The star and his brand

Cristiano Ronaldo... a money-making machine.-AP

The Portuguese golden generation is gone. Luis Figo and his team-mates, who made it to the final of Euro 2004, are history. Now it’s the turn of Cristiano Ronaldo, writes Ignacio Naya.

It was January, and it was cold in Old Trafford. Cristiano Ronaldo had just scored the first goal of the game, but the best was yet to come.

Free kick, three steps back and a deep breath, then an acceleration, a dry kick on the ball and an impossible flight: up, down, with a bend and in through the top corner of the goal.

“It was without doubt the best free-kick I’ve seen in the Premier League,” Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said after the game.

Like other spectators, Ferguson felt the temperature rise several degrees at the Theatre of Dreams. Ronaldo himself celebrated the goal with a gesture that mixed surprise and satisfaction, as if thinking, “What a goal I just scored!”

That is, in fact, the feeling that keeps swamping those who have watched in amazement over the past two years the explosion of a talent whose intricate play used to prompt more suspicion than expectation.

The Portuguese striker is young, handsome and glamorous. When he arrived in Manchester in 2003, he seemed to be the ideal man to fill the space left vacant by England midfielder David Beckham at the club’s busy marketing department.

However, it needed more than a nice smile and a golden earring. Now, at 23, after his fifth season in the Premiership, Ronaldo has a definite image. He is a star on the pitch: he plays vertically, he is fast and he scores many goals.

He has left Beckham behind him, and he has approached myths like George Best, whom he beat as the Manchester United player with most goals in one season. Besides, he did this in his first game as team captain.

“He is mentally strong, he is physically strong, he is a very important player for his club, he scores goals. At this moment he is the best player in the world,” Real Madrid’s Portuguese defender Pepe said in no uncertain terms.

Indeed, Ronaldo has it all. He is the great icon of a club that boasts the greatest number of fans in the world. His childlike face, his short sideburns and his metrosexual look are a money-making machine.

The Portuguese helps Nike, Banco Espirito Santo, Coca-Cola and Fuji sell their products, and his face is the visual attraction of the football video game ProEvolution Soccer.

The striker has his own brand of clothing, CR7, whose first store opened recently in his native town, under the management of his sisters Katia and Elma. “Of course, the metrosexual nature of CR7 is an act of fine balance in the market for attractive footballers,” said the Swiss magazine Goal, recalling that Ronaldo’s agents steered the careers of David and Victoria Beckham.

“A little gay is fantastic, but too gay would scare off half the market, hysterical girls in love,” the magazine explained.

Ronaldo lives in an 8-million-dollar villa on the outskirts of Manchester. In his garage there is a BMW M6 and a Porsche Cayenne Turbo. And according to British media, he gets about 12 million dollars a year from Manchester United alone, following a lucrative new contract that ties him to the club until 2012.

His life was not always like that. Ronaldo was born in Funchal, on the Portuguese island of Madeira, to a humble family that lived in an improvised, metal-roof house. His father died young, at 52, following a life marked by alcohol abuse. And his first steps in Lisbon — where he travelled after standing out at the small club Andorinha — were full of nostalgia.

Still, Ronaldo stood out at Sporting Lisbon, and he soon caught the eye of his compatriot Carlos Queiroz, Ferguson’s aide. Queiroz decided to sign him when the player was 18, although he has admitted that he did not even suspect just how great his potential was.

The Portuguese now looks like a Ballon d’Or. In 2007, the Brazilian Kaka beat him to it based on his titles and goals with Milan. But now there is little whose shine can match that of Manchester United and the Premiership.

That may well be why Cristiano Ronaldo stayed at the English club following the 2006 World Cup. In that tournament, he clashed badly with Manchester United’s England striker Wayne Rooney, who was sent off, and the Portuguese was hated by what seemed to be the whole country.

Two years later, however, England is at his feet. And the whole world could be too, if he shines at Euro 2008.

The Portuguese golden generation is gone. Luis Figo and his team-mates made it to the final in Euro 2004 and got to the semi-finals in Germany 2006. But now they are history.

It is Cristiano Ronaldo’s turn. And, as The Guardian said in a piece on the player, the best is yet to come.