A version of this story first appeared in Howler Magazine during Euro 2016. It was then lost to the Internet. I’ve put it back online in light of Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer from Real Madrid to Juventus.
Portugal first arrived in Paris by way of the Eiffel Tower. While Fernando Santos’ men were still celebrating their qualification for the Euro final in Lyon, Gustave Eiffel’s masterpiece was bathed in their red and green. First Portugal took the Champ de Mars; Sunday they take the Stade de France.
The Eiffel Tower is a monument any country would glad to have. To wit, many have tried to rip it off. The United Kingdom, for instance, had demolished two facsimiles by the beginning of the 1920s. The USA currently has four, including one in Paris, Texas, that has been photographed with a giant cowboy hat perched on its peak.
Tall and strong though it is, the Eiffel Tower is a poor embodiment of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. That is not to say that the star forward isn’t tall and strong. Or that he doesn’t have a thing for monuments. This is the man, after all, who set out to erect a statue of his own likeness in his hometown. (And erect it he did!) But throughout Euro 2016, the Eiffel Tower has been decorated in the colours of many teams, and has worked as a visual representation of a footballer’s strength and grace on every occasion. Its obviousness doesn’t capture Ronaldo’s singular qualities.
Sunday’s final in Paris is nevertheless a homecoming of sorts for Ronaldo. The City of Light is home to the piece of architecture that most accurately encapsulates his essence: Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Centre Georges Pompidou. Opened in 1977, the art museum is an unusual structure insofar as all of technical components that might normally be hidden within a building’s cavities are mounted to its exterior. Vents and pipes, painted in garish colours, snake around the gallery spaces, forcing you to reckon with their existence. Escalators, shrouded in clear enclosures, scale the centre’s façade. This is not a building that understands discretion.
The same could very well be said of Ronaldo. Millions of words have been written about his surface qualities, and there is no denying that every inch of his body has been worked over. To understand this superficiality as narcissism or effeminacy, as some have tried to do, is to miss the point of Cristiano Ronaldo. Like the architects of the Pompidou Centre, he has made a purposeful decision to make all the structure that might otherwise be hidden visible to the casual bystander.
Cristiano Ronaldo wants you to see the work that goes into what he does, because that’s the only way of making sure you know how improbable it is. When he jumps, you see every muscle in his neck twitch. His hair — impossibly and perfectly coiffed at the beginning of every match — somehow survives 90 minutes of activity. His abs are displayed at every possible opportunity. (I have often suspected that Ronaldo would like to have an uneven number of abs so that the number of his n-pack would feature in every story.) The likes of Maradona or even the previous Ronaldo, the fat one, look like improbable athletes. Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, has carefully cultivated the appearance of obviousness.
That, perhaps, is why this paragraph from Reyner Barnham’s 1977 Architectural Review appraisal of the Pompidou Centre is also the best paragraph about Cristiano Ronaldo that you will ever read:
To come into its full physical presence is a daunting experience. For it is a menacing building which stands like a man in full armour in a room full of civilians-indeed the glittering, rounded form of the outboard escalators gives a suggestion of greaves. Even so, the menace lies, not in a chance reference of this kind, but in the concept of society, which this celebration of high technology supposes. One Centre Pompidou (like one Faber Dumas in Ipswich) is an exhilarating sight; but only contemplate what the centres of our cities would be like if they were chiefly composed of buildings of this kind and you see at once what a repellent fix we would be in.
It is not easy to come into Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence, as the many teammates caught on the receiving end of his ire could easily attest. Nor could the world be chiefly composed of Cristianos. Although Messi’s magic is more elusive, soccer fans more frequently speak of “the next Messi”. The thought of a world composed of Cristiano Ronaldo clones is not entirely appealing; one is just about enough.
Speaking of magic, that is something Ronaldo seems to oppose. Whereas Messi specializes in little moments of magic, things you’ll never understand, Ronaldo’s oeuvre is entirely explainable. He is stronger and faster and can connect with balls that no other player can. That, of course, is just a different kind of magic, an act that you are no more likely to repeat: Ronaldo is Penn and Teller to Messi’s Sigfried and Roy. Explaining the trick makes it no easier for you, the viewer, to pull it off.
Have you ever though about how the cool air in a building gets to the place where you a standing? What about the electricity for the fixture over your head? The water streaming out of your sink? None of this is magic, at least not exactly. There are surely reasons why these things happen . You know that much. You just can’t really explain it. The Pompidou Centre, like Cristiano Ronaldo, makes all these reasons apparent. It shouldn’t really surprise you that all these hidden systems, all of this hidden work go into something you value, but when you see them in action it looks like something unprecedented.
In Wim Wender’s execrable documentary Cathedrals of Culture — premise: what if these walls could talk, but actually — the final segment is dedicated to the Pompidou Centre. Voiced by the architecture critic Deyan Sudjic, the building speaks in the clipped sentences of a five year old. The 30-minute chapter is about as insightful your average Cristiano Ronaldo interview, but none of that matters. Of course the Pompidou Centre’s walls have nothing of great interest to say. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, its exterior tells you everything.