LISBON, Portugal — There is no statue yet in Lisbon to honour Cristiano Ronaldo — only Eusebio has one of those — but it is not as if there are a lack of reminders of Portugal’s greatest living sportsman around the capital city.
Billboards carrying Ronaldo’s image promote everything from sportswear to blankets. Even the Real Madrid forward’s mother, Maria Dolores dos Santos Aveiro, teams up with her son in a commercial for communications company Meo which sees the two play out a modern-day version of “Home Alone”, with Ms Santos Aveiro only remembering her son is ‘home alone’ when she takes off on a flight.
Images of Ronaldo and his mother look down at commuters in seemingly every carriage on Lisbon’s Metro system, so there really is no escape from the man who will return to play against his former club, Sporting, for only the second time on Tuesday since leaving to join Manchester United for £12.24 million as an 18-year-old in August 2003.
Ronaldo is back, but spending half a day in Lisbon is enough to suggest that he has never really gone away.
The front page of Record, Portugal’s daily sports newspaper, on the day of Ronaldo’s arrival in Lisbon on Monday was a picture of the 31-year-old, half in a Sporting strip, the other half in the colours of Real, under the headline “Divided Loyalties.”
Diario de Noticias produced a two-page spread on the “making of Ronaldo,” turning back the clock to the player’s days as a young boy in Lisbon, following his arrival from Madeira. It tells the story of Ronaldo’s visits to his favourite restaurant O Magrico, and displaying images of his unremarkable old apartment on Avenida Duque de Loule, close to the site of the hotel which now bears his name.
And the Pestana CR7 Hotel, in the Chiado district of Lisbon, is no ordinary hotel.
On check-in, one of Ronaldo’s quotes — “Your love makes me strong, your hate makes me unstoppable” — greets you at the reception and a video screen in the bar to the left allows guests to stand alongside footage of a ball-juggling Ronaldo as though they are actually standing next to the man himself.
Walk into the lifts and a mirror on the back wall becomes a video screen, with each floor chronicling a different year of Ronaldo’s career, showing images of him in the colours of Sporting, United, Real and Portugal as you climb the building.
But just in case you had forgotten where you were and who the hotel was a living monument to, once you step out of the lift, the “Viva Ronaldo” chant from his days at United is piped through speakers in the corridor.
While it may seem little more than an exercise in hubris to have a hotel carrying your name, Lisbon has now grown to love Ronaldo, despite his quirks and faults.
A product of Sporting, he will always enjoy the affection of the supporters of that club — special messages are set to be unveiled by fans at the Real game on Tuesday — who have not forgotten his refusal to celebrate the goal he scored for United on his only previous return to the Estadio Jose Alvalade in September 2007.
It has been a different story with supporters of Benfica, Lisbon’s biggest club and Portugal’s most famous team, who jeered and whistled the teenage Ronaldo when he played at Estadio da Luz with United in December 2005.
Ronaldo reacted by flicking an obscene gesture to his tormentors, which only served to increase the volume, but when he went back to Benfica with United the following September, his heroics in helping Portugal to the 2006 World Cup semifinal had earned him the respect of those previously hostile fans.
And so it has gone ever since, with his passion for Portugal winning over those who once enjoyed baiting him. Jorge Jesus, the Sporting coach, admitted ahead of Tuesday’s game that it would be his “dream” for Ronaldo to return to the club, even as a 37 or 38 year-old when his Real contract expires.
The prospects of that happening remain slim, with MLS expected to be the only potential destination once he and Real part company due to Ronaldo’s desire to exploit his fame and celebrity in a similar manner to David Beckham once he has to contemplate life after playing.
But his affection for Sporting is strong and he remains respectful of the role the club played in propelling him to the stardom he now enjoys.
As such, he will wear a specially designed pair of Nike boots in the Alvalade on Tuesday, with the date of his seminal performance against United (Aug. 6, 2003), which earned his move to Old Trafford in 2003, stitched into the heel. Back then, he was a virtual unknown in Portugal’s biggest city. Now, he dominates every corner of it.
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_