Ronaldo’s shaky start in football

THE roads of Madeira twist together like liquorice ropes, their spindly curves beginning at the seashore and rising up the steps of this steep island in a maze reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Ronaldo poses with a wax statue of himself at the opening of his museum. Picture: Gregorio Cunha

The slow climb here comes with a similar feeling to the Brazilian shanties, too, one of utter insulation, a complete removal from the tourist areas that lie below.

That sentiment is fierce within the residents. Last week in Santo Antonio, a parish on the middle of the mountain, two men stood at a table in front of a modest outdoor bar. The men were talking about Madeira’s most famous native, Cristiano Ronaldo. But they were not reliving one of Ronaldo’s magical goals for Real Madrid nor revelling in one of his epic performances for the national team of Portugal. Rather, they were reminiscing about the time when Ronaldo very nearly ruined his professional career before it ever began.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

This happened long before Ronaldo, 29, was a star at Real Madrid. It was before Ronaldo’s six years at Manchester United, before he became a global icon and before he was named the captain of Portugal, a role he will continue this summer at the World Cup. The moment the men remembered came when Ronaldo was just a teenager, his godfather, Fernao Sousa, said at the bar. It was when Ronaldo still clung ferociously to that insulation provided by this tiny archipelago known as Pérola do Atlântico, the Pearl of the Atlantic. It was when he did not want to leave.

“I helped him get to Lisbon,” said Sousa. He was talking about the series of transfers that brought a young Ronaldo from his first club, Andorinha, to a bigger Madeiran club, Nacional, and then finally off the island when he joined the academy of Sporting Lisbon in 1997. Ronaldo was 12. “He was ready,” Sousa said. Sousa, himself a former player for Andorinha and Nacional, had connections that eased Ronaldo’s move. He remembered Ronaldo’s mother and father being accepting of the opportunity. Ronaldo seemed excited, too. “Your son is your future,” Sousa told them.

But, a few months into Ronaldo’s first season in Lisbon, Sousa heard that his godson was back on the island. Ronaldo was not supposed to be home. The agreement with Sporting allowed for only a few trips back each year, and those were just short visits. Sousa quickly drove the narrow, bumpy roads of Santo Antonio to reach Ronaldo’s family house, a tin-roofed, squat three-bedroom – for the family of six.

He was told Ronaldo was not happy but did not understand why. Ronaldo loved football more than anything. Around Santo Antonio, everyone knew that Ronaldo was always playing, always carrying a ball. “He would skip school just to play,” said Ludgero Castro, a longtime neighbour. “His schoolbooks were the football.”

In Lisbon, though, Ronaldo had not found the sanctuary Sousa expected. Ronaldo missed his father, Jose Dinis, who was a gardener (and the equipment manager for Andorinha’s senior team). He missed his mother, Dolores, and his brother and his two sisters. He missed chasing frogs in the dried gullies with his cousin. He missed the familiarity of living in a neighbourhood where most of the roofs are an Iberian orange and no one needs to know the names of the roads because every family lives in the same house it has always lived in.

He missed, as much as anything, hearing people talk the way he did. In Lisbon, the other boys in the academy taunted him mercilessly, making fun of his Madeiran accent. He did not want to return to the continent. Sousa and Jose Dinis, who died in 2005, were not sure what to do.

“We convinced his mother to talk to him,” Sousa said, shaking his head. “He always listened to his mother. Then we put him in the car and drove him right to the airport. It was difficult, but he went back.”

Sousa smiled. “It is good that he did, no?” he said.

Sousa laughed then, acknowledging his understatement. The bar he was standing at was next to a football field with a large photograph of a young Ronaldo, wearing the colours of Andorinha, plastered above the entrance. This field did not exist when Ronaldo was a boy – his first field was a little way down the hill and “did not even have grass, only dirt,” according to Rui Santos, the president of Andorinha when Ronaldo played there. On this island, though, Ronaldo’s presence is inescapable.

At the modest airport, advertisements featuring Ronaldo greet passengers as they walk into the terminal. Ask a taxi driver for a “Ronaldo tour” and they will take you to the places of his youth. In Bairro Quinta Falcao, the area where Ronaldo grew up, the cafe his family would go to has pictures of him and one of his jerseys on the wall. “He still comes in when he is visiting,” the bartender said. “He likes a full plate of Portuguese fish.”

Stop a person on the street in this neighbourhood, and they will point to the space just behind Casa Azul, the blue building that serves as a community centre. That empty lot is where Ronaldo’s childhood house used to stand. The house was torn down several years ago, though residents offer differing accounts why. Some say it was because vandals and vagrants had made the house a target after Ronaldo moved his family into a nicer area. Others say the Madeiran government, as well as Ronaldo, were concerned that the house projected a poor image of Ronaldo’s childhood.

Ronaldo’s eldest sister, Elma, who operates a Ronaldo-branded clothing store in the more commercial part of Funchal, did not specify why the family’s house had been demolished. “It was small,” she said. “But it was our home. And now things are different.”

That was an understatement, too. Ronaldo lives in Madrid now with his girlfriend, a Russian model, and his three-year-old son. His mother lives near him as well. His other sister, Katia, is a singer. His annual income, according to a recent estimate by Forbes, is £26 million.

Not surprisingly, Ronaldo visits Funchal only “a few times a year,” Elma said, and “whenever he comes he has to be in hiding.” There are always visitors, always people who want something. “It is hard for him,” she added.

Recently, Ronaldo was here to celebrate the opening of his museum, a sharp gallery near the tourist areas that is dedicated to all things Ronaldo. All kinds of trophies – including random awards, such as one shaped like a ship that was bestowed upon Ronaldo for being the 2003-04 player of the year as voted on by the Scandinavian branch of the Manchester United Supporters Club – are on display, as are jerseys, photographs from Ronaldo’s childhood and a collection of match balls from each game during his career in which Ronaldo scored a hat-trick.

Ronaldo’s cousin, Nuno Viveiros, who lived with Ronaldo while he was playing for Manchester United, runs the museum.

Two years older than Ronaldo, Viveiros was the captain of the youth team on which Ronaldo won his first tournament trophy (it is on display at the museum, too). Asked whether he found it at all presumptuous that Ronaldo would want to open a museum while still in the prime of his career, Viveiros waved his hand.

“He had so many trophies already, it was good for him to display them,” Viveiros said. “Plus, he will win more and put them here, too.”

That is a common sentiment among Madeirans, who have an unshakable belief in the magic of their favourite player. They remember the days before he was a brash wizard on the field, the days when he cried after losing games with Andorinha. They remember when his touch with the ball always seemed just a little bit smoother than the other boys’.

They remember, too, the time when he did not want to leave.