Cristiano Ronaldo: What we do in the shadows

(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

It was the summer of 2009 and the biggest transfer in football history was about to be announced. The gangly eighteen-year-old with crooked teeth, greasy hair and dodgy trousers, that arrived at Old Trafford four years before was about to take the next step on his journey towards becoming a global icon. 70,000 people would turn up to see Real Madrid present Cristiano Ronaldo as their new player. 

AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images)

The Ronaldo that turned up at the Bernabeu was an entirely different beast to the one who had been savaged during so many of his early Premier League appearances. The unnecessarily flamboyant stepovers that agriculturally minded opposition players found irresistible were gone, replaced with decisive, compelling action on the ball. His body, most frequently seen airborne after a hearty challenge, was the sporting equivalent of a teak mantelpiece; solid, difficult to miss and with contours and recesses upon which one could spend hours gazing. Running into it was the province of the brave and the foolish only. 

We know what happened next. Over the next nine years Ronaldo would become the global icon he’d dreamed of since leaving home at the age of eleven. 

In 2003, when he signed for Manchester United, Ronaldo’s aim was to emulate David Beckham. Beckham was the first player to translate recognition on the pitch to revenue streams off it and while Cristiano Ronaldo began his career on the same path, he quickly eclipsed the England captain. Beckham’s reach was created and maintained through the mechanism of tabloid celebrity, not least because of his marriage to former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Ronaldo is more of a stats man.

If Beckham was John Connor, practicing free kicks on the training ground while simultaneously inventing ‘pretty footballers in hairbands’ chic, Ronaldo was the Terminator. Global domination was the target and the means to get there was to become a machine capable of a thousand sit ups a day. Not even Messi could perform such feats of metronomic athleticism. 

The summer of 2009 was a pivotal moment in Ronaldo’s career. More pivotal than any of us imagined until eleven years later, when German newspaper Der Spiegel published an interview with a woman alleging the player raped her in June that same year. Kathryn Mayorga’s claims are vivid and precise – perhaps not to everyone but to many – and sufficiently damaging to have seriously derailed a twenty-four year old athlete’s career at a critical juncture. 

But that didn’t happen. The Der Spiegel article states that after reporting the incident to the police and entering into negotiations with Ronaldo’s team of lawyers, Kathryn Mayorga accepted $375,000 (a week’s pay for him) in return for remaining silent. 

This is not an uncommon way to settle rape cases in the USA, but other factors conspired against Mayorga ranging from the fact Ronaldo is not a US national and difficult to charge to police telling her that a consensual kiss undermined her case. She also gave him her phone number and went back to his hotel room, albeit accompanied by a friend, and as we know these optics are everything when it comes to the credibility of rape victims.

It’s significant that it’s not just Cristiano Ronaldo who benefitted from this conspiracy of silence. Agents, managers, lawyers, the media, clubs, sponsors, the football industry itself, have all made a lot of money from his brand. It is darkly comic that Ronaldo himself responded to the allegation being made public in 2018 by stating: 

“Keen as I may be to clear my name, I refuse to feed the media spectacle created by people seeking to promote themselves at my expense”. 

This is Ronaldo. More brand than man, a rare commodity to be traded in, but it is a traumatised woman who is guilty of self-promotion?

A significant amount of Ronaldo’s income comes from sponsorship; he currently has a ten year endorsement deal with Nike said to be worth €162m a year. These contracts contain moral clauses that would be invoked were he to be charged with a sexual offence. The silence he bought was worth hundreds of millions, not just to Ronaldo himself, but to the entire sporting industrial complex constructed around him.

It was confirmed yesterday that Cristiano Ronaldo is returning to Manchester United, where it all began. 

The media are covering the story with eyes firmly forward. Ronaldo’s career, goalscoring and assist record, honours and age have been discussed extensively, but few outlets have addressed the allegations head-on. 

The stock answer to the conundrum seems to be that if it has not been criminally prosecuted we cannot pass judgement. Leaving aside for a moment the fact only a fraction of rape cases so much as see a courtroom, there is so much else upon which these experts in their field could expand, and yet they remain wedded to the sporting narrative alone.  

The refusal to dissect the cultural cognitive dissonance; this legend cannot be mere man, with the same frailties and dark impulses contained within him. The presumption of innocence we afford all footballers, not just Ronaldo. The onslaught of fan fury towards any woman who suffers at the hands of a footballer: slags, whores, mercenaries on the make. Were it not for the details of the NDA being made public Mayorga would simply have been dismissed as a disgruntled groupie looking for a payday. Ronaldo’s own account in the NDA disclosed by Der Spiegel is uncomfortable reading. 

“I entered her from behind. It was rude. We didn’t change position. 5/7 minutes. She said that she didn’t want to, but she made herself available … But she kept saying ‘No.’ ‘Don’t do it.’ ‘I’m not like the others.’ I apologised afterwards”. 

If these words are in the public domain and we choose to ignore them, what does it say about us?

This is not something female football fans confront comfortably. We too marvelled at that seemingly superhuman pairing of skill and power; the seemingly effortless ability to stand over a ball from 30 yards and place it in the top corner. None of us want this legacy tarnished, but an estimated 20% of women have experienced sexual assault – if it’s not us it’s one of our friends or family – and the awful reality of it is stamped on our psyche. We have to confront the fact that while Ronaldo bought silence enabling him and all connected the Ronaldo™ to thrive and flourish, while Mayorga simply sat with that trauma in the knowledge the payoff was the only approximation of justice available to her.  

Can you see how that hurts? How disempowering it is to constantly hear about powerful men being cosseted and indemnified simply because they are masters of their craft?

Powerful men, drunk on their own mythos, view their entitlement to women’s bodies. Ignoring pleas to stop is “rude”, a social faux pas, but surely it can’t be rape? As a society, we impose gradations of sexual assault, with violent stranger rape the only iteration we regard as truly brutal. Surely it can only be an honour and privilege to be in the company of a footballing legend? Many genuinely cannot comprehend how traumatic, how violating and emotional scarring rape is if you aren’t also beaten up, or if the perpetrator is not a gruff stranger in a back ally. 

We are all so invested in the narrative of Ronaldo, the boy we saw become a man who dazzled us with his unique skill and precision, coming “home” to Manchester in the twilight of his career. It is hard to square this with the allegations against him; we don’t want hard reality to impose on a fairytale. 

But this reality and its far-reaching implications are something a civilised society must face head-on.

By Kelly Welles & Sam Whyte.

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