Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima is savouring a slice of Iberian ham when I arrive at Mesón Txistu, a Basque restaurant in Madrid, decked out like a classic Spanish taberna. He knows it well. It is a few minutes from the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, home of Real Madrid, the world’s richest and most successful football club. “Even the king [of Spain] comes here,” he says, explaining his choice of venue. Ronaldo of course was part of the city’s other royalty, the wearers of Real’s famous white jersey. “Two monarchies,” he says with a chuckle.
Scorer of World Cup-winning goals, the legendary Brazilian was twice awarded the Ballon d’Or, the annual prize handed to the world’s best player. At his peak, he possessed rapid speed, befuddled opponents with dazzling step-overs, and shot with an assassin’s precision. Fans dubbed him O Fenômeno. Jorge Valdano, a former Real player and manager, once said: “Ronaldo is not a man. He is a herd.”
Now, as the Champions League nears its conclusion, I have come here to talk football with one of the all-time greats — and to find out whether a superstar striker really can transfer his skills to the directors’ box. The path from the pitch to the managerial dugout may be well trodden, but Ronaldo is in the first generation of footballers able to afford the switch to own a club.
Ronaldo is dressed in a black V-neck T-shirt and grey trousers. There are no formalities — and bundles of food. Though I am 10 minutes early, the table is laden with delicacies: a huge plate of ham, a tomato salad, skewers of Bay of Biscay anchovies alongside green olives and Padrón peppers.
The wood-panelled walls are covered in photographs of patrons including footballing luminaries such as Ronaldo himself, his “great friend” David Beckham and even his namesake Cristiano Ronaldo, who vies alongside Barcelona’s Lionel Messi as the sport’s pre-eminent celebrity. Does the original Ronaldo miss the flashbulbs, the roar of the crowd?
“Of course, people still recognise me everywhere I go, but it’s more relaxed,” he says. There is, he adds, “a chance to live now”.
His new life has been centred on a range of business ventures, including 9ine, a sports marketing agency that he founded with the one-time British advertising supremo Martin Sorrell. (Sir Martin resigned as CEO of WPP in 2018, amid allegations over his conduct, which he denied. Ronaldo says he has no knowledge of the specific claims.)
The big one came last year. In a two-year stint in London, where he learnt English, he was approached to buy unfancied sides such as Charlton Athletic and Brentford. Instead, in September he acquired 51% of Real Valladolid, a team in the lower reaches in La Liga, Spain’s top division, for €28m. This was partly a matter of good timing.
Ronaldo was a beneficiary of the sport’s Big Bang moment: the Bosman ruling, a 1995 European Court of Justice decision, made it easier for players to move between clubs, allowing the game’s elite to stack their teams full of global talent after broadcasters then paid astronomical sums to screen matches between top sides. A torrent of cash financed huge transfer deals and mega-salaries for the game’s superstars.
By the age of 21, Ronaldo had been twice transferred between clubs for world-record sums. He was reportedly once the highest-paid footballer, his gap-toothed grin adorning international advertising campaigns. He earned $200m-$250m in wages and corporate endorsements over his career, according to Forbes.
Now he is pouring some of that wealth into Valladolid, citing plans to renovate its stadium and build a training ground. And he pledges to be a different kind of owner to those he played under. “I think I have one thing that they don’t, because I played and I know what players think,” he says. “I know what they want. I know what they need.”
And what is that exactly? Well, for one, he won’t enter the dressing room before or after matches. That would be an egotistical foray into the team’s inner sanctum, breached by the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, the former president of AC Milan, media tycoon and former prime minister of Italy.
In a mock Italian accent, Ronaldo recalls Berlusconi’s tactical advice when he was playing for AC Milan. “Why did you never make a goal from the corner? It’s so easy. Put everybody outside the area and when he kicks it, everybody go into the penalty box!”
He laughs: “When Silvio said something, everybody said, ‘OK, we will do it.’ But after that we came back to our way.”
Ronaldo’s superior football experience may not be relevant for Valladolid’s players, who are battling to avoid relegation from La Liga this season. In his first match as owner, Ronaldo watched as Valladolid winger Keko missed a simple chance to score.
“After the match I told him: ‘Go easy, wait for the goalkeeper and he will decide [which way to shoot] for you.’ He looked at me and said: ‘That’s easy for you to say.’ ”
Yet more food is brought to the table: a plate of Morcilla de Burgos, sausages made with pig’s blood. Ronaldo stabs one with his fork, making appreciative noises while chewing. Awkwardly, I explain that I’m pescatarian. Keen to accommodate, he orders grilled prawns and octopus for another round of entrantes.
A waiter insists we order our mains too. Ronaldo opts for fillet of steak. Rushed through a variety of fish options, I settle on hake and suggest a side of steamed vegetables to share. Ronaldo nods, though it’s clear the greens are an afterthought. The waiter refills his glass from a bottle of red wine from Spain’s northern Ribera del Duero region. I order a Diet Coke.
All this, and I’m yet to see a menu. Ronaldo explains we are honoured guests. Rather than totalling up each dish, the restaurant will charge a set price at a heavy discount. As the dishes stack up, I imagine this is a relief to the Financial Times’ expenses department.
You can see why Ronaldo was such a popular teammate. He grew up in a small two-bedroom home in Bento Ribeiro, a working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro. The trappings of fame do not appear to have given him airs and graces.
As a child, he was offered a trial at Flamengo, a famous Rio club he supported as a boy but could not afford the bus fare to attend. He ended up at less prestigious Brazilian sides São Cristóvão and Cruzeiro before receiving a moneyspinning move to Europe with the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven in 1994. A goalscoring phenomenon, Ronaldo would go on to play for some of the biggest clubs on the continent: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan.
I remind him of a miraculous goal he scored for Barcelona against SD Compostela. Opposition players pulled at his shirt and hacked at Ronaldo’s legs during a mazy dribble from the halfway line. As the striker drilled the ball into the net, the late Sir Bobby Robson, then Barcelona manager, threw his hands on his head in disbelief. Nike, Ronaldo’s biggest commercial sponsor, created an advert around the goal with the slogan: “What if you asked God to make you the best soccer player in the world? And He was actually listening?”
On mentioning that moment of divine inspiration, Ronaldo launches into another anecdote, falling into his habit of imitating dialogue.
“Last week I was in a restaurant and a guy a little bit older than me came to me and said: ‘Hello, [remember] the goal you scored in Compostela?’ ”
“Of course I remember, yes.”
“I was there.”
“Oh, you were there? Nice.”
“No, I was there playing. I was the defender.”
Despite these great goals, Ronaldo’s career will be remembered most for the two biggest matches of his career — the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals. At the first of these, Brazil were considered favourites against the tournament hosts, France. On the day, Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit in his room during a post-lunch siesta. There was media hysteria when Ronaldo’s name was not on the initial teamsheet. But after doctors gave him the all clear, Ronaldo demanded to be restored to the starting line-up. He and Brazil performed poorly. France won 3-0.
Theories abound as to what caused the fit: mental exhaustion, deliberate food poisoning, an adverse reaction to a painkilling injection. Ronaldo remains baffled as to why it occurred. “I think people like conspiracy [theories],” he says. “So much bullshit.”
With the benefit of hindsight, should he have played? “It was not my best game. But I was fighting. I was running. I was ready to play … Some days you will not feel right and some days you feel great. It’s difficult to explain that. You see Messi playing with Barcelona, and [how] he plays with the [Argentinian] national team. It’s completely different.
“It’s not easy to play with the national team in big competitions. All the best players in the world are there, so it’s not easy to win a World Cup, especially when you play against France in Paris. All the stadium was blue.”
In football-mad Brazil, the loss shook the national psyche. There were congressional hearings into the result, focused on whether Nike, which had paid $160m in a kitwear deal with the Brazilian national team, demanded its client Ronaldo play in the final (an allegation strongly denied by all parties).
Ronaldo recalls that parliamentarians even grilled him about the team’s tactics: “[I was asked]: ‘Who should be marking [Zinedine] Zidane during corner [kicks]?’” he says. “Holy shit, it was unbelievable.”
Such experiences may help explain Ronaldo’s distrust of Brazil’s ruling elite. He was part of the leadership committee that organised the 2014 World Cup in the country, only for several football executives to be later charged with corruption by US authorities in connection with the event. That incident mirrors widespread revelations of bribery that have toppled many Brazilian politicians and business leaders, the public outrage magnified in a nation where inequality remains rampant.
“Finally the people wake up,” says Ronaldo of this outcry, before turning to his interpreter to fine-tune his phrase: “People feel that someone is listening to them.” I ask whether this means that he approves of president Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing controversialist whose pledges to stamp out corruption have gained support back home, including from famous former footballers such as Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. “I mean in general, no names,” he says.
Ronaldo has endorsed candidates in the past, only to find that they too have benefited from kickbacks: “I promised myself not to be involved any more in politics and not support anyone. I just hope for myself and for my people that we can improve as a country. No more corruption. No more hunger.”
In the years after the 1998 final, Ronaldo suffered a series of career-threatening injuries. A doctor in the US advised surgery that would have prevented him from playing again. Ronaldo ignored the diagnosis, making an unlikely comeback in time for the 2002 World Cup. He became that competition’s top scorer. In the 2-0 victory against Germany in the final, Ronaldo hit both goals. It was redemption for him — and the nation.
Before the game, Ronaldo admits to being haunted by events four years earlier: “In the final in Yokohama [in Japan], the match was at eight at night, the same time as it was in Paris. After lunch, everybody went to sleep and I [thought], ‘I don’t want to sleep, f***.’ I was looking around for some people to talk to and I found [Brazil’s substitute goalkeeper] Dida, who was so sleepy. I said, ‘No, you, please stay with me’ … I didn’t sleep that day, afraid something should happen again … Dida stayed with me the whole time.”
Ronaldo polishes off his steak. My hake, on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes, is delicious but far too much to complete. A waiter brings more steak to the table. Ronaldo puffs out his jowls in protest, sending it away. When I suggest dessert, he pats his torso, more barrel-chested than the six-pack of his youth. Dessert is a “problem”, he says. Ronaldo has piled on the pounds post-retirement. This has led to unkind comparisons. Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has said: “If I compare Cristiano with the fat one, the old one, Cristiano is better.”
But the main reason for Ronaldo’s weight gain is that he suffers from hypothyroidism, a condition which slows his metabolism. Ronaldo takes medication to counter the effect. Does he feel misunderstood? Ronaldo makes light of the issue. “I see many activists for many things. If you are black, if you are gay … [but people] call Ronaldo fat? I never heard somebody defending me,” he says with a smile. “I don’t care.”
There remains a nagging sense that for all his fame the fun-loving Ronaldo never quite made the most of his talent. A playboy in his youth, he has two failed marriages. Does he regret the penchant for partying? “No, because it never was my priority,” he says. “My priority was always football, so I don’t have regrets about that. Football players are young people … They want to go out. They want to have a girl. Normal stuff for young people, especially when you have money.”
Ronaldo insists he has grown up. He proudly shows me photos of three of his four children. Does he want more? Ronaldo forms his fingers into an imaginary pair of scissors. Snip, snip. He has had a vasectomy. But Ronaldo’s girlfriend wants a child, so he is considering a change of heart.
What, to reverse the procedure? Nothing that drastic, but more kids are possible because Ronaldo has frozen his sperm. “I have some on ice.” Enough, he says, to “make a football team”. The interpreter (who was needed only sparingly) bursts out laughing.
As he stands, the restaurant’s photographer pounces. The owner wants another picture for the walls. A queue of selfie-hunters materialises; diners, the maître d’, waiters. Even the photographer hands over his camera to also get a prized picture. After all these years, Ronaldo still draws a crowd.
• Copyright The Financial Times 2019.