Cristiano Ronaldo: Still King Among Portugal's Emerging Galaxy of Stars

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist INovember 13, 2019

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after Portugal's Bernardo Silva scored his side's fourth goal during the Euro 2020 group B qualifying soccer match between Serbia and Portugal, on the stadium Rajko Mitic in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

Portugal had just finished another training session ahead of their UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers against Luxembourg and Ukraine last month and returned to their hotel in Cascais, on the outskirts of Lisbon, when manager Fernando Santos received a visit from a longtime friend who had arrived from Greece.

Besides catching up, the friend was also interested in getting Cristiano Ronaldo to sign a shirt.

A short while later, the guest met Ronaldo in a reserved area and, among other things, asked the Juventus star where he was from. 

The 34-year-old ace replied, in the most natural tone, that he's from Madeira. Santos' buddy then rushed to say that he could not be more wrong. "You're from another galaxy," he chuckled, content that his joke had landed. 

Ronaldo is used to this sort of praise back in his homeland. 

It's been like this since he made his senior debut for Sporting CP in August 2002, the start of a record-breaking career that has seen him firmly established as one of the greatest footballers of all time.

He has inspired a generation of fans across Portugal, leading some of them to name their own children after him.

Apart from the great No. 7 himself, there are currently 29 other Cristiano Ronaldos registered in the Portuguese football federation's database, all of them born after his first competitive game.

The oldest of them, Cristiano Ronaldo Moreira Sousas, came into this world in February 2003, only a few months after Ronaldo's debut. He's now progressing through the youth ranks at ARD Vilamaiorense, a small northern outfit.

"I'm not even a Sporting fan, but I liked Ronaldo a lot. Back then, he was still 17 and I already enjoyed his style and his behaviour," Sousa's father told Mais Futebol

A lot of these namesakes, however, were born in 2004, when the striker had his breakthrough with the national team at the Euros held on home soil.

Cristiano Ronaldo during Euro 2004
Cristiano Ronaldo during Euro 2004FRANCOIS GUILLOT/Getty Images

Even though he failed to deliver the title, his displays still managed to impress the crowd, with his impact spreading to maternity wards throughout the country. Overall, nine new Cristiano Ronaldos were named around the same time as the competition.

This is life in Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. The local airport in Madeira is also named after him, while his first club, Sporting, have admitted they are thinking about rebranding their Jose Alvalade stadium to "Cristiano Ronaldo Arena," per Tuttosport (h/t the Mirror).

A national hero, the Juventus superstar has never left the spotlight for the Portuguese side over the past decade, save for an eight-and-a-half-month absence following the team's elimination at the last-16 stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That absence coincided with an allegation from American woman Kathryn Mayorga that Ronaldo raped her in Las Vegas in 2009, which Ronaldo denies. A court case is ongoing.

Since his return as captain, Ronaldo has led his country to the inaugural UEFA Nations League title and likely qualification for Euro 2020. 

For much of his career, he has been the only show in town during the international break. But the team's recent success has seen Manchester City's Bernardo Silva and Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix finally get a slice of the previously undivided attention usually reserved for Ronaldo.

Bernardo's recent form has been so impressive that some back home have argued that he may be in a position to displace Ronaldo as Portugal's most important footballer.

The Manchester City wizard struggled to establish himself at first, but following a slow start to his international career, he is now absolutely firing.

He was named the Nations League's best player after guiding Portugal to glory in June and has been thrilling ever since.

Rewind to the summer, and the hype was all about Felix as he negotiated and ultimately completed his eye-popping €126 million move from Benfica to Atletico Madrid. 

Although he had yet to make his debut for the national team, the Portuguese media got ridiculously carried away with him. When Ronaldo reported to the training camp ahead of the Nations League finals, one of the headlines was: "Ronaldo joins Felix."

Such incidents have added more fuel to allegations from rival fans that Benfica graduates are given disproportionate coverage from news outlets.

The teenager might have moved to Madrid this season, but he still has to cope with criticism related to the fierce rivalry between the country's "big three" of Benfica, Sporting and Porto.

As another product of Benfica's famed Seixal academy, even Bernardo has to go through the same to some extent.

Ronaldo with Bernardo
Ronaldo with BernardoGENYA SAVILOV/Getty Images

It is another thing that distinguishes Ronaldo on the international stage. While some players seem to carry that club baggage into camp, he has proved himself to be above all the rivalry nonsense, and it shows on the pitch. 

"When Ronaldo plays, Portugal become a much stronger opponent—we usually hear people say that he's 50 percent of the team," former international Maniche, who works as a football pundit for Canal 11, tells Bleacher Report.

"It's partly because some of our players who are maybe leading figures for their clubs, don't perform as well for the national side. Ronaldo does.

"It feels like the Portuguese team is an extension of his own home.

"We've got right now an exciting group, with very good players, most of them plying their trades for big sides. But they still lack the maturity that Ronaldo has, after all, he's been around for 17 to 18 years, chasing records, scoring goals, organising the team.

"He's still in such a great form. He's still delivering every game. And he's passing on his experience to younger players like Bernardo and Felix. They're the ambassadors of a generation that I believe can perhaps win the world title."

Ronaldo's leadership has already been highlighted in major tournaments, but it's in his daily work, away from the cameras, in the small details, that it really shines through just how much of a dominant figure he is within the squad. 

Before each home game in Lisbon, Portugal have a ritual on matchdays: Players and coaching staff leave their hotel in Cascais and go for a short walk by the coastline, mingling with tourists, shaking hands and signing autographs. It usually doesn't last more than 20 minutes.

LISBOA, PORTUGAL - OCTOBER 11: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrates goal 2-0 during the  UEFA Nations league match between Portugal  v Luxembourg  at the Estádio José Alvalade (Lisboa) on October 11, 2019 in Lisboa Portugal (Photo by David S. Bustaman
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Before the match versus Luxembourg at the Alvalade stadium, Ronaldo spent the entire walk in a relaxed chat with his adviser and best friend, Ricardo Regufe. Then, suddenly, he stopped the conversation, whistled three times and, with his right hand, gave the turnaround gesture to his colleagues.

It was enough. At the same instant, without saying a word, they followed him back to the hotel, like a pack of wolves.

"As long as Ronaldo remains around, it'll always be like this. We hear people saying that he's the entire package as a player, but also as a leader," says Portuguese legend Paulo Futre, a CMTV football pundit.

"I have no doubt that Bernardo, Felix, [Goncalo] Guedes and others will be able to do great things in the future, but Ronaldo means everything to us. I'm Portuguese and that's what he represents for every single Portuguese.

"Even though he might be about to turn 35, in a Juventus game against Napoli this season he ran 90 meters in 10 seconds—that's madness. Nobody has ever done something like that at his age. At that time, I wrote in my column [for Record newspaper]: If he challenges [Usain] Bolt these days, he will beat him. It's impossible to tell how far he will go. Ronaldo is Ronaldo."

As much as other footballers like Bernardo have grown in stature over the past year, Ronaldo is still the only player who manager Fernando Santos publicly states is irreplaceable and guaranteed a place in his starting XI.

The straightforward answer came in late August when a journalist asked if Felix would be handed a more important role inside the dressing room after his big move to Atletico Madrid.

Santos' words were endorsed by each one of the 47,305 crowd that witnessed another Ronaldo masterclass in the 3-0 win over Luxembourg.

Rui Batista, a fan at the game, was still buzzing when he spoke to B/R Football after watching Ronaldo do his thing. 

"Cristiano is phenomenal, he's unique, an example of hard work and effort plus talent," he said. 

"His numbers speak for themselves, even for those supporters who don't really appreciate his football. He's Portugal's most famous personality around the world. Wherever I travel abroad, as soon as I say I'm Portuguese, people mention him right away."

"I find it very unlikely that Bernardo or Felix will ever have that same media reach, but I believe one of them will eventually win the Ballon d'Or."

Having known Ronaldo since the age of 18, Santos might concur with that. He usually recalls the story of his first game at the helm of the Portuguese national team, in 2014, to give a glimpse of how impressive it is to have the Juventus striker as part of his squad.

"We went to Paris for my debut, and the French team's hotel was just across the street. At our front door, there were thousands of people screaming, 'Ronaldo!' On the other side, not a single person, and that was in their country," he said.

It's been five years since that happened, but Ronaldo mania remains in full swing, driven not only fans, but even other professional footballers, who will go above and beyond to meet their hero. 

Take the example of Paraguayan defender Walter Clar during the last international break.

Currently on loan at Porto-based side Boavista, Clar took a day off to travel to Lisbon to watch Portugal's game against Luxembourg and fulfil a lifetime dream: meeting Ronaldo.

In order to do that, Clar arrived at Portugal's hotel in Cascais around 10:30 in the morning. Alongside his wife, he waited in the lobby of the team hotel for hours until the team jumped on the bus to the stadium late in the afternoon. However, despite getting close to the striker twice, he failed to fulfil his mission of getting a picture with his idol.

He then headed to Alvalade to watch Ronaldo score in the win versus Luxembourg and, as soon as the match ended, headed back to the Portugal team hotel to try again.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal kisses the trophy following the UEFA Euro 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

He was about to give up and go back home when he saw Ronaldo upstairs after midnight. He quickly asked for a photo and heard the words, "Come up here." 

The moment didn't last more than a minute, but it had suddenly become, in his own words, "the best day of my life."

"Cristiano, when the lift door opened and you were there, it was impossible to describe what I felt, meeting you was like touching heaven with my hands. It was incredible, magical, and it was then that I realised one can never give up," Clar wrote in an emotional Instagram post about his 14 hours chasing Ronaldo.

Such is the awe that Ronaldo can inspire. 

There may be 30 registered footballers in Portugal now called Cristiano Ronaldo, but the team's captain, CR7, remains one of a kind. 


Twitter: @_marcus_alves