Pitch invaders, lookalikes and a steward’s slide tackle: Ninety minutes in the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo’s star power overshadowed an entire match when Portugual played Turkey – with a hold over fans, photographers and even his own manager

Miguel Delaney
Dortmund
Sunday 23 June 2024 11:41 BST
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Ronaldo and Portugal squad train ahead of Group F encounter with Turkey

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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If it had been thought that the cult of Cristiano Ronaldo was diminishing, you only had to listen to the man who is notionally supposed to be his superior. Portugal manager Roberto Martinez was asked about Bruno Fernandes’ goal in the 56th minute against Turkey, which to most people looking on would have just been a striker squaring to his teammate for an easy finish; think Brian McClair to Paul Ince in the 1994 FA Cup final. The only notable thing about it was that someone as intensely obsessed with his own scoring record as Cristiano Ronaldo had actually passed the ball, but that kind of surprise wasn’t really the emotion that Martinez was conveying. He was going for more.

“It is fantastic to have Cristiano, who is an out-and-out goalscorer who lives for the goal and then he gets in front of the goalkeeper, and he looks for the pass to Bruno Fernandes. It is a pure moment of Portuguese football, that should be shown in every academy in the world, and that means more than any goal.”

It does, but not in the bizarre manner that Martinez intended. This entire occasion at Westfalonstadion – which in any normal situation would have simply been a convincing win from a team asserting themselves as one of the best at Euro 2024 – was instead a case study in uber fame.

Cristiano Ronaldo reaches out to hug a young pitch invader
Cristiano Ronaldo reaches out to hug a young pitch invader (Getty Images)

This is beyond football. This isn’t like the purely football-based adulation of Diego Maradona. It is really beyond the level of most of the biggest celebrities in the world. Many of us will have been to matches involving Ronaldo, of course, but there’s something about him appearing at an international tournament and a wider audience that lays bare just how odd this is. You have to be around it to really grasp it.

There were little moments that all helped illustrate the scale of his fame, and not just the pitch invaders of escalating age. From the very start, as the teams lined up, virtually every photographer on the pitch was in front of Ronaldo. Those that were not were in the press box, pointing cameras at the executive box behind, which featured Ronaldo’s girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez and the rest of the extensive camp. A burly security guard stood behind the player’s eldest son and understandably warned people not to take photos of the children.

Ronaldo was targeted by half a dozen pitch invaders
Ronaldo was targeted by half a dozen pitch invaders (AP)
Security failed to prevent fans reaching the star
Security failed to prevent fans reaching the star (Getty Images)

This is the more serious side of that kind of fame, beyond the circus. But there was an awful lot of circus, not least the Ronaldo lookalike who seemed to speak amicably to the security people as if he already knew them.

The headlines of the day were dominated by the six pitch invaders who tried to get selfies with Ronaldo. That is an absolutely absurd sentence, but this is what many people are attracted to. Such stories will do numbers; Ronaldo numbers, even if that pass to Bruno Fernandes meant he has now gone on his longest ever run without a goal in a tournament.

Bernardo Silva, who scored the first goal, was one of the many members of the Portuguese camp asked about it all.

“It’s just a bit annoying in terms of always having to stop the game because a fan enters the pitch. That’s the price you pay for being so recognised in the world of football.”

Ronaldo seemed to be feeling the cost. By the time of one of the last pitch invaders – again, an absurd sentence – the player threw his arms up in the air in agitation. He does actually just want to play football, or try to, at this point. Ronaldo tried to remove the guy’s arm as security pulled the invader away. Later on, when the game finished, and Ronaldo rolled his eyes at another, this person just pleaded for one picture.

That’s what it was for them. A lifetime moment. That’s also why Bernardo Silva was in part wrong. This isn’t just “recognised in the world of football”. This is proper, global, historic fame. Who in history has been more known all over the world than Ronaldo? Donald Trump? Tom Cruise? Taylor Swift? William Shakespeare? Jesus Christ?

None of this is a joke. With 632 million instagram followers, Ronaldo's is the most followed account by 129 million people. The next most is Lionel Messi, but it feels like Ronaldo’s courting of different levels of culture puts him on an entirely different plane.

As to what it says about football, maybe it’s the modern sport taken to its logical extreme conclusion. Historians like Tom Holland talk about football being by far the most popular cultural pursuit that has ever existed, crossing more borders than anything else, so it is maybe inevitable that one of its best and most glamorous players is going to reach this level of adulation. The super-hero physique obviously helps, fostering this kind of phenomenon.

Ronaldo created Bruno Fernandes’ goal against Turkey
Ronaldo created Bruno Fernandes’ goal against Turkey (AFP via Getty Images)
Portugal coasted through to the last 16 at Euro 2024
Portugal coasted through to the last 16 at Euro 2024 (PA Wire)

It is of course something Ronaldo has cultivated and created, too. Both he and Messi ushered football into a new age, and not just of pure sporting standards. Mega industries were created around them, to the point the clubs most spiritually associated with them couldn’t afford them any more. Ronaldo’s wages forced Florentino Perez to rethink Real Madrid’s entire financial approach. Messi’s came close to bankrupting Barcelona. Both were factors in the attempt to create the Super League.

Nothing like it has ever been seen. Nothing like it may ever be seen again. If so, maybe this doesn’t say much at all, and this is unique. Either way, football has something to deal with.

Uefa has been contacted for comment. This is where we are. As regards breaches of security, the European governing body say “the disciplinary body will await reports before deciding on any action”.

Bernardo Silva meanwhile added he didn’t feel “endangered”. And yet actual physical harm came to one of his teammates. Ronaldo had frustratedly stood back as stewards sprinted after one of the last pitch invaders. They were going in with such force that one of them slipped into the striker Goncalo Ramos as if it was a reducer, leaving the forward hobbling.

You can decide on your own symbolism about how Ramos is supposed to be Ronaldo’s replacement.

Should the security detail not be stronger for someone this famous?

This is why Paste magazine doesn’t feature bylines on reviews of Taylor Swift albums, because the writers get subjected to so much abuse. That is what this level of fame does. By the same token, you probably only have to look at some of the social media responses to this article.

Criticism of Ronaldo doesn’t tend to go well. Maybe that partly explains Martinez’s comment.

By the end of all that, though, it felt rather different to a “pure moment of Portuguese football”. Martinez was probably right, however, that it was more than just a pass or a goal.

Rodriguez, Ronaldo’s girlfriend, had watched on impassively. Hundreds of millions of others would have much more animated reactions.

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