I imagine Cristiano Ronaldo as someone who’s into animals, especially horses, beautiful strong brown stallions with very glossy coats, long penises, and six-pack abs. A wise breeder has washed them with the same soft cloth, the football star and the horses, ready to run, nip their neck, and sniff at a mare, especially when a tall, tall woman wearing a low-cut flowy black blouse tucked into a pair of Old Navy jeans shows that she wouldn’t mind sharing a table. I also imagine Ronaldo gyrating his torso, the spine a straight arrow between shoulder blades, in the manner familiar to Pindar, who wrote about a “gleam of heaven-given splendor” in the Victory Odes. Seducer and seduced would take their coffee iced—the cubes rattling so kinky as to strip each smile back into a five-year-old rant—and sit heavily on their legs, like a big law textbook propped out of a backpack. Smooth as if carved by the Greek Pheidias, Ronaldo’s knees and joints almost limp from time to time, impatiently, frustratingly, suggesting that every temporary stumble is a sad relic on the way toward brilliantine, fame, and glory.
Ronaldo’s actions on and off the pitch start from the ankles, soon to encircle his victim, like thin leather sandal straps. It’s as if he imagined life being made only of middle fingers and thumbs, of savage runs to the baseline and proud monuments of beauty. “How much nakedness do you want?” he would ask the spectators. “Be honest. So few people are able to tell the truth.” Conceited as he might come across and arrogant as he truly is, he stubbornly aims for a faked, ingenious ‘sweet boy’ look—not quite the flair of an eighteenth-century gentleman at the Palais-Royal or the Hôtel de Noailles, but the grin of a mezzanine-room servant.
(Nothing, perhaps, conveys the early spirit of freedom, mobility, and excitement of the twentieth century modernity better than the bicycle. When to the instrument, like in this pivotal picture which redefines notions of body and gender, an independent, athletic girl was added, the result would be one of enhanced sexual desirability—as frightening as when Ronaldo’s cocky adventures insert an element of erotic objectification, derision, or even, moral admonition, in a sleek human machine manufactured for goals.)
There’s dim indirect yellow light, and electric red candles hanging from the ceiling, and a smell of something latex and vanilla, when Ronaldo is giving the prolonged soup-kitchen treatment to a professional masseuse, whose only fault is to read too many erotic novels about bad assfucking vampires, sniffing his way through like a golfer on a rainy pitch. Most women like her would want to be kind and forgiving in front of his ejaculating joy; or at least, thinking what a generous piece of ham steak they stuffed, they would prefer Dr. Bangwizard to a reading of Keats—lying on her tummy on top of the sheets of a bed in that expensive boutique hotel which Ronaldo had booked for them.
The early years of service at Manchester United bracket, in fact, what might be considered Ronaldo’s saintly period, marked by a less mischievous spirit and a less ambiguous morality (though they do also include the publication of a portfolio of Polaroid shots stolen by the paparazzi and several scummy indiscretions with the tenor of a phone-sex novel). It was during those years that, we felt, one could see Ferguson’s firm hand in moving Ronaldo’s striking virtuosity to the wing, like the loveseat of his first apartment. Sure, there have been nocturnal falling-outs, and yes, we heard him screaming Are You My Mother?, for instance, the way a baby bird falls out of his nest and goes around asking nonbird animals and objects if they’re his mother. But since we knew the bird would find his mother in the end, and because we laugh at people who really like the vagina, not to say because of Ferguson’s hand, we were only annoyed in a safe and pleasurable way.
As he made his way to Real Madrid, however, Ronaldo’s erotization of soccer became decidedly too long—or maybe it should be read over a longer span of time—and we also came to some conclusions about its virtues. There’s hardly ecstasy in Ronaldo’s idea of sex. He rescues sex from its traditional function as a source and expression of pain and tension, and makes it a preassembled piece of machinery whose purpose is to ironically demonstrate the impossibility of truly meaningful communication between two human beings (let alone clubmates). His powerful, powerful runs point us toward a number of alternatives that are resolutely circumscribed and constrained, or toward canned footballing and sexual fantasies involving slippy sloppy fuckfountains and maids, friends’ mothers and leather. Ronaldo’s soccer legitimizes and exalts our most personal and private sources of delight. It says everyone’s different and basically the same.
Cut to the outdoor terrace of a crowded Paris café in the 1930s. A frump of a dandy, in his thirties, has been eyeing a young woman at the next table, but hasn’t milked the courage to clear his throat and talk to her. Leaning over his object of desire, he only manages to smile, winningly. “Pardonnez-moi. I thought that there was something really interesting on the back of your newspaper.” Like somebody out of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a man like that would sound polite and charming, though obviously shy, and, if properly encouraged, he would adapt his tone to that of single white rose: “Your eyes are so beautiful I just wanted to swim in for while.”
What does this corny pickup vignette have in common with Cristiano Ronaldo? A first answer is straightforward. It’s difficult for anyone to believe that Ronaldo, or Portuguese men for that matter, need to be taught how to pick up women. Most people consider his brand of football to be a paradise of the senses—fabulous money, an excess of gym, and sex a-go-go. By the time you will reach the end of my piece, with its final suspension, another tall girl and two more gladiator sandals will have been spotted in a different coffee shop. Fleeting eye contact, but never a word spoken. Ronaldo’s companion will now be wearing thick dark eye makeup, overstrong perfume, and big ugly heart-shaped hoop earrings; tabloid journalists will fill in staccato paper biographies of the woman, while the striker himself hurries between greeting so-and-so, checking into the hotel room, and finally unzipping in front of a mirror.
In an atmosphere of such instant gratification the Portuguese invention of the vocabulary of ‘fetish’—which goes back to the colonial era, with the expansion to Mozambique and the progressive consolidation of the spice trade—will have to pedal forward to be able to emancipate from Ronaldo’s manners a normative convention of femininity.
Even the sexual bewilderment of Paris in the 1930s (still visible to the eye of the Hungarian photographer Brassaï, but soon to be bolted and barred behind the closed doors of Montmartre), with its rat-faced, voluminous clarvoyants and their grotesque gorilla-men, seems to crumble, under Ronaldo’s erotic pursuits, into an inevitable, phantasmagoric degradation: like a boulangerie that only sells dildo-baguettes, or floppy prostitutes playing pétanque in front of their parlors. But, for all his accomplishments and bundles of footballing trophies, Ronaldo’s voice is not always that of cracked alcoholic commodification. Sometimes Cristiano sighs through the cedillas of his curls like
Pépé-le-Moko gazes with tears and bitter nostalgia through the iron railings fencing off the port of Algiers—writes historian Richard Cobb—because he is on the wrong side of the Mediterranean, with his like-blood running out.
In a land of adultery and philandering, Ronaldo has less of Casanova and more of De Sade. His idea of soccer is, ultimately, a fetishized collection of lavish gestures and canon-shot exclamations; his idea of sexual achievement, perhaps, is that of a matchmaking agency: Mr. X and Madame Y, both dancers and former Club Med staff members, making out near the edge of the washbasin.
In each way, Ronaldo comes away with the imposing presence of a permanently bronzed Alpha Type, male or female, the body shouting out conflicting words—fragile, sarcastic, comical, tough, outspoken, bossy, saucy, physical. Among the night miniatures collected by Brassaï, one of the best is Chez Suzy, her body sagging without any more invitingness at the moment of payment for the room in the brothel or hôtel de passe. The radiator and the stripped architecture of the place unfolding near her prolonged arms presents a sordid yet reassuring continuity; the towel hanging around her hips has performed its duty to clean up the man, following a brief moment of pleasure. Ronaldo’s exploits, of course, are infinitely more comformist than these joyful, unhibited, almost floating times. Yet, there’s something in his amazing lateral shots, and the insolence with which they are splayed all over his body, that invites a remarkable comparison with the much-used intimacy of a brothel bedroom in the 1930s, as if no significant change had been brought in at least in the outer aspect of things.
Ronaldo is too skilled to end up at a rendezvous of the really bad boys; but if repeatedly denied in a match, he wears his frustration like a lurid wallpaper photographed by Brassaï. Soon enough, perhaps, his erotic pursuit of perfection may be superseded or slip into anonymity, like the neon-Paris has long replaced the softer gas night of the July Monarchy and the Second Empire. ♦
Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom, edited by the National Geographic, offers an account on bicycles and female emancipation. My quotation is from Richard Cobb’s English collection, Paris and Elsewhere, published in the series of the New York Review Books; I should also like to acknowledge that I took the expression “slippy sloppy fuckfountain” from Nicholson Baker’s new book of raunch, House of Holes.