Cristiano Ronaldo, Euro 2024 and the problems with too much fame

The authorities in Gelsenkirchen had taken every precaution: extra security personnel patrolled the perimeter of the Arena Aufschalke field, plainclothes guards were in the stands and two intimidating guards stood at the end of the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms.

But that still wasn’t enough. Last week, as Portugal’s players were walking to the dressing room after their loss to Georgia, a fan jumped from the top of the tunnel, evading extra security and Jump directly into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Instead of coming face to face with his hero, the intruder landed badly and fell down the stairs, but the point was made: Ronaldo’s appeal is so great that, no matter what the stadium authorities and security do, they ultimately cannot stop people from trying to take selfies with him.

It’s hard to overstate Ronaldo’s fame at this point: For two decades, the 39-year-old has been one of the two greatest footballers of his generation, breaking countless records, winning back-to-back championships and winning the Ballon d’Or multiple times as the best player in the world.

In recent years, as his career nears its end, that status has begun to fade, but it has had little impact on his wider footprint. He remains a walking poster boy. His portfolio of endorsement deals includes high fashion (Louis Vuitton), Heavy Industry (Egyptian Steel) and cryptocurrencies (Binance).

His image is of luxury watches, nutritional supplements, Japanese facial muscle tonerSaudi Arabia is now banking on his supernova to develop a top-flight soccer league, but he’s more than just a brand: he’s a special kind of aspirational figure, a combination of wealth, success and a really good skincare routine, a high-performance podcast, all wrapped up in a perfect physique.

In terms of one of modern culture’s most meaningful metrics, Instagram followers, Ronaldo has a good claim to being the most famous person alive. With 633 million followers, he has twice as many as Beyoncé. In other words, if Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram were a country, it would be the third-largest in the world.

Indeed, such was his celebrity that the first three weeks of Euro 2024 began to cause headaches for all involved.

The most pressing issue is security: All but one of Portugal’s four matches 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 intruders entered the pitch in Portugal’s opening game, the Portuguese Football Federation wrote a letter to UEFA, the governing body of European football. The letter was polite and seemed to acknowledge that the combination of social media and Ronaldo’s fame was new territory for the football world, but it urged that extra safety measures be put in place.

After six fans were allowed onto the field during Portugal’s second match against Turkey, Portugal coach Roberto Martinez acknowledged there was “concern” after one of their other star players sustained an injury. Thrown to the ground Security guards chased the man as he made a beeline for Ronaldo.

The issue is discussed at UEFA’s daily management meetings, and tournament hosts Germany have already been fined more than $21,000 for failing to ensure stadium security, but it’s unclear how many more measures will be taken. “Once you’re on the field, it’s really tough,” says Tom Richmond, founder of Security and Safety Solutions, which provides both security and safety to soccer teams and players. “All the security guys are working minimum wage. They’re not really an obstacle for people who want to get on the field.”

But there is a growing sense that Ronaldo’s fame is also a problem in the sporting world. Portugal may have reached the quarter-finals (they play France in Hamburg on Friday) but their performances have generally been lackluster. They beat the Czech Republic in their opening game thanks to a stoppage-time goal, lost their final group game to Georgia, who finished bottom of the competition, and needed a penalty shootout to beat Slovenia in the last 16.

All of these matches have a common thread: a superstar with a perfectly toned body and perfectly coiffed hair dodging fans trying to take selfies with him. Ronaldo is the only field player to have started every single one of Portugal’s matches. He is yet to score a goal. His most notable contribution so far has been a missed penalty in extra time against Slovenia, a miss that left him in tears.

But in many ways, his performance isn’t all that surprising. Ronaldo spent most of the past two seasons playing in Saudi Arabia’s reformed league, and he hasn’t played in the Champions League, club football’s highest level, since 2022.

When he was left out of the starting line-up for the World Cup match against Switzerland 18 months ago, it looked like his international career had come to a natural end. He had scored just one goal at the tournament, from a penalty. Substitute striker Gonzalo Ramos scored three goals in just over an hour. History seemed to have changed.

But Martinez clearly thinks differently. He took over after the World Cup and has been a staunch defender of Ronaldo throughout this tournament. He has made it clear that the striker’s presence is non-negotiable and, as he said last month, “on merit”. Even after the Slovenia game, Martinez was quick to declare that he was “proud” of the ageing star.

Some have tried to take the opposite position, gently suggesting that every fan with a cell phone is just as keen to take photos with people who shouldn’t be on the field as they are, but that’s hardly an easy position to take.

“When someone knocks on your door, ask not who they were, but who they are,” says Sofia Oliveira, a Portuguese journalist and broadcaster. Speaking on CNN Portugal “I’m not sure what to say,” she said after the match against Slovenia, though all her colleagues in the studio knew it, and she didn’t seem particularly keen to say it out loud.

The video quickly went viral, and the reactions were, predictably, some harsh. “It’s always difficult to question his value because we’re talking about one of the best players of all time,” Oliveira said in a series of text messages to The New York Times.

“I don’t think he has lost the ability to represent the national team,” Oliveira stressed, but added that the “current situation in his career” must be taken into account.

“It’s not the first time that it has become clear that Cristiano does not have enough footballing power to achieve undisputed status,” she said. “Portugal has options and is ignoring others to keep his status intact.”

Her view – one more commonly expressed by observers outside Portugal – is that Martinez and his employers have not left Ronaldo out, much less arranged for a replacement, and in so doing are being driven as much by Ronaldo’s celebrity as the people who have been running out of the stands to get their photos taken.

The reason can be summed up in what happened the last time Portugal tried to pass Ronaldo. In a 2022 World Cup match against Switzerland, Portugal was leading 5-0 with a quarter of the game remaining. Ramos had scored three goals. But instead of celebrating their new hero, the crowd chanted Ronaldo’s name. Sport was over, they decided. Now they wanted a show, the show they came to see.

“Cristiano himself seems to realise he’s not at the same level anymore,” Oliveira said. “It won’t be the federation or Roberto Martinez who will do that.”

That may say more about Ronaldo’s invincible status than his Instagram following: He’s so famous that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to play a football match with him in Germany, and so famous in Portugal that they’re not ready to tolerate one without him.

Andrew Das Contributed report.

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