SALVADOR, Brazil -- In order to understand what the best player in the world might accomplish here, in northeastern Brazil's African capital, we must first discuss what happened three years ago, some 4,400 miles away from this coastal city, inside one of those terrible Asian fusion restaurant-lounges in New York.
It was Feb. 15, 2011, the night of the launch party for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I worked for SI then, and, up to this point, had only seen Cristiano Ronaldo in pixels, on television and in video games. But now the brawny winger-cum-underwear-model was just feet from me, posted up on a beige banquette by the stairs, clad in a shiny brown scarf, shiny tan blazer, shiny azure turtleneck, shiny designer jeans and shiny diamond earrings. He looked then, as he does now, like a soccer player directed by Michael Bay.
How much this farcically symmetrical crowd knew about Real Madrid or Ronaldo's reason for attendance -- he had recently begun dating new cover model Irina Shayk, who'd previously been name-checked in a song by Kanye West -- was ultimately inconsequential. It just seemed to make sense that he was here. Whether you knew his oeuvre or not, Ronaldo wielded the heavy magnetic field of the objectively wealthy, handsome and famous, drawing eyeballs from men and women, creating space whenever he so much as leaned forward in his seat.
But I do not tell this story to bask in the reflected glory of Ronaldo's golden ratio. (Full disclosure: I was only there because a coworker had illicitly palmed me a security bracelet on the sidewalk.) I do it because of what happened next -- when no less than Kanye West, the man who'd rapped, "I wanna see Irina Shayk next to Doutzen,"
Kanye, allegedly, had been surprised to find the most expensive soccer player in history there, with Shayk, in person. And the musician who'd been bold enough to tell America that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on national television and unilaterally co-opted an acceptance speech from a teenage girl, also on national television, had decided, rather immediately, that, well, it was best to go home.
Only one person actually knows what happened. (I, uh, tweeted Kanye last night; no response.) But the important point is this: Absolutely nobody at the restaurant-lounge found the aforementioned sequence of events even vaguely implausible. It did not seem unlikely, in the least, that in a clash between the smoldering egos of all-world alpha males, Cristiano Ronaldo had pre-empted the desires of a competitor whose latest album is about how he is, literally, a god.
Ronaldo has pursued self-deification in other ways, of course. Poll his biggest fans, here in Brazil and abroad, and even they'll be hard-pressed to argue that anyone alive is (A) more unapologetically athletic and (B) more unapologetically arrogant. The closest American analogue may well be Kobe Bryant -- who, fittingly enough, happens to be in Brazil right now, eating bobo de camarao
But not even the Black Mamba built an entire museum to himself in his hometown, at age 28, as Ronaldo did in Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira, in December. At the grand unveiling, some 150 individual awards stood gleaming in glass cases, alongside space explicitly left for new additions. Shayk was photographed kissing a wax model of her boyfriend in a red Portugal uniform. Wax Cristiano was disturbingly realistic, down to the veins in his considerable biceps and gel in his black hair.
"Here is the evidence of what I have won," Flesh Cristiano pronounced to the assembled press. "No one will take it away from here and these were things I wanted to share with my fans, show them what I have already achieved."
What he has achieved since saying that, however, might be even more absurd.
Yes, after four straight years of the Ballon d'Or going to his bete noire, Leo Messi, Ronaldo was named FIFA's best player of the year for the second time since 2008. Then, against Bayern in April's Champions League semifinal, he shattered Messi's single-season goals record in the competition by netting his 15th in only 10 games. In case anyone wondered if this was a meaningful triumph, Ronaldo proceeded to celebrate by dancing backwards and holding both palms out to the crowd, with all 10 fingers up, before flashing the back of his right hand -- pantomiming, you guessed it, the number 15. Then he decided to stand still and do the same pantomime at least four more times, even slower now, while dropping his left hand during his right's rotation for even further clarity. (It was the most sincere, accidental execution of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" dance in world football history.)
In the final, when Ronaldo scored his 17th goal on a late, superfluous penalty against Atletico, a prompt removal of his shirt, followed by actual minutes of flexing and double-fist pumps, seemed modest by comparison.
Rewatching video of these moments Sunday, in preparation for Portugal's game against Germany on Monday, I am reminded of a term in the study of Renaissance art: sprezzatura. It refers to a "studied carelessness," the masking of thought and effort with irony and nonchalance.
Tiny Messi, in all his taciturn, enchanting smoothness, embodies that self-protective notion. Cristiano Ronaldo is its diametric opposite, offensive and blunt in virtually everything he does. More than anything else, he is unsubtle -- whether he's exploding defenses with a speed that, in a game of 5-foot-7 forwards, a 6-1 pillar of muscle has no right to have, or answering postgame questions. "Maybe I'm too good," he famously once said, when asked why controversy follows him.
I mean, just look at how the man executes a wink.
We should be clear, though: Here in Salvador, Ronaldo's country will need him to be that blunt, and even that selfish. Counterattack-happy Portugal, which he single-handedly towed through qualifying, is more of a one-man team than any other in Brazil. That is the scouting report.
Consider: In order to simply make the World Cup, Portugal had to dispatch Sweden and another alpha male, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ronaldo took 53 percent of his team's shots in aggregate and scored all four of their goals. With Germany in the rain here tomorrow, the United States in Manaus next week, and Ghana in Brasilia after that, Portugal won't survive Group F if the best player in the world isn't as good as he has repeatedly proclaimed himself to be.
Ronaldo's red-shirted countrymen, now lining up at check-in desks and strolling among the surfers of Porto da Barra,
No one seems to question how good he is at sending people home.