The ego on the ego! As Ronaldo rejoins Manchester United, PIERS MORGAN reveals the footballer is a surprisingly affable figure who’s devoted to his family and has banned his mum from big matches because she gets so nervous she faints
‘Who’s the greatest footballer you’ve ever played against?’ I asked Cristiano Ronaldo. It was 1am on the candlelit terrace of his favourite restaurant in Turin, Italy, where he was still playing for Juventus before his recent sensational decision to rejoin Manchester United.
We’d dined on a glorious feast of the finest Japanese food and Italian red wine (I drank rather more of that than he did) and chatted about everything from elite sport and politics to serial killers.
It was time for the big question. ‘Messi,’ he replied, immediately and emphatically.
‘Really?’ I said, surprised that he would name his biggest rival.
‘For sure. He is the best I’ve played against.’
Then he grinned.
‘But Piers, you are asking me the wrong question’
‘OK. What’s the right question?’
‘You should just ask me who is the greatest player…’
‘I think I know the answer,’ I replied, laughing.
Ronaldo winked and we clinked glasses. He believes he’s the best to ever play the game.
And I agree with him.
On Wednesday night, he scored two dramatic late goals to ensure a thrilling World Cup qualifier 2-1 win for Portugal over Ireland and in the process became the highest goal-scorer in the history of international football, beating a long-standing record nobody ever thought would be beaten. Well, nobody except Ronaldo himself.
‘Who’s the greatest footballer you’ve ever played against?’ Piers Morgan asked Cristiano Ronaldo (both pictured). It was 1am on the terrace of his favourite restaurant in Turin, Italy
I’ve never met anyone with a more unshakable confidence in his own abilities than him, and I’m not exactly a shrinking violet myself. It’s one of the reasons I like him so much.
‘If you don’t think you are the best,’ he explained to me over dinner, ‘if you don’t believe you are No 1 in your job, then you’re not thinking properly.’
That attitude, which some view as arrogance but I view as self-belief, has propelled him from a poor, humble upbringing in Madeira to become, if Instagram popularity is the most accurate currency of modern fame, the biggest star in the world. In fact, it’s not even close.
Ronaldo has a staggering 337 million followers on the social-media platform, dwarfing the second highest, movie actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson with 267 million, and then Ariana Grande (264 million), Kylie Jenner (263 million) and Messi with ‘just’ 260 million.
He tried to pretend to me that it didn’t matter if he was ‘third or fourth on Instagram’ because it’s not his actual job, so I goaded him into a more truthful answer.
‘But when you see how far you’re ahead of Messi, what do you feel?’
‘Good!’ he laughed. ‘I like to be No 1. But for me, the most important thing is to be No 1 at my job, football, and No 1 for my family and kids. The rest is something I can’t control.’
Of course, such phenomenal global celebrity status has brought difficulties, too.
‘Do you like being so ridiculously famous?’ I asked him.
‘Piers, to be honest, it’s boring,’ he replied. ‘To be myself is boring.’
‘I wouldn’t mind being as boring as you!’ I chuckled.
‘When it starts, it’s great,’ he said. ‘You are famous, you are a fantastic player, you win trophies, you score goals, you are on the first page of the paper, on television.
‘But after many years, you look at life in a different way. You have a girlfriend, you have kids, you want some privacy and there’s no privacy any more. My privacy has gone.’
He admitted: ‘If I had the opportunity now, I would pay to have back my privacy. People say ‘Ah, yeah, but you are rich. You have money, you have cars, you have houses’, but this is not everything. Trust me, to be too famous is not good.’
Suddenly, the grin had gone. Cristiano looked almost melancholic.
‘You know how many times I’ve gone to the park with my kids in the past two years?’ he asked.
‘If I go, so many people will suddenly arrive. The kids will be nervous, I will be nervous, my girlfriend will be nervous. I can’t go to a bar with friends because I know they’re not going to be comfortable with me there. I avoid doing that kind of thing, because the people around me will be more nervous than me.’
His great long-time friend Ricardo Regufe, who was dining with us, nodded in agreement.
‘Tell him about that night you wore a disguise in Madrid,’ Ricky suggested.
Cristiano’s eyes lit up.
‘It was soon after I joined Real Madrid in 2009 and it was New Year’s Eve and I really wanted to go out but it would have been impossible.
Ronaldo (pictured) has a staggering 337 million followers on the social-media platform, dwarfing the second highest, movie actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson with 267 million
‘So I put on a long wig and fake moustache, big sunglasses, a crazy jacket and we took our girlfriends to this hotel rooftop bar discotheque in central Madrid and we had a great time for many hours. It was one of the best nights I ever had, because I felt free again.’
‘Do you feel like you’re in a permanent cage now?’ I asked him.
‘A little bit, yes. But it’s too late to change that.’
This exchange reminded me of a conversation I once had with Princess Diana, one of the few people who could fully understand what he was talking about, due to her own astonishing fame.
‘I can’t stop being me,’ she lamented. ‘Even if I went to live on my own in an igloo in the North Pole, someone would find me. An Eskimo would knock on the icy door and say, ‘You’re Princess Diana!’ ‘
I felt sad for her then and I felt sad for Ronaldo, too, as he detailed the reality of his necessarily isolated life.
Fame is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. It brings great wealth, adulation and trappings but the permanent loss of privacy can be a crippling affliction.
Fortunately for Ronaldo, and unlike Diana, he has a very stable loving family to fall back on and spectacularly resolute mental strength.
In a woke-ravaged world that increasingly seems to celebrate failure and weakness more than success and in which quitting in sport is now inexplicably seen as brave and heroic, Ronaldo is a refreshingly unashamed advocate of winning and resilience.
‘My main strength,’ he said, tapping his head, ‘is my mind. I think it’s my strongest point. To be No 1 takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Talent is not enough. If you don’t dedicate yourself 100 per cent, you’re not going to reach the level that you want.
‘If you’re lazy, waste time and don’t put the work in, then that is going to make a huge difference, however talented you are.’
Since meeting Ronaldo in late 2019, we’ve become unlikely mates. We speak on the phone from time to time and chat frequently on WhatsApp about everything from football and fast cars to yachts, coronavirus and fatherhood.
He can be hilariously funny and candid – some of his lengthy voice messages when he’s fired up about something would make football writers’ eyes pop out.
Our relationship began in the most random of ways when he sent me a direct message via Instagram three years ago, saying: ‘Hello sir, how are you? I saw your murder documentary on Netflix. I find it fascinating to see you interview these murderers.’
Once I’d got over the shock of one of my all-time sporting heroes contacting me out of the blue, I rapidly pulled myself together and put on my professional game-face.
‘I’d find it fascinating to interview YOU one day…’ I suggested, putting out my fishing rod.
‘I haven’t killed anyone!’ he replied.
But he rang me the next day for an hour, as my eldest son – a massive Ronaldo fan – sat nearby, almost hyperventilating with excitement.
(Spencer, a sports journalist, flew out to join me in Turin after using the persuasive argument ‘Gary Lineker took his sons when he interviewed Messi’, sat opposite Ronaldo over dinner and still calls it the greatest day of his life.)
And eventually, I persuaded him to do it by using language I knew would appeal to him.
‘I want this to be the greatest interview of your life,’ I said. ‘The No 1 Ronaldo interview ever.’
He rang me after it aired to say: ‘You were right – it was the greatest! Top! No 1!’
I liked Ronaldo immediately because he’s so surprisingly direct and open and so different to his cocky, selfish media image.
‘Cristiano’s nothing like the way he is portrayed,’ his former Manchester United team-mate Rio Ferdinand, one of those who helped persuade him to return to the club, told me after my interview aired on ITV. ‘He’s a team player and a great guy.’
The real Ronaldo is warm, self-deprecating, generous, grounded and hugely liked by almost everyone who’s ever worked with him or met him. But he enjoys his polarising image.
Last year, I sent him a personalised pot of Marmite with my name on it as part of a marketing pack for my book Wake Up.
‘What IS this?’ he asked, ‘and what do I do with it?’
‘You eat it,’ I explained. ‘It’s very popular in the UK but they put my name on it because people either love it or hate it.’
‘Ahahaha! Like me!’ he replied.
They say that behind every great man is an even greater woman and in Ronaldo’s case, that woman is his mother Dolores.
‘My mum is the pillar of the family,’ he told me, ‘and what I have today is because she always supported me. She worked hard to give her best for her children and especially for me because I’m the youngest in the family.
‘She suffered to give me opportunity. I remember when I was 12 and I told her I wanted to go to Lisbon to play with Sporting Lisbon’s youth team. She said to me, ‘Son, if it’s really what you want, I’m not going to cut your legs and stop you. You can go. It will be difficult for me to leave you but go. Follow your dreams.’ ‘
What made this so poignant was that when she was that exact same age, Dolores was sent to a Catholic orphanage.
Her own mother had died when she was just six and her father couldn’t cope with bringing up five children on his own, so she was sent away, and experienced tremendous loneliness.
But that didn’t stop her taking the same risk with her own child so he could fulfil his ambition.
Now his biggest fan, Dolores gets so nervous watching Cristiano play that he’s had to ban her from going to important matches after she fainted twice in stadiums, once breaking teeth in the fall.
‘She’s not allowed now to watch big games,’ he told me. ‘I say, ‘Listen, I don’t have a father any more. I don’t want to lose my mum, too, so you’re not going to watch quarter finals, semi-finals, or finals.’
Ronaldo’s dad Dinis died from liver damage caused by alcoholism aged just 52, before his boy grew into a footballing superstar. As a young man, he’d gone to war for Portugal in Mozambique and Angola and the experience had a very bad effect on him. He turned to drink to help escape the trauma.
When I asked Cristiano about him, he said: ‘It’s hard to find the right words about my father. I really don’t know him 100 per cent because he was always drunk. But when he was serious, which was a few times, I feel he was so proud of me.
He’d buy the papers when I was in the paper. He knew that I would be a famous football player. He knew it and he gave me what he had to help me. But I really don’t know my father. We never had a proper conversation.’
In preparation for our interview in Turin, my production team found footage from a brief interview Dinis gave to Norwegian TV before the 2004 European Championships final between Portugal and Greece.
It was conducted outside the house Ronaldo had bought for his parents when he first joined Manchester United.
In it, Dinis said: ‘Family, friends and most people think it’s amazing. I’m proud to see my son in this situation. I could go to Lisbon to see the final but my nerves are too much, I can’t handle it. It’s better to see the game on TV.’
I played it to Ronaldo, who had never seen the clip, and as he watched his dad talk, he began to weep inconsolably.
‘I told you that he was a very proud father!’ he eventually exclaimed. ‘I didn’t expect to cry. It makes me sad because he didn’t see me be No 1, never saw me win awards. Nothing.’
That bitter-sweet experience has made Ronaldo determined to be the best possible father to his own four children – three born to surrogate mothers, a fourth with his fiancée Georgina Rodriguez – and to instil in them the hunger and work ethic he has.
That won’t be a simple task given that their father is worth an estimated £500 million, lives in stunning mansions, flies by private jet and owns a fleet of 20 super-cars including Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and Bugattis.
‘They have everything easy,’ he conceded. ‘They have computers, they have good food on the table, they don’t have to sacrifice a lot to get what they want. But they have to be humble. They have to work hard. They have to respect people.’
He took his oldest child, Cristiano Jr – a very promising young footballer – back to the tiny bedsit in Lisbon that he once lived in, to show him where he came from.
‘The same people were working there in the building. And the ladies started to cry when they saw me. And I took Cristiano to my small old room, and I said, ‘Daddy lived here for two years.’ And he thought I was joking. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘Daddy don’t joke. I lived here.’
‘I want to give him the best, but I also want him to suffer a little bit like I did to reach what he wants to be. He has great talent as a footballer, too, but I want to motivate him, to push him like I pushed myself.’
Ronaldo is determined to be the best father to his four children – three born to surrogate mothers, a fourth with his fiancée Georgina Rodriguez (all pictured)
Georgina is the love of Ronaldo’s life. A stunning, classy beauty, she’s become a huge Instagram star in her own right but keeps her man’s ego firmly in check.
From what I witnessed over dinner, they have a very easy, relaxed relationship based on mutual love, respect and mickey-taking humour.
‘Geo has helped me so much,’ he said. ‘She’s the mum of my kids and I’m so passionate for her. I open my heart for her, she opens her heart for me. I am so happy with her.’
Happy enough to get married?
(I’m not saying Ronaldo’s reluctant to formally settle down but when Covid-19 first erupted he forwarded me a social-media meme saying: ‘Bro, if you are experiencing the following symptoms – headache, poor eyesight, difficulty sleeping, shock, fever, easily get mad and can’t communicate properly – this is not coronavirus, these are symptoms of married life!’)
‘Don’t pressure me! Haha. But one day, for sure. It’s my mum’s dream as well. You’ll be coming to my wedding, Piers, don’t worry.’
I can’t wait – just imagine the Instagram photo/likes potential!
As Ronaldo now brings his wondrous footballing skill back to Manchester and the Premier League, he’s never been more content in his personal life.
‘I have beautiful kids, a beautiful girlfriend, beautiful family, beautiful friends. I regret nothing. For me it’s an honour to be in the position that I am now, and I appreciate that as well.’
But don’t think for a moment that contentment has softened his burning desire for more success.
It’s what drives his every waking second. Cristiano Ronaldo is a natural born winner who may be 36 but has the body of a 28-year-old and was top scorer in Serie A last season (beating Chelsea’s new superstar signing Romelu Lukaku) as well as Golden Boot winner for scoring most goals at the recent European Championships.
‘I’m addicted to winning,’ he admitted to me. ‘It’s part of my sacrifice, my obsession to win. I work for that. I don’t follow the records; the records follow me.’
Those records include being the top goal-scorer in Champions League history (134), winner of most Champions League trophies (five), scorer of most goals in competitive professional football (787), the first player to win titles in Europe’s three best leagues of England, Italy and Spain and score more than 50 goals in each, and now the top international scorer, too.
The one record that eludes him is the one he wants most: most wins of the Ballon d’Or, the coveted golden ball awarded to the year’s best footballer. He has five, Messi has six.
I wouldn’t bet against him eclipsing his great rival.
I’ve met and interviewed a lot of sporting legends in my 30 years as a journalist and broadcaster. None has impressed me as much as Ronaldo, on and off the pitch.
As Donald Trump once told me about Muhammad Ali: ‘If you talk the talk, you’ve gotta walk the walk, or the act doesn’t play. Ali talked the talk, but he won.’
Nobody in world sport talks the talk or walks the walk quite like Cristiano. Or wins like him.
And he hasn’t returned to Manchester United to lose. He’s come back to win yet more big trophies, scoop more Ballon d’Ors, and cement the ‘GOAT’ legacy he believes he deserves: Greatest Of All Time.
‘Great to have you back in the Premier League,’ I messaged him when the news broke. ‘Just please don’t score against Arsenal.’
‘Thanks, my friend,’ he replied, seconds later.
We both know he will score against Arsenal, the club he told me he very nearly joined before first signing for United. Friend or no friend, this one-man goal machine just can’t stop himself.
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