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Cristiano Ronaldo, Euro 2024 and the Problem With Too Much Fame

As far as the authorities in Gelsenkirchen were concerned, every precaution had been taken. Extra stewards patrolled the perimeter of the field at the Arena AufSchalke. Plainclothes security staff members were in the stands. And two imposing security guards stood at the edge of the tunnel that led to the locker rooms.

And yet even that was not enough. As Portugal’s players trudged to the dressing room after their defeat to Georgia last week, a fan circumvented the additional layers of security by hurling himself over the top of the tunnel and jumping directly into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Rather than coming face-to-face with his hero, though, the interloper botched his landing and fell down a set of stairs. The point, though, had been made. The lure of Ronaldo is such that, no matter what the stadium authorities or the security services do, it is ultimately not possible to stop people from trying to take a selfie with him.

Ronaldo’s fame, at this stage, cannot really be overstated. Now 39, he has, for 20 years, been one of the two finest soccer players of his generation: a breaker of innumerable records, a serial champion, a multiple winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player.

That status has started to wane in recent years as the clock ticks on his career, but it has had little impact on his broader footprint. He remains a walking billboard. His portfolio of endorsements 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 muscle toners. Saudi Arabia is currently trying to grow an entire top-level soccer league in the light of his supernova. He is, though, more than a brand; he is a particular kind of aspiration, a blend of wealth, success and a really great skin care routine, a high-performance podcast rendered in perfect flesh.

By one of the metrics that modern culture has decreed to be most meaningful — the number of followers you have on Instagram — Ronaldo has a reasonable claim to being the most famous human in existence. He has 633 million followers, twice as many as Beyoncé. Put another way, if Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram were a country, it would be the third-largest in the world.

Indeed, such is his celebrity that, during the first three weeks of Euro 2024, it has started to present everyone involved with a headache.

Most immediately, it is a security issue: All but one of Portugal’s four games at the tournament have been interrupted by one or more fans trying to enter the field to take a selfie with Ronaldo.

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

After Portugal’s second game — against Turkey, when a half-dozen fans entered the field — Portugal’s coach, Roberto Martínez, admitted that it was becoming a “concern” after one of his other stars was knocked to the ground by a steward chasing a man making a beeline for Ronaldo.

The matter has been discussed at UEFA’s daily operational meetings, and Germany, the tournament’s host, has been fined more than $21,000 already for failing to keep its fields secure. Quite how much more can be done, though, is unclear. “It is really difficult once they are on the field,” said Tom Richmond, founder of Security and Safety Solutions, a firm that provides both of those things to soccer teams and players. “The stewards are all on minimum wage; they are not really a barrier to anyone who wants to get on the field.”

But there is a growing feeling that Ronaldo’s fame might be a sporting problem, too. Portugal might have reached the quarterfinals — it will play France on Friday in Hamburg — but its performances have largely been uninspiring. It beat the Czech Republic in its opener only thanks to a stoppage-time goal. It lost its final group game to Georgia, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. It needed a penalty-kick shootout to overcome Slovenia in the round of 16.

There is a common thread between all of those games: the perfectly toned, immaculately coiffured superstar fending off selfie-hunting fans. Ronaldo is the only outfield player to have started all of Portugal’s games. He has yet to score a goal. His most notable contribution so far was to miss an extra-time penalty against Slovenia, a failure that led to him breaking down in tears.

In many ways, though, his performances have not been any great surprise. Ronaldo has spent much of the last two seasons playing in Saudi Arabia’s revamped league. He has not played in the Champions League, the highest form of club soccer, since 2022.

His international career seemed to have drawn to a natural close during the World Cup, 18 months ago, when he was dropped from the starting lineup for a game against Switzerland. He had scored only once in the tournament at that point, from the penalty spot. His replacement, the striker Gonçalo Ramos, duly scored three times in a little more than an hour. The page, it seemed, had been turned.

Martínez, though, evidently feels differently. Hired after the World Cup, he has been resolute in his defense of Ronaldo during this tournament. The striker’s presence, Martínez has made plain, is both nonnegotiable and “on merit,” as he put it last month. Even after the game against Slovenia, Martínez was quick to proclaim how “proud” he was of his aging star.

While there are others willing to put the other side of the argument — to suggest, delicately, that all of those cellphone-wielding fans are seeking a photo with someone who, like them, probably shouldn’t be on the field — it is not an easy position to take.

“When someone knocks at the door, you don’t ask who they were, you ask who they are,” the Portuguese journalist and broadcaster, Sofia Oliveira, said on CNN Portugal after the game against Slovenia. All of her studio colleagues knew it, she said, but they did not seem especially willing to say it out loud.

The footage 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.

Ms. Oliveira was keen to stress that she does “not think he no longer has the quality to represent the national team,” just that “the current moment in his career” should be taken into account.

“This is not the first competition in which it is clear that the current Cristiano does not present enough soccer arguments to an undisputed place,” she said. “Portugal has options and, in order not to undermine his status, we are ignoring other players.”

Her view — one more commonly expressed by observers outside Portugal — is that Martínez and his employers are not prepared to omit or even substitute Ronaldo. And that in doing so, they are effectively no less compelled by his celebrity than those running from the stands in the hope of getting a photo.

The reason for that is encapsulated by what happened the last time Portugal tried to move beyond him. In that game against Switzerland in the 2022 World Cup, the Portuguese led by 5-0 with a quarter of the game remaining. Ramos had scored three times. Rather than celebrate a new hero, though, the crowd chanted Ronaldo’s name. The sport was over, they had decided. Now they wanted the show, the one they had come to see.

“It’s almost asked that Cristiano himself realizes he is no longer at the same level,” Ms. Oliveira said. “It won’t be the federation or Roberto Martínez who will do it.”

More than his Instagram follower count, that may be the best measure of Ronaldo’s untouchable status. He is so famous that one country, Germany, is finding it increasingly difficult to stage soccer games with him. And he is so famous that another country, Portugal, is not prepared to countenance playing any soccer games without him.

Andrew Das contributed reporting.

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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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