Cristiano Ronaldo, Euro 2024 and the problem of too much fame

As far as the authorities in Gelsenkirchen were concerned, every precaution had been taken. Extra stewards patrolled the perimeter of the pitch at the Arena AufSchalke. Plainclothes security personnel were in the stands. And two imposing security guards stood at the edge of the tunnel leading to the changing rooms.

And yet, even that wasn’t enough. As Portugal’s players trudged back to the dressing room after their defeat to Georgia last week, one fan bypassed the extra layers of security by leaping over the top of the tunnel and directly into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Instead of coming face to face with his hero, however, the intruder botched his landing and fell down a flight of stairs. The point, however, had been made. Ronaldo's allure is such that no matter what the stadium authorities or security services do, ultimately there is no stopping people from trying to take a selfie with him.

Ronaldo's fame, at this point, cannot be overstated. Now 39, he has been, for 20 years, one of the two best soccer players of his generation: a record-holder, a serial champion, a multiple winner of the Ballon d'Or as the best player in the world.

That status has begun to wane in recent years as time has ticked down on his career, but it has had little impact on his broader footprint. He remains a walking billboard. His endorsement portfolio includes high fashion (Louis Vuitton), heavy industry (Egyptian Steel), and cryptocurrency (Binance).

His image has been used to sell products as diverse as luxury watches, nutritional supplements and Japanese facial tonics. Saudi Arabia is currently trying to grow an entire top-flight soccer league in the wake of his supernova. But he is more than a brand; he is a particular kind of aspiration, a mix of wealth, success and a truly exceptional skincare routine, a high-performance podcast made perfect flesh.

Based on one of the metrics that modern culture has decreed to be most significant, namely the number of followers you have on Instagram, Ronaldo has a reasonable claim to be the most famous man in the world. He has 633 million followers, double that of Beyoncé. In other words, if Cristiano Ronaldo's Instagram were a country, it would be the third largest in the world.

Indeed, his fame is such that, during the first three weeks of Euro 2024, he began to create a headache for all concerned.

The most immediate concern is security: all but one of Portugal’s four matches in the tournament have been interrupted by one or more fans trying to get on to the pitch to take a selfie with Ronaldo.

After the first two pitch invaders took to the field during Portugal's opening match, the Portuguese football federation wrote to UEFA, the European soccer governing body. The letter was polite and written in a way that seemed to acknowledge that Ronaldo's combination of social media and celebrity was uncharted territory for soccer, but it called for additional security measures to be taken.

After Portugal's second match, against Turkey, when half a dozen fans entered the pitch, Portugal coach Roberto Martínez admitted the situation was becoming “worrying” after one of his other stars was knocked to the ground by a steward chasing a man heading towards Ronaldo.

The issue has been discussed at UEFA’s daily operational meetings, and tournament hosts Germany have already been fined more than $21,000 for failing to keep their pitches safe. However, it’s unclear how much more can be done. “It’s really difficult once they’re on the pitch,” said Tom Richmond, founder of Security and Safety Solutions, a company that provides both to soccer teams and players. “The stewards are all on minimum wage; they’re not really an obstacle to anyone wanting to get on the pitch.”

But there is a growing sense that Ronaldo’s fame may also be a sporting problem. Portugal may have reached the quarterfinals (they play France in Hamburg on Friday), but their performances have been largely uninspiring. They beat the Czech Republic in their opening game only thanks to an injury-time goal. They lost their final group game to Georgia, the tournament’s lowest-ranked team. They needed a penalty shootout to overcome Slovenia in the round of 16.

There is a common thread running through all these games: the perfectly toned, immaculate superstar fending off selfie-seeking fans. Ronaldo is the only outfield player to have started every game for Portugal. He has yet to score. His most notable contribution so far was missing a penalty in extra time against Slovenia, a mistake that brought him to tears.

In many ways, though, his performances have not been a huge surprise. Ronaldo has spent much of the last two seasons playing in Saudi Arabia’s revamped league. He hasn’t played in the Champions League, the top form of club football, since 2022.

His international career seemed to have ended naturally during the World Cup 18 months ago, when he was left out of the starting lineup for a game against Switzerland. At that point he had scored just once in the tournament, from the penalty spot. His replacement, striker Gonçalo Ramos, duly scored three times in just over an hour. It seemed the page had been turned.

Martínez, however, evidently feels differently. Hired after the World Cup, he has been adamant in his defense of Ronaldo during this tournament. The striker's presence, Martínez has made clear, is both non-negotiable and “deserved,” as he said last month. Even after the game against Slovenia, Martínez was quick to proclaim how “proud” he was of his aging star.

While there are those willing to take the other side of the coin, delicately suggesting that all those cell phone-wielding fans are looking for a photo with someone who, like them, probably shouldn't be on the pitch, it's not an easy position to take.

“When someone knocks on the door, you don't ask who it was, you ask who it is,” Portuguese journalist and TV host Sofia Oliveira told CNN Portugal after the match against Slovenia. All her colleagues in the studio knew, she said, but they didn't seem particularly willing to say it out loud.

The video spread immediately. The reaction was, in part, predictably vitriolic. “Questioning his value is always difficult, because we are talking about one of the best players of all time,” Ms. Oliveira said in a series of text messages to The New York Times.

Mrs Oliveira was keen to stress that “she does not think he no longer has the qualities to represent the national team”, but that “the current moment in his career” should be taken into consideration.

“This is not the first competition where it is clear that the current Cristiano does not present enough footballing arguments for an undisputed place,” he said. “Portugal has options and, in order not to weaken its status, we are ignoring the other players.”

His view, most commonly expressed by observers outside Portugal, is that Martínez and his employers are unwilling to omit or even replace Ronaldo. And that in doing so, they are in fact no less driven by his celebrity than those who flee the stands in the hope of getting a photo.

The reason lies in what happened the last time Portugal tried to surpass him. In that game against Switzerland in the 2022 World Cup, the Portuguese were leading 5-0 with a quarter of the game remaining. Ramos had scored three times. But instead of celebrating a new hero, the crowd chanted Ronaldo. The sport was over, they had decided. Now they wanted the show, the one they had come to see.

“One almost wonders whether Cristiano himself will realise that he is no longer at the same level,” Ms Oliveira said. “It won't be the federation or Roberto Martínez who will do that.”

More than his Instagram followers, this may be the best measure of Ronaldo’s untouchable status. He’s so famous that one country, Germany, is finding it increasingly difficult to host soccer matches with him. And he’s so famous that another country, Portugal, isn’t willing to tolerate playing soccer matches without him.

Andrea The contributed to the writing of the report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *