one day to develop his talent, but he couldn't afford to go. Throughout the years, between spells of unemployment, he worked as a waiter, a carpenter, on construction sites and painted buildings and houses, all the while teaching himself the craft of sculpting.

He had help from friends, one of whom donated a studio space under the airport runway. A former restaurant that was destroyed by a storm, the room is a bit raw. Half of the space is piled high with debrislarge metal signs and scraps of wood. The corrugated metal doors don't reach the ceiling, so heavy winds blow rain through the gap at the top, creating puddles on the floor.

But this is where Santos feels most at home.

"When I feel any frustration, any emptiness in my life or not being able to achieve something, I take refuge in sculpting and escape from my worries," Santos says. "My figures have a mixture of emotions [and] needs. By working the clay, I look for a way to get where I want."

In 2016, the parish of Machico asked him to do a sculpture to pay homage to the local fishermen. He eagerly accepted the invitation, as his first public work would pay tribute to his father. The large white sculpture sits near the waterfront in Canical, Santos' hometown. The locals loved it, which boosts Santos' confidence.

Emanuel Santos' sculpture of fishermen on display in Santos' hometown of Canical.
Emanuel Santos' sculpture of fishermen on display in Santos' hometown of Canical.Hugh Mitton

IN EARLY 2017, SANTOS was working for an airport cleaning company, sweeping up cigarette butts and gathering luggage carts, when he heard the news: The Madeira airport was being renamed for Ronaldo. A thought soon materialized.

"The airport was going to have his name, why shouldn't there be a bust of him in the arrivals to reinforce his image?" he says. "Getting to Madeira and being welcomed by Ronaldo smilingbecause he is a very joyful and extroverted personit made sense."

Santos tracked down the associate director of airports of Madeira, Francisco Fernandes, and pitched his idea.

"He told me to work on it and when I had something palpable, I should show it to him," Santos says. "I got excited with his reaction. I got home, did my research of Ronaldo [finding photos] from different angles, and when I finally found the right one, I immediately started sculpting."

The photo from which Emanuel Santos drew the inspiration for his first bust of Cristiano Ronaldo, which now resides in an airport in Madeira.
The photo from which Emanuel Santos drew the inspiration for his first bust of Cristiano Ronaldo, which now resides in an airport in Madeira.Hugh Mitton for B/R

Although he'd never done a bust beforelet alone had any of his work bronzedSantos was not going to let this opportunity slip away. A friend who had helped him source materials for the fisherman sculpture shipped him a 50-kilogram bag of clay from Porto.

"I set myself a big responsibility, to take that icon, put him in my world and sculpt him," Santos says. "I was in my own world, away from real life. It was like flying through the clouds and being there doing something that I enjoy. Through touching the clay, I was transmitting the profile of someone that might have a story similar to mine, given his persistence."

After working on it for two weeks, Santos took a photo of the 15-kilogram bust, brought it to the airport and tracked down Fernandes.

"He was very impressed as he didn't know who I was and didn't expect much," Santos says. "He showed my work to [the other] authorities and Cristiano's family, and they decided to support the project."

That family was Ronaldo's brother, Hugo Aveiro, who still lives on the island. Aveiro oversees the CR7 Museum in Funchal and helps run some of Ronaldo's personal affairs. Santos says the company contracted to run the dedication ceremony gave him €1,000 ($1,231) for his work, but it entrusted the final two stages needed to complete the bust (the plaster and bronzing) to people who'd done it before.

Around that time, Santos says he was summoned by Aveiro to his office at the museum. Aveiro had forwarded Ronaldo the picture of the bust that Santos had taken earlierand Ronaldo had texted his approval. Santos says Aveiro displayed the text on his cell phone.

The original bust of Ronaldo that was sent off for bronzing.
The original bust of Ronaldo that was sent off for bronzing.Courtesy of Emanuel Santos

"I don't remember the whole message, but I read it and it said that it looked good, and to just change it here," Santos says, brushing his index finger lightly beneath his left eye.

There was a problem, though: A professional had already plastered the bust, and "it was not possible to alter it, otherwise it would damage it," Santos says.

Before the bust was shipped to the foundry in Porto to undergo the third—and final—bronzing phase, Santos called the group finishing the bust and passed along Ronaldo's concerns.

"[Ronaldo's] smile is ripped to the left side," Santos explains. "I made the wrinkles exactly as they are, but Ronaldo said that they looked a bit too protruding and asked if they could be thinned out."

Santos rolls his eyes and rubs his cheeks and quips, "As we know, Ronaldo is vain. He likes to be all groomed up!"

"When they tried it they—instead of thinning them out slightlyadded a few strokes so [as] to conceal the wrinkles. It wasn't a detail of great relevance and it didn't change much of the wrinkles it had."

The bust was polished, then shipped back to Madeira. Santos couldn't wait for the ceremony to see the finished product, so he opened the crate himself upon its arrival.


SANTOS WAS AGLOW WHEN he saw Ronaldo's smiling, polished bronze face staring back at him.

Santos was pleased when he finally got to see the final version of his latest Ronaldo bust.
Santos was pleased when he finally got to see the final version of his latest Ronaldo bust.Kelly Naqi

"I laughed out of happiness and satisfaction," Santos remembers. Important peopleheck, even Cristiano Ronaldo!valued Santos' work enough to greenlight his idea and push his project to completion. A company hired by the airport to handle the dedication ceremony paid to have Santos' clay bust flown to the mainland so it could be professionally bronzed. Santos himself had only been off the island three times in his life.

But most significantly, this would mark the launch of his long-awaited career. Ronaldoa fellow Madeiranwas giving him his start. People all over the world would finally see Santos' work, his worth.

"I felt that feeling of fulfillment, that I had done my part," Santos says. "In that moment, I saw [it] more as a step I had taken in my own path to achieve my goal."

Nothing could diminish the excitement Santos felt on the morning of March 29, 2017, the day Madeira Airport would become Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport. Santos' wife, Armanda, his son, Tiago, his extended familyhis entire communitywould be on hand to share in his magical moment.


RONALDO ARRIVED AT THE airport with his mother, Dolores, his partner, Georgina Rodriguez, and six-year-old son, Cristiano Jr.

"Thank you for being here in my honor," Ronaldo told the assembled media, and the hundreds of locals who gathered for the event. "... I will try to dignify Portugal and especially Madeira with a spirit of sacrifice, dignity and passion."

Ronaldo was present at the ceremony to rename Madeira airport in his honor.
Ronaldo was present at the ceremony to rename Madeira airport in his honor.FRANCISCO LEONG/Getty Images

When the bust was unveiled, Ronaldo smiled widely and the crowd applauded.

"It was a very intense moment," Santos says. "I felt like someone had taken the weight I had been carrying on my back."

In the VIP area after the event, Santos' son, Tiago, got a ball signed by Ronaldo, but he was whisked away before Santos could properly introduce himself or get Ronaldo's opinion on the finished bust. Nonetheless, the family went home happy and fulfilled.

"Tiago was amazed, super proud, saying, 'My dad is a sculptor! I'm very proud of my dad!'" Gouveia remembers. "Everyone that came by our house, he went to get the football saying, 'I have Cristiano Ronaldo's ball!' It was being a spectacular day.

"And then…it started being, like, a bit…sad."

She tries to keep her composure but can't. Tears pour down her face and Santossitting on a couch to her rightdrops his head, seemingly absorbing her pain and renewing his own. Tiago plays with a toy car nearby, blissfully unaware.

"I'm remembering how tough those days were at the time," she says, wiping her eyes. "[It started] around [3 p.m.]. My sister called me to say, 'Hey, have you seen what's on the internet? There are so many people saying bad things about it. People were making comments like 'You should kill yourself.'"

Pedro Vasconcelos, a consultant working in information technology for the company that the airport contracted to run the event, says he was stunned at the social media metrics piling up. There were close to a million commentsmany of them nastyin the first 24 hours.

The internet wasn't the only one piling on. Late night TV and Saturday Night Live were just two talk shows who were happy to roast some fresh meat.

"Look at it, it's terrible!" comedian James Corden roared. "It looks like his face was bended like Beckham!"

"The first question any great sculptor must ask about his subject is, 'What would he look like if he had a stroke?'" SNL actress Kate McKinnon said in character. "... This is the spitting image of my Ronaldo. That's why so many people have spit on it." 

"I was telling [Santos], 'Listen, the fact that you have so many bad reactions is not badit's good," Vasconcelos says. "You are one of the most well-known sculptors right now in the sport world, you should be happy. And he wasn't."

No, he wasn't.

"In the silence of night, all of that information was going through my mind, and managing all of that was very hard," Santos says. "I isolated myself. I didn't feel like speaking to anyone."

But one thing he couldn't avoid was how to protect his family from the scrutiny, ridicule and shame that was suddenly thrust upon them. His humiliation became theirs, and there was nothing he could do about it. People would point and stare. Even on tiny Madeira Island, there was no place to hide, as social media's reach knows no bounds. Having his work and ambitions globally trashed was one thing, but he hadn't even considered the fact that the quest to make his artistic talents known could have exposed his family to so much distress.  

"It was too sudden," Santos says, massaging his forehead and trying to conceal his tears. "It's a lot of responsibility."

While family and friends tried to counsel Santos and Gouveia to pay little mind to the attacks, Gouveia still didn't understand the intensity of the ridicule.

"Emanuel, above all, [is] a human being," she says. "Everybody makes mistakes. … There was no need for so much criticism. Whether the work looked good or bad, one had to value it, because even though he had no formal education in the area, he at least had the initiative and tried to make something. ... No one was brave enough to do what he did, ... to have his idea and to present it."

Santos' biggest worry—that Tiago would get bullied at schoolnever materialized. His young age (five) helped shield him from awareness, and the teachers at school only sang his father's praises. "Oh, your dad made Cristiano's bust!" they said.

"He remained very proud of his father," Gouveia says. "He has no awareness, even to this day."

Emanuel with his son, Tiago.
Emanuel with his son, Tiago.Kelly Naqi

Despite the torrent of criticism, Santos remains steadfast in his defense of the first bust.

"When Ronaldo is happy he has that spontaneous smile, and [those] who know him know that he doesn't have an uniform smile," Santos says sternly. "So there it is, if it didn't end up 100 percent like him, people have to understand that art is a way to express oneself that contains emotions. It's not a precise science.

"I liked the result and was really proud of it. And if I had to do it again, I would make everything exactly the same."

Eventually, the fervor died down. Last October, Santos became Canical civil parish's president, which pays €270 ($332) per month. He was happy to be living under the radar again before Bleacher Report came with an offer last month: How about a "do-over?" A second shot at Ronaldo? Take what you learned last time, and show the world what you've got.

"My first reaction was 'No!'" Gouveia says, laughing. "But then I started thinking that it might be good, that it was a second chance to do Cristiano Ronaldo and to show that you can really do it."

"I'm making the bust again to show people that I'm not what the media made me look like," Santos says. "Of course, there is fear of people's reaction when seeing this piece."

"If there are negative comments, we'll be prepared," Gouveia interjects. "After going through what we went through one year ago, nothing can take us down."


THERE IS GOING TO be one big change this time around: "This smile will be different," Santos says. "The other one was more open, so the cheek was slightly more upwards. This one [will be] more closed, so it's natural that the cheek will be more downwards.

Santos began work on his second bust of Ronaldo with a plan to create a more subdued smile.
Santos began work on his second bust of Ronaldo with a plan to create a more subdued smile.Hugh Mitton for B/R

"I've talked with sculptors and they say that a bust made in a natural statewith a mouth not so open and a bit more seriousfalls better in the eyes of the public."

He elaborates: "Teeth are complicated. When they luster the bronze, the parts of the face that are more protruding look shinier than the more hidden ones, so [last year], when they did the parts of the teeth, [those] that weren't so [protruding] remained darker. It gives out the feeling that the mouth was a bit asymmetrical, but it's not like that. It's actually the material that gives that illusion."

Putting himselfand especially his familyback out there is a constant worry, he says.

"Every morning when I wake up, and especially at night when I'm sleeping, I think about it."

As Santos works on the bust, he realizes he has a more important motivation to get this one right in the eyes of the public.

"I'm thinking that I want to leave a positive mark, so that in the future, Tiago can be proud of his father," he says.

What will happen if people mock this new bust, he's asked. How will you manage that situation, especially with your family and your son?

Santos ponders the question, then replies, "I don't know. I truly hope that that won't happen."

While Santos wants to get his second attempt at the bust right in the minds of the public, he worries about the reaction his family will have to deal with if the sculpture is again received poorly.
While Santos wants to get his second attempt at the bust right in the minds of the public, he worries about the reaction his family will have to deal with if the sculpture is again received poorly.Hugh Mitton for B/R

He lights a cigarette. Wait, what's that? Santos, a nonsmoker, has bought a pack of Camels.

"This is just stress-management," he says.


IT'S MARCH 17, a glorious sunny morning, and Santos drives back to the place that has shaped the last year of his life: Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport. He's headed toward the cargo area to pick up the new Ronaldo bust, which arrived on a flight from Porto earlier that morning.

"I'm so nervous" he confesses, and it manifests itself in random, animated chatter. "I can't sleep at all thinking about this. At the end of all this, I think I deserve a holiday. Did you see the bust?"

"I WANT TO SEE THE BUST!" he later announces playfully to no one in particular, waving the paperwork he'll have to give to the clerk in order to receive the shipment.

A security guard leads a drug-detection dog through the warehouse and passes the area where Santos waits.

He sips a cup of coffee he purchased from a vending machine and reflects on this past year's unsettling journey.

"One day," he says, "I want my son to understand that if he enjoys doing something very much, [he] doesn't let himself be defeated with negative criticism. Sooner or later, if we believe in ourselves and are persistent, we can succeed in life. Even though his father never had a degree, isn't a teacher or a doctor [and comes] from a poor family, he was able to make something of himself in this world."

Santos watches as the 36-kilogram crate is lowered onto the sidewalk, then he waits for the lift to drive away. He takes a knee as he pries the crate open with the back end of a hammer. Then, a gigantic grinbigger than the one on the first Ronaldo bustspreads across his face as he removes the foam padding and sack covering the bust's face.

Santos and his wife shielded their son from the torrent of negative reactions that greeted his first bust, but both admit the seemingly relentless stream of criticism shook them.
Santos and his wife shielded their son from the torrent of negative reactions that greeted his first bust, but both admit the seemingly relentless stream of criticism shook them.Hugh Mitton for B/R

"I like it." Santos says softly. "It's very good. Oh man, it's very good! Looks like him."

A pause. "In my opinion."

Santos gives the bust a thumbs-up, as if it can see him doing so. Kneeling by the crate, he gingerly brushes off the styrofoam bits that have nestled alongside the ridge of its nose. He strokes the face, smiling, as if he's caressing a loved one. It's tender and sweetnot creepy. Emanuel Santos is flat-out mesmerized.

"Do you like it?" he asks. "Tell me what you really think."

Now he hoists Ronaldo's bust out of the crate and groans. He's on a waiting list to get back surgery for a pinched nerve that has hospitalized him for months at a time, but this moment is worth the pain. This is a good pain.

But soon his backand the clocktell him it's time to head home. On Saturday, the residents of Madeira traditionally clean their homes, and Santos promised his wife he'd pitch in.

Santos' finished second bust, currently on display in B/R's London office.
Santos' finished second bust, currently on display in B/R's London office.Edward Moss

He places the bust back in the crate and offers to help reseal it for shipping. As he reaches for the hammer again, he seems wistful. Suddenly, he has a thought: Before B/R publishes its story and social media gets ahold of this bust, he wants to preserve this happy moment, if only for posterity.

"Do you mind?" he asks, pulling the cell phone out of his pocket. "Can you take a picture of me with it?"


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