Cristiano Ronaldo deserving of more respect from Real Madrid supporters
"I don't tell them to be quiet, never, I only ask that they do not whistle," Cristiano Ronaldo said in an interview with a Spanish television pitch-side reporter after scoring three times as Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich 4-2 in the Bernabeu to reach the semifinals of the Champions League.
Ronaldo's relationship with Madrid fans has been simmering on and off for the past few seasons, fuelling an undercurrent of dissent from the stands. The Bernabeu carries a well-deserved reputation as one of the most fickle crowds in Spanish football but compared to Valencia or Deportivo de La Coruna, two of many Liga heavyweights clawing their way off the canvas of sporting fate, the direction of the stadium's ire is questionable.
Ronaldo is beyond doubt the most divisive footballer of his generation. He is also unquestionably one the two greatest active players in the game. He is the player opposition fans love to hate but he has never quite managed to win over his own supporters. There is respect and admiration, but no quickened pulse when Real fans think of their number seven. Only Ronaldo's predecessor in that fabled shirt enjoys unconditional adoration.
It is probably time the Bernabeu boo boys cut Ronaldo some slack. Their memories of the lean times have been dimmed by a recent gorging on success, much of it brought about by Ronaldo's art and graft on the pitch. Before the Portuguese arrived in Madrid ahead of the 2009-10 season, Real had not been past the first knockout stage of the Champions League in five years. In eight seasons with Ronaldo in the side, they have reached at least the semifinals on seven consecutive occasions.
The years spanning the Galactico experiment and the current Real Madrid brought two Liga titles, with Barcelona in a state of flux as the curtain came down on the Frank Rijkaard era and Pep Guardiola's all-conquering side remained a twinkle in Barca B's eye. But the yearned-for Decima eluded Madrid between 2002 and 2014, despite the likes of Ronaldo Nazario, David Beckham and Robinho joining for huge fees in the sole pursuit of European glory, with the net result of a single semifinal between a Zinedine Zidane-inspired triumph in 2002 and Florentino Perez's departure in 2006. In Europe, every great white hope became a white elephant.
During the same period Porto won the Champions League, Monaco reached the final while Depor and Villarreal went deeper in the competition than the self-styled "Kings of Europe".
Ronaldo has not reversed the trend of the mid-to-late 2000s single-handedly but his contribution should not be underestimated. In the Decima-winning season he scored 17 goals but will be forever remembered for ripping his shirt off after hitting an insignificant penalty with the final already won. Almost a year ago to the day he scored a hat trick as Real came from two goals down against Wolfsburg in the quarterfinals en route to the Undecima and he again top-scored in the competition with 16, netting the final penalty in a shootout against Atletico Madrid in an unapologetic piece of stage management.
In 85 Champions League games for Real Madrid, Ronaldo has scored 85 goals. To say he is worth his weight in gold is wildly under-selling: at current prices Ronaldo's 80kg frame would fetch just shy of $3.5 million. He earned his club more than double that amount with his hat trick on Wednesday.
It may be that in Ronaldo's view there is more glister to be found elsewhere before too long. The vast sums of television revenue being thrown around and increasing investment in Europe's top clubs from afar have opened the cheque books of various suitors wide enough to accommodate the Portuguese's colossal salary. Manchester United and Sporting both hold sentimental value but only the former can back that with chips on the negotiating table. PSG and Inter, among others, have vast reserves of hard currency and a desire to sign the most bankable stars in the game.
Love may be a strong word for the relationship between a star player and fans of the club he represents and few genuinely achieve that bond in a moveable feast served only by the cold reality of financial clout. However, the Bernabeu's vocal dissenters should ask themselves a simple question: would they rather Ronaldo was wearing white and scoring three times against one of Europe's most storied clubs or decked out in another hue while knocking their own club out of the Champions League?
Ronaldo has a thick skin but those sections of Real fans determined to make him uncomfortable should be careful what they wish for. The club's top scorer and the first player to reach 100 Champions League goals can easily come back to repay the insult and don't expect him not to celebrate if he does exactly that.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.