Cristiano Ronaldo is coming back to the Spanish capital. And Atletico Madrid should be worried. For almost a decade as a Real Madrid player, he was the scourge of Atletico. Now he's returning with Juventus. For four seasons in a row from 2013-17, Ronaldo's Real Madrid team ended Atletico's dreams of winning a UEFA Champions League title. Twice those defeats came in the final of the competition in heartbreaking fashion.
In the 2014 final in Lisbon, after Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos equalised three minutes into injury time, Ronaldo scored from the penalty spot at the end of extra time to close out the game 4-1. His celebration infuriated Atletico's fans—he ran to the corner flag and tore off his jersey, bearing his rippled torso in a provocative gesture like He-Man. It was typical Ronaldo. It's his chuleria, his cockiness, that grates with Atletico's fans as much as his goals.
Two years later in Milan, he scored the fifth penalty in a shootout that again put the kibosh on Atletico's quest to win their first-ever Champions League. A season later, the teams met in the semi-final. In one of Ronaldo's most devastating hours of business, he flashed in a hat-trick—one of three he's scored against Atletico— in a 3-0 win that effectively killed the tie in the first leg.
The spectre of Ronaldo's return in a Juve jersey is unsettling for Atletico's army. He generates a mix of emotions—hatred, disgust at his displays of self-love, a grudging respect for his unqualified brilliance, but mostly fear that he might add to the 22 goals he's already scored against them.
Here are recollections from four people close to Atletico about how Ronaldo is seen through the club's eyes.
Radomir Antic has several rare distinctions in football. He is the only man to have managed all three of Spain football's grandest clubs—Barcelona, Atletico and Real. He is also the only manager to have led Atletico to a league-and-cup double—in 1996, when Atletico's current manager, Diego Simeone, was the team's captain and scorer of the goal that sealed their league title win.
Antic suggests it's difficult for Atletico's fans to appreciate Ronaldo's greatness because the rivalry between their club and Ronaldo's former team is so fierce: "Cristiano was nine years at Real Madrid, and look at all that he won and achieved. Of course his past at Real Madrid is not a pleasant sight for fans of Atletico Madrid—the rivalry here in Madrid between Atletico and Real Madrid is a lot more intense than the rivalry Atleti has with Barca, for example—but he has won the respect of all fans of football."
Antic says that Ronaldo's achievements are coloured by his personal rivalry with the other great player of his age—Leo Messi. For all Ronaldo's deadliness around the box, Antic sees in Messi a player with a greater ability to weave play together. Messi makes more assists than Ronaldo. He adds more to the collective than the soloist Portuguese.
"Ronaldo is a great professional that works tirelessly," says Antic. "His goalscoring statistics are incredible, but his career has coincided with another great player of this era—Messi. For me, Messi participates more in the play of the team. Ronaldo is more selfish, more individualistic. The value of Messi is that he is involved more in creating for the team."
Few players have been so intensely focused on the story of their own greatness as Ronaldo.
He was notorious during his time at Real Madrid for failing to celebrate when a teammate scored a goal. His brother, Hugo, runs a museum on their home island of Madeira dedicated to displaying Ronaldo's football trophies and trinkets, a shrine with Ronaldo waxworks that is open to the public for a €5 entrance fee.
During his years at Real Madrid—a golden age in which they won four UEFA Champions League trophies in a five-year span—Ronaldo came to embody the club's arrogance. His obsession with winning the Ballon d'Or—given to the world's greatest footballer every year—seemed even more important to him than the team's successes.
"Cristiano played for so long for Real Madrid," says Antic. "He's won five Ballons d'Or. He's become chulo (cocky), yes, but what can we do? He's a player who makes a difference."
Donato is a legend of Spanish football. He played professional football for more than 20 seasons—into his 40s—and was part of an iconic Deportivo La Coruna team nicknamed "Super Depor" that won a memorable league title in 2000. Donato—who was born in Rio de Janeiro but played international football for Spain—also played for Atletico for five seasons at the start of his career in Spain from 1988 until 1993. He's a friend of Ronaldo.
During Donato's long career, he came across some of the game's most illustrious players, including Romario, Marco van Basten and the Brazilian Ronaldo, who he regards as the best forward he ever played against. He is unsure whether it was a good or a bad thing that he never locked horns with the Portuguese Ronaldo on a pitch.
"I would love to have played against Cristiano," he says. "Or maybe I had the good luck not to play against him! Cristiano was very important here in Spain, as I think he must be for Juventus. Here, he was amazing. Just the quantity of goals he scored. Imagine he used to score 50 goals a season. Every season. It's almost impossible to conceive."
It's a regret to Donato that La Liga has lost Ronaldo, who left the Spanish league for Juventus last summer, partly because he was fed up with the frosty treatment he received from Real Madrid's club president, Florentino Perez.
"It's a shame that La Liga has lost a footballer like Cristiano," says Donato. "There was such a great competition between him and Messi, and that is gone. I think Spanish football is poorer for it—it has lost a great player to Italian football."
Donato—like Antic—makes a distinction between Ronaldo's ability and Messi's, suggesting Messi is more integral to the well-being of Barcelona than Ronaldo is to the teams he plays on.
"Maybe Messi is a more natural footballer," says Donato. "He was born with his talent. Cristiano shows his personality on the pitch. Every day, he wants to be the best. He works very hard. He has amazing perseverance, and he has a lot of personality.
"Messi has been with Barca for a long time, and you can tell when he is not on the pitch for them and when he is. Now at Real Madrid, we can see they have been missing Cristiano, but Barca without Messi would be a bigger loss. That's a big difference between them. People from Madrid miss Cristiano, but little by little they will find again their next star."
Ronaldo will be crucial in deciding the tie between Atletico Madrid and Juventus because he has that innate ability to find openings.
"I can't talk for Atleti fans, but the club will have respect for Juventus—not only for Cristiano," says Donato. "Juve have a lot of quality players throughout their team. Cristiano will deserve special attention in every moment of the match. He is a player that can unbalance a match in a second. As a fan and an ex-player, I don't think Atleti are afraid of him, but they respect Cristiano and will take special care with him."
David Gonzalez lives for Atletico Madrid. As president of Atletica Mostoles, an Atletico Madrid supporters' club based in one of Madrid's suburbs, he has travelled around Europe to see some of their greatest triumphs. He has also borne witness to their most painful moments, including losses at the hands of Ronaldo's Real Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals. Ronaldo has been the chief architect of many of his greatest miseries as an Atleti fan, so he's glad now that the Portuguese striker is plying his trade across the Mediterranean Sea.
"Cristiano Ronaldo played at Real Madrid for so many years and he caused us a lot of damage," says Gonzalez. "He's a phenomenal footballer. His power. Whatever team he is on, he scores a lot of goals. I'm from Atletico, so the further away he is the better. Of course we're happier he's left Spain and La Liga. We suffer less. Now we're crossing his path again with Juventus. He's one of those players who you have to respect, but it's better that he's far away than close by; and if he's not in your team, ideally very, very far away!"
The most difficult UEFA Champions League final defeat for Gonzalez to stomach was the penalty shootout in Milan in 2016. Atletico were the dominant team over 120 minutes and rued a penalty miss by Antoine Griezmann in the second half of normal time.
"The worst was losing in a penalty shootout in Milan," says Gonzalez. "It was like a coin tossed in the air. It was down to bad luck. To lose a second final—on penalties—left me enraged, disillusioned after coming so close two years earlier in Lisbon."
Gonzalez is philosophical about Ronaldo's notorious celebration in Lisbon two years earlier. He dismisses it as part of the package.
"Well that was him—his egocentrism," says Gonzalez. "But I didn't give it much importance. He did it because of the emotion of the moment. It wasn't the first time he did something like that and it won't be the last. That's for sure.
"Personally, I don't have hatred for him—not for any footballer. Obviously he's not a very humble guy. Messi seems like a more courteous, a more moderate person in his personality. Cristiano as a person comes across as a bit selfish, a bit of an egocentric, but he's a very talented player above all."
Turning his attention to Wednesday's encounter with Juventus at Atletico's Wanda Metropolitano stadium—which will also host the final of this season's tournament—Gonzalez says that Ronaldo can expect a hostile reception.
"The fans are going to jeer him a lot, which is normal. It's part of the game. You have to cheer your own players and try to discourage your opponents. If some of the whistling can unsettle an opposition team player like Cristiano, so much the better."
Inako Diaz-Guerra is one of Spain's most respected football columnists. He writes for El Mundo. Atletico Madrid, in particular, are his beat. He says that Atletico's fans reserved a special kind of animosity for Ronaldo when he was a player with their crosstown rivals. He has been a great hate figure in the history of the Atletico vs. Real rivalry.
"You won't hear Atletico's fans talking badly about Luka Modric or Karim Benzema or Toni Kroos, but with Cristiano it's different," says Diaz-Guerra. "He's a guy that people dislike easily because of his gestures, his way of performing. He has never been a player that rival fans like Atleti's admire. He is not Leo Messi or Luka Modric, for example.
"During Ronaldo's time at Real Madrid, he was the most despised Real Madrid player along with Sergio Ramos. Obviously, there are distinct cases like Theo Hernandez and Thibaut Courtois—ex-Atletico players who joined Real Madrid—but the most antipathy Atleti fans felt has been towards these two players ... but even more towards Cristiano because Ramos plays for the Spain national team and he helped Spain to win the World Cup and European Championships. I don't think you could find an Atletico fan who likes and admires Cristiano."
What irritates Atletico's fans, notes Diaz-Guerra, is Ronaldo's narcissism and his devotion to Ronaldo Inc. He has, after all, a portfolio of branded CR7 luxury goods that he hawks, including underwear and fragrances.
One of the striking aspects about Ronaldo's career, Diaz-Guerra says, is that he gets on well with his fellow professionals despite being reviled by opposition fans.
"His relationship with Diego Simeone and Atletico's players is normal," says Diaz-Guerra. "He doesn't have any problems with his fellow players. Look at his relationship with Messi, for example. They get on well. Atletico's players will all say good things about him. It's more the problem that he's desperate for being centre stage. These photos, the gestures, his relentless marketing irks fans of rival clubs, but his relationship with Atletico's players isn't bad.
"For Atletico's fans, it's impossible to like him. There is respect there. He is admired for his talent, but he doesn't inspire empathy or warmth—whether he's in a Real Madrid shirt or a Juve one."
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