Ken Early: Vanity is no barrier to Cristiano Ronaldo’s popularity
Those who snigger at Portuguese superstar’s narcissism risk sounding old-fashioned
In 1980, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles became the first sports arena to install a big screen. The Mitsubishi Diamond Vision system measured 35 feet by 25 feet and the Dodgers’ marketing department explained that its purpose was “to entertain and inform fans during the ball game”.
“The directors of Diamond Vision are careful not to interfere with the game action, which is the primary focus of the fans’ attention,” the Dodgers’ Encyclopedia records.
“The video vignettes are used to fill the time between innings, or during a lull in the action. They complement the game, adding to the evening’s overall entertainment. Video selections include information about the Dodgers, news about the other major league teams, and current world events.”
The line about the game action being the primary focus of the fans’ attention reminds you that back in the late analogue age, most people still hadn’t realised that reality has a hard time competing with a screen.
The giant screens are now the primary focus of attention for stadium crowds. When you see fans appear on camera and immediately start waving and shouting, you know they’ve been watching the screen rather than the field.
The players themselves are no more resistant to the lure of enhanced reality, and it’s been that way from the beginning. The Dodgers’ Encyclopedia quotes Diamond Vision TV producer Paul Kalil: “We bring the fans closer to the players, who enjoy looking up and seeing a miracle catch they just made, too.”
Players adapt to the conditions in which they play. Sergio Agüero was still only a child when he figured out how to use the sun to read the shadows of defenders who were trying to kick him from behind. Now that big screens are a feature at every top- level football stadium it’s natural that players have adapted to their presence. Some have adapted better than others.
A few weeks after Wolfsburg’s Brazilian forward Bruno Henrique played against Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League quarter-finals, he reflected: “He is a great player, very skilled, strong and difficult to mark. What I also saw differently is that he kept staring at himself in the big screen the whole time.”
Anyone who watches Ronaldo will notice him checking himself out as he walks around during breaks in play: this is old news. In Wednesday night’s Euro 2016 semi-final against Wales, we saw him take it to the next level.
First Ronaldo scored the opening goal by leaping to head a ball that was almost eight-and-a-half feet off the ground. For a lot of players it would have been the goal of their lives. For Ronaldo, it might not even have been his best headed goal of these Euros.
He ran towards the corner flag and slid feet first onto his back. As he slid, his eyes were fixed on a point high in the stand which happened to be roughly where one of the Stade de Lyon’s two screens are located. Even as he created the spectacle, Ronaldo was watching himself create it.
Ronaldo has scored 548 goals for club and country, which is nearly 100 more than the next highest scorer at Euro 2016, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The goal against Wales was his 12th in European semi-finals. Nobody in the world has more experience of what it feels like to score an important goal. Maybe that’s why, in moments when other players would be losing their minds, Ronaldo can maintain his self-possession, observing himself on the screen with wry detachment.
But given what we know of Ronaldo, it seems more likely that watching himself celebrate a goal while he is actually celebrating it represents the purest kind of narcissistic fulfilment. Maybe only watching himself score a goal while he’s actually scoring it could be better, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to do that while keeping his eye on the ball.
Ronaldo is unusual among footballers in that it was his explicit ambition from an early age to become the greatest player in the world, and – what is maybe more important – to be recognised as such. It’s an insane ambition for any 15-year old to have, but maybe Ronaldo could never have achieved so much had he been encumbered by a sense of realism.
No footballer has ever been so obsessed with individual distinctions. Last year he released a movie that portrayed his life as a single-minded quest to win the Ballon D’Or, as though that little golden ball had the power to end the argument about whether or not he was the best. His relentless pursuit of goalscoring records has the same message: I am the greatest and these numbers are going to prove it.
Ronaldo’s teams are dragged along in the slipstream of his ambition, but their success is just a byproduct: he’s not doing it for them, he’s doing it for himself, for that moment when he gets to rip off his shirt, stand flexing his muscles before a rapturous crowd, and watch himself doing it on the big screen.
It’s this narcissism that makes him such an irresistible target for mockery. If you seek to elevate yourself above everyone else, it’s natural that many people will want to knock you back down.
That tendency could be seen negatively, as the poisonous expression of envy or begrudgery. Yet even those emotions can be seen positively, as a kind of immune response by which society discourages hubris.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider hubris. The Bible says “pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall”. There is an implication that the sinfulness of pride has somehow caused the fall. These days, we’d call that magical thinking. The fall is just regression toward the mean.
Since many people still see Ronaldo’s narcissism as absurd or at least amusing, you will sometimes hear his more devoted admirers complain that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Given that he is the world’s best-paid sportsman, the most popular human being on Facebook, and is worshipped like a god wherever he goes, you wonder how much more credit would be appropriate.
Ronaldo is showing us that in the 21st century, vanity and self-absorption are no barrier to popularity: if anything, they enhance it. Those that snigger at his narcissism risk sounding rather old-fashioned.
In their scepticism you can hear the echoes of several old religions, ancient ethical systems that emphasised the importance of humility, duty, submission, renunciation, the insignificance of the individual before the eternal. Pride is usually seen as a bad thing, narcissism a form of delusion.
But those ideas grew up long before the invention of Diamond Vision and the front-facing phone camera, the chaotic proliferation of images that characterises our age. What relevance has a buttoned-up Prussian maxim like “be more than you seem” in an age when seeming is everything?
Ireland’s most popular sportsman right now is Conor McGregor, who last week posed naked for ESPN magazine’s body issue. When an interviewer asked McGregor why his fans loved him so much, he answered: “They love me because I love myself.”
Cristiano Ronaldo gets that. Lionel Messi is still the best football player of our time but Ronaldo is the player who best reflects its spirit. Win in Paris tomorrow night, and one day people might even look back and say he was the best.