LOS ANGELES – A cluster of 20-something males formed at the end of the silver metal fencing set up to clear an uninhibited exit for Real Madrid players from the enclosed training field to a building with showers. After a closed practice, and after signing autographs at the mouth of the exit, the players hopped into a series of golf carts which ferried them the 100 yards or so to a stairwell which took them into the UCLA building and out of sight.
"Messi! Messi!" the males at the end screamed, no matter which handful of players the golf cart brought. Then they shared their opinions of Real Madrid, yelling some words my editor won't let me print – in English or in the original Spanish.
Cristiano Ronaldo flew halfway around the world to the lazy summer campus of UCLA and this is the abuse he gets.
Few players polarize as drastically as Ronaldo. A bunch of Goal.com editors, for example, decided that, last year, he was the best soccer player on planet earth.
Ronaldo also won the inaugural award in 2008. Since then, he's lived in the shadow of a kid who had to take growth hormones just to reach normal height. Fans as far-flung as Los Angeles know that the name Lionel Messi is an insult to Ronaldo, a stick to prod him with.
It seemed that no matter how individually brilliant Ronaldo was, Messi was a fraction better. Or at least won all the awards thanks to Pep Guardiola's unprecedented haul of trophies at Barcelona. Jose Mourinho and Ronaldo didn't even bother attending last year's Ballon d'Or presentation. But then they reversed the trend: Messi ended up scoring more goals, but Madrid won the more important trophy.
Messi scored 50 in the league and 14 in the Champions League; compare with Ronaldo's 46 in La Liga and 10 in the CL. If you feel the need to hit the side of your head a few times and double-check those statistics, your reaction is completely normal. They don't feel like they belong to humans, like you and me, bound to laws of physics, like you and me.
One of the secrets to professional soccer players is that they have normal bodies. Alright, not normal – freakishly fit bodies. But normal body types. They aren't physical monsters like the guys who play the other football. Slap some jeans and a t-shirt on them, and soccer players fit into society as normal-looking 20-something males.
Ronaldo is the same. See him on the television and he's all tree-trunk neck and neck-hair-bristling power and gravity-spiting vert. Watch him train in person and he's 6-foot-1. Demigods should be taller than 6-foot-1. You could walk right up to him and look him in the eye (without craning your neck) and because you're American and he's super fit, you'd be heftier, bulkier than he is. He would feel entirely mortal.
This, to me, makes him more impressive. It's easy to demand pixelated demigods perform miracles. But when an average-looking human being is standing all fleshy in front of you, it's hard not to hold in awe some of the awesome things he can do with a synthetic leather sphere and a pair of garishly bright shoes with studs sticking out of the bottom.
Standing in those bright boots, legs slightly more than shoulder-width apart, shorts pulled up as high as your father's in those embarrassing adolescent Polaroids, is a human who plays soccer at a level higher than nearly any other throughout history. He's been unlucky to overlap generations with Messi. But, it says right there on his acrylic Goal.com 50 award, that unhappy coincidence just might be surmountable.
A full week after the Messi chants, Real Madrid trained on UCLA's campus again, back after a brief jaunt to Las Vegas to beat Santos Laguna 2-1 in a friendly. Ronaldo was the last to leave and still stopped to sign autographs of the fans who waited around in the blazing sun to see him. After Ronaldo eventually hopped on his golf cart and zipped away, a pubescent boy sprinted away toward a friend.
"I got Ronaldo! I got Ronaldo!" He held a white jersey aloft. "You got him to sign it?" His friend couldn't believe the luck. "Yeah, I had to jump over a fence, but I got it." They fingered the white shirt gingerly, examining in the flesh of their hands the artifact a demigod had left behind.
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