So, the tears were real.
When Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to claim his Ballon D'Or trophy from Pele last week in Zurich, he cried real tears. He is human after all. It turns out that Ronaldo did not know he had won the award until Pele said his name -- in fact, he thought Franck Ribery was going to win it -- and when he saw his family in the audience, crying, and his son running towards him, he lost it.
The strict, stern, unsmiling 'Commander' as mocked by FIFA president Sepp Blatter at his Oxford Union address has a human side and, whether you believe the appearance of his son was stage-managed or not, it was hard to seriously dispute the final result (even if the voting journalists did).
The pictures that went around the world, of Ronaldo crying with the trophy and Pele putting an avuncular arm on his shoulder, might have had another impact: improving his image. "For those who do not know me, it must have been a big surprise to see me crying like that, because they always see me serious on the pitch -- yet those who are close to me know that I am a natural person, spontaneous too," Ronaldo told trophy co-organizers France Football this week.
Ronaldo, he said, was showing "my sensitive side." He did more of that in the interview, in which he admitted to making mistakes in the past -- "when I said people were jealous because I was young, beautiful and rich, it was a mistake. I spoke after a match where I was angry because I had not scored" -- and coping with the hostility shown to him at away games.
This image of Ronaldo was far from Blatter's version. He takes his son to school every day, naps with him in the afternoon, avoids public places to avoid stressing his family, and sometimes heads to the gym after getting back from an away match at 4 in the morning, because "it's the little details that make a big difference."
Ronaldo does plenty of charity work but did not want to talk about it, aside from mentioning some seriously ill children he is trying to help. "My parents always said: 'If you help someone, God will reward you.'"
He is still close to his childhood friends in Madeira and overall he came across as a doting dad, decent guy and uber-professional whose role models included Gary Neville, Raul, and Luis Figo.
Football loves its villains, and needs them too, but this latest interview is another example of Ronaldo is moving away from that role. It's easy for the media to paint players in absolute terms: Mario Balotelli as the crazy one, Luis Suarez as the nasty one, and Ronaldo as the arrogant one. But life is obviously more complicated than that, and the idea that Ronaldo represents bad while Lionel Messi, scoring wonderful goals and playing beautiful football at Barcelona, represents good, is a narrative that in recent weeks has undergone a significant shift.
In part, it is because Messi's story in the last few months has done him few favors. A public row with Barcelona vice president Javier Faus was set against the backdrop of his father Jorge facing allegations, since disproved, of involvement in the laundering of drug money. Last season, the Madrid press leaped upon Messi's on-field spat with David Villa, whom he berated for not passing to him during a game against Granada, and called him 'Little General' (This was long before Blatter called Ronaldo 'Commander').
On Thursday, Barcelona's overall image took a further hit when president Sandro Rosell resigned after a Spanish national court judge, Pablo Ruz, agreed to hear a lawsuit that alleges Rosell misappropriated funds from the signing of Neymar from Santos last June. The official figure was reported to be €57 million while El Mundo Deportivo alleged that the total spent by Barcelona was €95 million. Where, the paper has been asking, did €38 million go?
This happened in the same summer that Real Madrid boasted of spending €93 million on Gareth Bale. So while it highlights the clear differences in the two clubs' attitude to money -- Real Madrid sees itself as a major player in its city's economic fortunes and is proud to spend big, while Barcelona belongs to its socios, and all spending is subject to their scrutiny -- it also blurs the boundaries in this narrative of good versus evil.
Real Madrid's decision to swap Jose Mourinho for Carlo Ancelotti as coach has also made a major impact. Gone is Madrid's in-fighting, political and public barbs and general bombast as the Portuguese, whose spell in Spain was best summed up by a poke-in-the-eye to Pep Guardiola's then-assistant coach Tito Vilanova during a fractious Spanish Super Cup tie in August 2011, sought conflict in all directions.
Ancelotti is insouciant charm personified and is the perfect man to soften Real Madrid's image. Perhaps his alliance with Ronaldo has helped the striker, too. Ronaldo's achievements over the last three seasons -- more than 50 games and 50 goals in each of them -- deserve greater credit than he received at the time, when Messi was stealing his thunder.
Last week in Zurich, the boot was on the other foot. With Real Madrid only one point back in the title race, and looking ominous while Barcelona is stuttering as a collective and relying on individual brilliance to get the club through some games, this could be the start of an interesting game of catch-up for Ronaldo: first to wrestle back the Ballon D'Or, then La Liga. We are also beginning to see more of the real Ronaldo; private but professional.
"Maybe I could have done more for people to know me better, but I feel that the public realizes that I am someone who works hard," Ronaldo said.
That's true, and for a change, the simple narrative of Messi vs. Ronaldo as good vs. evil has undoubtedly shifted as well. Why can't they both be great players, and super guys too?