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No athlete in the world is quite like Cristiano Ronaldo, and he knows it


CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- There are, it seems, three groups of soccer supporters who love Cristiano Ronaldo, and they love him passionately: fans of Portugal's national side; fans of Real Madrid, his club team; and teenaged girls.

Most everyone else seems to view the 25-year-old Portuguese forward who is the most expensive player in the sport's history with a loathing generally reserved for figures whose misdeeds extend far beyond the soccer pitch. (Try, if you have a few free days of reading time, Googling "Cristiano Ronaldo" and "hate".)

Many Americans have a good sense as to why he might be the single most divisive athlete in the world today. We read in the tabloids about his dogged off-the-pitch pursuit of everything that a man of his stature and pay grade -- he makes around $16 million per year, not counting endorsements, of which he has many -- can pursue: the cars; the clothing; the watches; the jewelry; the haircuts (his current look might best be described as a gelled fauxhawk with a hint of a mullet); the nightlife; the women, ranging from models to Kardashians to, at times, those who are even more disreputable.

And we can get a very good sense of him as a player from watching him on television -- both of his talent, which is now more undeniable than ever after he scored 33 goals in 35 matches in his first year in Madrid after six with Manchester United, and of his strutting and petulant style. Having said that: nothing allows one to understand the phenomenon that is Cristiano Ronaldo like the experience of watching him play in person -- as in, say, Monday's 7-0 annihilation of North Korea by his Portugal side in Cape Town.

On display, first and foremost, was his preternatural skill. His is the type of talent that is so obvious that you can bring someone who has never before watched soccer to one of his matches, ask him or her to identify the best player on the pitch, and receive the correct answer within minutes. He seems bigger and faster than everyone else.

The shouts and gasps whenever the ball was at his feet yesterday in Green Point Stadium were so loud and so deeply felt that they overwhelmed even the drone of thousands of vuvuzelas. His talent is, quite clearly, the central reason he is so despised by those who cannot call him their own. He can and will rip your heart out -- as he did to the North Koreans -- and, quite clearly, he will enjoy the process all the while.

There are, however, other athletes out there, and not just in soccer, whose talent and ability to dominate a game equals Cristiano Ronaldo's, but no one quite so fully embraces the role of the classic villain quite so much as he does, and that side of him was also readily apparent yesterday. He carries himself in a way that suggests that he fully believes that there is no one anywhere -- not just on the pitch, not just in soccer, but anywhere -- who is as Cristiano Ronaldo as he is. He preens. He peacocks. When he stands still, a hip is always cocked to one side.

When he is not near the ball, he will jog with all the urgency of a man crossing a city street just as the light has begun to blink. When an opponent has deigned to knock him to the ground, and a foul has not been called, he will lie there, lounging, for 30 seconds or more, as if to make sure that everyone sees what someone has just done to Cristiano Ronaldo. When a teammate fails to score after receiving one of his brilliant and perfectly positioned passes -- as happened at least twice Monday -- he looks to the sky and rolls his eyes, because, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo would have scored if only Cristiano Ronaldo could have passed the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo.

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When a Portugal player who is not Cristiano Ronaldo does score -- as happened six times against North Korea -- there is no Derek Jeterian display of, I am the team captain so I always should be the first to congratulate my charge on a job well done. Rather, he will lope over to the guy and maybe give him a hug, but always quite a bit after the rest of his teammates have finished with him. He is always above the fray, even when the fray involves his own celebrating teammates.

After Portugal took a 3-0 lead in the 56th minute, and the match's ultimate outcome (and, as a result, Portugal's advancement into the World Cup's knockout stage) was no longer in much doubt, it was clear that there were above all else two things on the mind of Cristiano Ronaldo: executing fancy and breathtaking moves that might land him on highlight reels, and scoring a goal of his own. Despite his form this season at Real Madrid, he somehow hadn't scored a competitive national team goal in two years.

When his goal finally came, on his seventh shot and in the match's 87th minute, it was obviously less beautiful than he would have liked, even if it was executed with a skill that few others could match. He drove toward North Korean goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk and got momentarily tangled with him. The ball shot up into the air and bounced off the back of a spinning Cristiano Ronaldo's neck. He stayed upright, and the ball landed at his feet, with only an expanse of net in front of him. He flipped it in with the side of his foot, almost disdainfully.

He looked up and rolled his eyes once more and smiled as his teammates swarmed him. The North Koreans were mute, crushed.

After the match, a group of Americans who had been in attendance debated whether U.S. sports features any player quite like Cristiano Ronaldo -- a superhero, in every sense, to his fans, a supervillain, in every sense, to everyone else. The names of Terrell Owens and Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant were floated, but while their athletic talents match Cristiano Ronaldo's, their personalities don't seem to.

They each seem to deeply believe they are good guys who are simply misunderstood by those who despise them, and they seem to desperately want to be liked. Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't seem to care about that; he seems to believe that he is Cristiano Ronaldo, and of course you should like Cristiano Ronaldo, because he is Cristiano Ronaldo, and if you don't, it's your problem. Of course 80,000 fans will show up to a stadium on a non-game day to cheer his introduction to a new club -- as happened last July when he joined Real Madrid -- because he is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Barry Bonds, someone suggested? Perhaps -- but that comparison is clouded by his use of performance enhancing drugs. Jeff Gordon? Maybe -- but he's Jeff Gordon, and that's NASCAR. A young, "Image Is Everything"-era Andre Agassi? Closer -- but Agassi didn't reach Cristiano Ronaldo's level of athletic dominance until after he had already reformed himself as a philanthropic gentleman.

The consensus gradually emerged that there is no equivalent in American sports to Cristiano Ronaldo -- an athlete who so unapologetically incites passion and disdain in such equal measure, who is so unapologetically arrogant, who so unapologetically embraces his own villainy. That's a shame, because defeating an athlete like that makes your own heroes loom even greater, and because he's simply so entertaining and fascinating to watch.

After the final whistle mercifully blew Monday, and the North Koreans, whose workmanlike style could not have contrasted any more with the Portuguese captain's, meekly walked off into what is for them a terrifyingly uncertain future, the Green Point Stadium's scoreboard announced the player who had been named the Man of the Match. There was little doubt as to who it would be. He is, in his wholly unique way, the man of every match. He is Cristiano Ronaldo.