There are supposed to be about 1,300 words in this article. It is tempting to just spend 1,287 of them listing the things that Cristiano Ronaldo has done at Real Madrid – and there are more than enough of them to take up all that space, that is for sure, from the two Champions League titles to the 395 goals – and then leave just enough room at the bottom to add: “On Tuesday night at the Santiago Bernabéu some Real Madrid fans whistled him. Dicks.” On one level at least that would probably sum it up quite nicely and we could all get on with life but while it can look that simple, it’s not always.
Cristiano Ronaldo was whistled on Tuesday. You might not have heard it on television and you might not have heard it if you were in the stadium either but he did and at one point he lifted his finger to his lips. “I don’t tell them to be quiet, never, I only ask them not to whistle because I always give my best in every game. Even if I don’t score goals, I try to work hard to help Real Madrid,” he said after a Champions League quarter-final in which he scored a hat-trick. Real Madrid knocked out Bayern Munich 6-3 on aggregate and Ronaldo scored five.
His statistics might look like they broker little argument and they certainly do not invite whistles but there is an argument: stupid though it sounds, he wasn’t playing well on Tuesday. When the whistles came, Madrid were struggling and it seemed likely they would get knocked out. Ronaldo had slipped over a couple of times and rarely looked a threat. When he was sent running through, his shot was saved at the near post by Manuel Neuer when some supporters thought he should have played in Karim Benzema. It wasn’t until the 76th minute that he had a decisive impact but by the end he had scored a hat-trick, his 41st for the club. He has 100 Champions League goals.
Daft though it may appear when he has 31 goals this season, for the first half of the campaign he wasn’t playing well, although he has been impressive since Christmas. He didn’t always play that well last season either and yet it ended up being the best of his career: a double European champion and the winner of the Ballón d’Or for the fourth time. He is evolving: more a No9, less a player who dominates games. It just so happens he is about the best No9 you could imagine. “I don’t know who doubts Cristiano Ronaldo,” Cristiano Ronaldo said after the victory over Bayern Munich.
He also noted the people “who love me” don’t doubt him. The whistling wasn’t loud and it wasn’t done by that many. The majority of Madrid fans cheered him on Tuesday night and every night. They didn’t whistle but he heard the ones that did and it stung. Maybe that is human nature and even if it is a few, you may wonder why it is any at all: Ronaldo certainly does.
Madrid’s fans have cheered Ronaldo and they chant his name. They have celebrated his successes as their own. In the summer, they wanted Portugal to win the European Championship. When he won the Ballon d’Or, a gold mosaic engulfed the Bernabéu. They fight his cause in the endless debate against Lionel Messi as if it was another title for Madrid and a succession of managers and team-mates have said he is the best player in the world. Thousands of supporters wear his shirt – more than wear anyone else’s – but still some have whistled him and the Bayern game was not a one-off.
His frustrations are played out on the field, externalised and ostentatious, and when he reacts to the fans’ frustrations it doesn’t help. If he mutters something under his breath, it makes the news, lip readers reveal his words. The way he plays contributes to it, as does his body language, that hint he is an individual in a team sport; the way it can sometimes appear to be about him. There is something about the way players and managers talk about him being the best that could feel forced, too: Rafael Benítez’s baffling reluctance to do so contributed to the manager’s downfall at Madrid.
While Ronaldo’s triumphs have been celebrated some fans think the team should have won more; this is Madrid, after all. He is the holder of the Ballon d’Or, a player who, with Messi, has dominated European football for a decade. The demands at the Bernabéu are gigantic; you have to be perfect, especially if you are the best in the world. Besides, everyone gets whistled at Madrid; whenever the issue is raised you are remind of that. Gareth Bale has been whistled , Zinedine Zidane tells people it has happened to him, even Alfredo Di Stéfano got it at times.
Many of Madrid’s fans are entitled and eternally unsatisfied, always wanting more. Especially from Ronaldo: he has set the bar so ludicrously high for so long it is easy to fall short. His “rubbish” is everyone else’s best game ever, their best season, their dream night. Madrid fans want more from his team than they have had: this is his eighth season; they have won one league title – although two Champions Leagues in three years takes some beating and they are on course for another. Somewhere beneath the surface, perhaps that becomes an implicit accusation aimed at him.
Ronaldo once suggested Madrid would be in a better position “if everyone was at my level”. That kind of comment does not go down well but what if he is right? Look at his contribution and he has a point; he is entitled to think he has done his bit – enough to be appreciated, enough not to be whistled. He is emotional but when you have scored more goals than anyone else in the club’s history it must be odd to observe the affection the fans feel for you is not unanimous. Ronaldo can be over-sensitive but wouldn’t you be? And, anyway, what good does whistling do?
That might just be the point. The significance of whistling can be overstated, especially if seen from outside Spain. There is another reason it happens: because it just does. It’s one of those things football fans here do, especially at the Bernabéu. Everyone gets whistled, even the best players. That line gets trotted out always, including by players who have experienced it: it is just a fact, something everyone accepts. But should it be? Should it not be challenged? Was Ronaldo making a point that more should have made?
Beyond all the other issues, beyond the question of whether or not it is fair, beyond the fact it is worth insisting again it’s really not that many of them, might it not be a bit ridiculous to upset a player who you want to perform well, a man you’re relying on? Doesn’t that make them dicks? Aren’t supporters supposed to, well, support? It is not like Ronaldo – arguably the most relentless, self-made footballer of his generation – lacks commitment. There is hurt in his words: “I only ask them not to whistle because I always give my best in every game.”
Or is that a warped view? Do the whistles and the demands drive players on? On Tuesday at the Santiago Bernabéu some Real Madrid fans whistled Cristiano Ronaldo. He then completed a hat-trick to take them to the Champions League semi-finals.