You don't have to be a football fan to know Cristiano Ronaldo.
Nor do you even have to know that by football we mean soccer, which is what the game is called in the United States, while "American football" is how the rest of the world refers to our humble little sport.
And since it's quite possible that fans are as familiar with the cut of Ronaldo's abs as they are with his attack style on the pitch, he's been one of the most-watched players on and off the field, no matter what country you're watching from, for years.
These days, however, you'd think that the Portuguese athlete, who's celebrating his 37th birthday Feb. 5, might be thinking longer and harder about life after football, especially now that his professional journey has taken him back to where he started, wearing No. 7 for Manchester United. (Well, first he was No. 28 but then took over 7 after David Beckham left Man U, and good gracious he's been playing a long time!)
Ronaldo returned to Man U after a three-year run with Italy's Juventus, which broke the country's record for player acquisition (and the all-time record for a player over 30) when it acquired the star from Spain's Real Madrid for $128 million (today's conversion from euros) in July 2018.
He also remains a member of Portugal's national team and is the all-time leading scorer in international competition, with 115 goals. And apparently he's not thinking all that hard about retirement.
"I still have a passion for the game," Ronaldo said while being honored at the Best FIFA Awards in Zurich last month. "It's to entertain myself and I have played football since I was 5 or 6 years old. I feel joy when I train and my motivation is still there. I'm going to be 37 soon but I feel motivated. People ask me how many years I'm going to continue playing—I hope to play for four or five more years. Physically if you treat your body well, it will give you something back. I love the game and I want to continue."
The now veteran forward turned pro at 17 and after a year with Sporting PC in Lisbon spent six years Manchester United—one of the richest football clubs in the world—until Real Madrid, also one of Europe's most storied and decorated teams, paid a then-record $105 million for him in 2009.
In 2016, he signed a four-year extension with Real Madrid that netted him upward of $50 million a year through the 2020-21 season. Just as the ink was drying on that contract, he became the third athlete ever, after Michael Jordan and LeBron James, to sign a lifetime deal with Nike—meaning the swoosh will be going wherever he goes for the remainder of his professional career and beyond—said to be worth roughly $1 billion.
Ronaldo ended up the first-ever soccer player to top Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid athletes, and he reigned supreme from June 2015 to June 2017. In 2021, he landed in third place with $120 million—$70 million on and $50 million off the field.
Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo's social media presence—399 million Instagram followers and counting—is one of the most valuable in all of pop culture, let alone sports, and his accounts regularly out-engage his fellow soccer stars, according to Hookit, which tracks digital and social media sponsorship value. In 2019, Forbes reported that he was making as much as $44 million for product placement in his posts.
Yet it all isn't fun and a literal game.
"I have what I have because I've sacrificed a lot," he said in Ronaldo, a 2015 documentary about his life.
And he does indeed have a lot, much of which he shows off on his enviable Instagram account, which alongside charming family photos is full of workouts, exotic cars, private jet travel, of course lots of soccer action, a healthy helping of shirtless snaps and whichever products he's endorsing on any given day.
Whenever possible, along for the ride is his longtime partner Georgina Rodríguez (he thanked his "wife" at the FIFA Awards) and their 4-year-old daughter together, Alana Martina; his 11-year-old son Cristiano Jr., and 4-year-old twins Mateo and Eva Maria. And this team is only growing: Ronaldo shared in October that he and Rodríguez have twins on the way. (You can catch up with what her daily life is like on Netflix's I Am Georgina.)
Men's Health deemed Ronaldo the world's fittest athlete in 2014, and he topped Sports Illustrated's 2017 list of the 50 Fittest Male Athletes. His workout routine and dietary discipline are legendary in sports circles and he's got the physique to prove it—which he does, time and again, by doffing his shirt on the field and modeling his own CR7 underwear.
Being that this chiseled superstar with ball-handling prowess to spare and many entrepreneurial side hustles has a taste for fast cars and fashion (not a lot of use for shirts though), and is downright worshiped by female and male fans alike, surely he's got to be just insufferable on those few occasions when he has to interact with the real world, right?
Well, actually, he has been known to exhibit a smidgen of arrogance, on the field and off.
He didn't exactly get rave reviews from his supermodel ex Irina Shayk after they announced their breakup in 2015 after five years together—supposedly, as was the prevailing rumor at first, because Shayk didn't attend his mother's 60th birthday party, and family is everything to him.
"Any negative rumors with regards to Irina and the Ronaldo family are completely false and have not been a factor in the cause of the spilt," Shayk's rep said in a statement. Ronaldo stated that the split was mutual and he wished his ex "the greatest happiness."
Rumors that Ronaldo had cheated on multiple occasions started to build steam, and in June 2015 a former Playboy Playmate told Mexico's Reforma (via Daily Mail) that she hooked up with Ronaldo the previous November in the U.S., when he and Shayk were still together. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover girl was noticeably absent when Ronaldo was presented with his second straight Ballon d'Or at the beginning of 2015.
Before the Playmate spoke out, Shayk had told Spain's Hola about relationships, "Of course I prefer to be with someone, but with the right someone. It's very simple. You have to be faithful to your other half and not have secrets. That's my rule."
After the split Ronaldo was quickly linked to Real Madrid TV presenter Lucia Villalon and then Marisa Mendes, the daughter of his agent Jorge Mendes. Neither ever panned out seriously.
On the U.K.'s Jonathan Ross Show in November 2015, he admitted that "a few" women were vying for his attention. "I have to figure it out. Some know [about the others]. I'm normal." He was still figuring out "who is better."
He said that being so famous both helped and hurt when it came to finding someone to get serious about.
"To speak serious, it is not easy," Ronaldo said. "I know 50 percent approach just for interest. It's normal, not just me, but all the people who are famous, they have these kinds of problems."
He added, smiling, "I think I am a confident guy. I'm tall, have all my teeth, have a nice body. So I think the other 50 percent, it's because..."
They have eyes?
Also in November 2015, Ronaldo—a sweeping look at his life, from childhood to mega-stardom, that also touched on his relationship with Cristiano Jr. and the difficulties of having to be away so much for work—excised Shayk from the picture.
"Life has good parts and bad parts, and there are parts of one's life that are not important," Ronaldo said coolly in discussing the film at the time. Director Anthony Wonke said they had footage of Irina, "but the movie is short."
So let's just say that, by then, his eye was back on the ball.
After Ronaldo clinched the 2016 Champions League title for Real Madrid that May by kicking the deciding penalty shot, he ripped off his shirt to punctuate the victory. Critics complained of poor sportsmanship, to which Ronaldo replied that "only the jealous" had a problem with him.
And he's been busy not endearing himself to his opponents ever since.
"Cristiano didn't play anything until the last two months of the season," Atletico Madrid player Filipe Luis complained to Peteka in September 2017 after Ronaldo won his second straight Ballon d'Or, and fifth overall (bestowed by the French magazine France Football, it's a player-of-the-year honor; from 2010 to 2015 it was known as the FIFA Ballon d'Or).
Ronaldo was seeing less playing time with both Real Madrid and Portugal's national squad due to injuries and his coaches' wishes to keep him healthy for bigger games (which he's also been accused of proverbially "not showing up for" over the course of his career, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary), and he started 2017-18 league play on the sidelines.
"I'm very happy, it's a fantastic moment in my career," Ronaldo said at the award ceremony in July 2017. "We had an incredible year, winning the Champions League and La Liga. On a personal level, I was the top scorer in the Champions League. These collective trophies have helped me win this individual accolade, so I must thank my teammates at Real Madrid and for Portugal, and everyone else who has helped me get here."
A few months later he didn't score when Portugal clinched its 2018 World Cup berth with a 2-0 win over Switzerland; the team would be knocked out in the round of 16 by Uruguay, but Ronaldo did all the scoring and became the oldest player ever at 33 to have a hat trick in a World Cup match in their first game, a 3-3 draw with Spain.
However, in 2017 Luis was preaching to a choir that agreed that those who vote on the Ballon d'Or focus too much on the final months, or weeks even, of the season, rather than on the whole year. Same with the critics who are perennially annoyed by the lack of recognition for players in the Premier League (where Ronaldo won his first Ballon d'Or, with Man U). And some sort of controversy has dogged Ronaldo practically every time that he's won.
In 2013, after both Ronaldo and his designated rival in skill, fame and money, Barcelona star Lionel Messi, were short-listed for the Ballon d'Or, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter called the Argentinian Messi "a kind man and a good boy" and said that "one spends more time at the hairdresser's than the other."
While Real Madrid demanded that Blatter apologize, Ronaldo posted his own response online. "This video shows the respect and consideration that FIFA has for me, my club and my country," he said, deadpan, in the clip he shared on social media. "Much is explained now. I wish Mr. Blatter health and a long life, with the certainty that he'll continue to witness the successes of his favorite teams and players."
Incidentally, Blatter was ousted from his post in the wake of a major corruption scandal in 2015 and was banned from FIFA for six years.
When Ronaldo won his second straight Ballon d'Or as the 2014 player of the year, as expected after Real Madrid's Champions League win—during which he was slapped with a yellow card for ripping his shirt off like the Hulk to celebrate a goal—his brashness was once again pitted against Messi's more genial, albeit similarly enigmatic, persona.
"I think they have a problem, maybe it's envy," Real Madrid teammate Marcelo surmised to reporters in April 2017 after a victory over Bayern Munich, referring to the amount of heat Ronaldo gets seemingly just for existing at times. "I don't know what's wrong with them, he works hard and helps his team. It must be envy, you only have to look at this numbers and he still keeps on producing.
"He's happy to have scored but even happier about the result."
Real Madrid went on to beat Juventus for the Champions League title in 2017, their third title in four seasons, and Ronaldo scored the 600th goal of his career, one of two he made during the final match that June.
"The people who always criticize Cristiano are going to have to put their guitar back in its case," the fiery forward told reporters afterward, noting that his team would be going for three in a row in 2017-18.
A year later, they won their third in a row.
With the loftiest of expectations, not to mention that eight-figure paycheck, looming over him at all times, a certain amount of pressure is built into any game. His productivity and his team's fortunes remain inextricably linked when you're taking the temperature of the team, and Cristiano tying his own record that he set in 2015 for number of goals attempted without a score—12—during his first 2017-2018 game with Real Madrid resulted in the usual concern that he wasn't his old self.
Nevertheless, when Juventus paid that staggering sum to get him in 2018, he left Real Madrid as the team's all-time scorer. Opening up to France Football that October, Ronaldo explained (per The Guardian) that he left his longtime sports home because he felt a shift in his relationship with Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez.
"I felt it inside the club, especially from the president, that they no longer considered me the same way that they did in the start," Ronaldo shared. "In the first four or five years there I had the feeling of being 'Cristiano Ronaldo.' Less afterwards. The president looked at me through eyes that didn't want to say the same thing, as if I was no longer indispensable to them, if you know what I mean.
"That's what made me think about leaving," he continued. "Sometimes I'd look at the news, where they were saying I was asking to leave. There was a bit of that but the truth is I always had the impression the president would not hold me back. If it had all been about money, I'd have moved to China, where I would have earned five times as much than here [at Juventus] or at Real. I did not come to Juve for the money. I earned the same in Madrid, if not more. The difference is that, at Juve, they really wanted me. They told me that and made it clear."
Also looming at the time was an allegation of rape, dating back to 2009 in Las Vegas, that had surfaced in a massive trove of football-related documents posted by the whistleblower platform Football Leaks and obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel, which published the sexual assault allegations against Ronaldo in April 2017. As reported in 2019 by the New Yorker, also in the cache was a settlement agreement from 2010 and a side letter identifying the alleged perpetrator, referred to in the settlement as "Mr. D," as Ronaldo.
The case was closed in 2009 but reopened in Vegas when the alleged victim, Kathryn Mayorga, went public in 2018, inspired to come forward, she said, by the #MeToo movement. She said she was assaulted and pressured by people in Ronaldo's camp to accept $375,000 in hush money.
Ronaldo denied all of it, calling it "fake news" in a social media post that September.
"Of course, this story is interfering in my life," he told France Football. "I have a partner, four children, an aging mother, sisters, a brother, a family with whom I am very close. Not to mention my reputation, which is that of someone exemplary...Imagine what it means when someone accuses you of rape, whether you have all that or not. I know who I am and what I did. Truth will out one day. And the people who criticize me or seek to expose my life today, who make it into a circus, these people will see."
Ronaldo added, "I explained to my partner. My son, Cristiano Jr., is too young to understand. It's worst for my mother and my sisters. They are stunned, and at the same time very angry. This is the first time I have seen them in this state."
Mayorga filed a separate civil lawsuit against Ronaldo in Nevada, first in state court but that one was dismissed and the complaint resurfaced in federal court in June 2019. A month later, the Clark County District Attorney's Office in Nevada declined to file charges, stating that the allegation of rape could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt (partly because the accuser "refused to identify him or disclose where the crime occurred") and the case is now closed.
And this wasn't even the only serious legal issue Ronaldo was dealing with. Der Spiegel also dug up alleged evidence of tax evasion on Ronaldo's part from the Football Leaks document dump, just in time for him to be linked to Messi yet again after years of continuous comparing and contrasting when it came to their personalities, playing styles and productivity on the pitch.
Messi, he of the mild-mannered mien, was sentenced in May 2017 along with his father to 21 months in prison for tax fraud after they were found guilty of using tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to stash earnings. Both sentences were reduced to fines that July.
Barcelona FC vice-president Carles Villarrubi told Catalan radio station RAC1 that he believed that Messi getting a gentler sentence would benefit Ronaldo, whom Spanish prosecutors alleged had avoided paying $16 million in income tax from 2011 to 2014.
"I find it difficult to imagine that this would have happened had there not been a similar problem with another player," Villarrubi said. "It's an element to add in." More pointedly, Villarrubi said, "All of the developments that are taking place right now and that will take place in the coming days are going in a very clear direction: so that Cristiano Ronaldo does not sit in the dock. They don't want there to be a photo of Ronaldo in the dock, but Messi did have to go through that."
Ronaldo denied the allegations and in June 2017 Real Madrid said that the club had "full confidence" in its star. That July he reportedly told a Spanish judge during an investigatory Q&A intended to determine if there was enough evidence to charge him, "I have never hidden anything, and never tried to avoid taxes."
Perhaps outside troubles were weighing on him when he pushed a referee during an August 2017 match against Messi's Barcelona, resulting in a five-game ban.
Still, he got back to business and, after a win that October against Borussia Dortmund, Ronaldo told Marca that he still felt as though he had to re-prove himself every time he took the field.
"It seems that I have to keep showing exactly who I am in every match," he said. "I am surprised by what the public thinks of me, my numbers speak for themselves, I am an exemplary professional and I always have a clear mind. The criticism is getting worse."
By now, at least he's used to it, even if he doesn't understand it. "I'm happy and I'm doing what I enjoy," he added. "People talk about me every day all around the world, I live for football and my family, not for the media. Sometimes these stories start in Portugal, in Spain or even Germany, because when you're big business, people talk about you."
But people are one thing, courts of law are another.
In January 2019, Ronaldo pleaded guilty to tax fraud and was given a two-year suspended jail sentence, and fined $21.6 million. Rodríguez was by his side as he walked into the Madrid courthouse to take the plea, prosecutors having rejected his request to get to walk in through the parking garage and avoid the media scrum.
"It's done," was all he told the flock of journalists waiting outside as he walked past them—though he did stop to sign a few autographs for some fans who showed up to get a glimpse of him.
Nevertheless, Juventus continued to reap the rewards of its investment. After winning their eighth consecutive Serie A title in April 2019 they added another in July 2020. Ronaldo scored his first hat trick in Serie A in January 2020—his first since the 2018 World Cup, after having 34 hat tricks playing for Real Madrid in La Liga and one in the Premiere League with Manchester United.
"It was a good start to the year, but the important thing is the team," Ronaldo told reporters after the game. "We created chances, and scoring is always important. Our game is getting better game by game but we have to work and keep improving."
And so the naysayers have been reminded year after year, it ultimately makes no sense to boo Cristiano Ronaldo, at least when it comes to soccer.
If you still have any doubts about his capabilities, you may pay 5 euros (it's free for students and kids under 10) and relive all the glory at Museu CR7, Ronaldo's museum celebrating his life and accomplishments in his native Madeira. It's right next to Pestana CR7 Hotel.
From one polarizing face of his sport to another, Ronaldo was one of countless fellow athletes who paid tribute to Kobe Bryant on Jan. 26, 2020, when the retired NBA superstar was killed in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, including two of her youth basketball teammates.
Calling it "heartbreaking news," he wrote, "Kobe was a true legend and inspiration to so many. Sending my condolences to his family and friends and the families of all who lost their lives in the crash. RIP Legend."
It's hard not to see parallels, that Bryant was an iconic athlete who managed to overcome a potentially career-destroying sexual-assault scandal and redeem his character, at least to many if not all, in the court of public opinion, while reaching the pinnacles of his sport and building an enviable legacy.
Which Ronaldo certainly has his mind set on doing as well.
While the soccer stud's reputation for braggadocio on the field remains legendary, and that has dribbled over into some of his off-the-field behavior, the birthday boy does seem to be settling into a wiser elder-statesman role—or at least he's flashing more of his generous spirit while maintaining his edge and making sure his abs are ready to flash at a moment's notice.
When informed he had scored his 70th goal for Portugal after a 3-0 World Cup qualifier win against Honduras in March 2017, he told RTP, "I know how many goals I have but that's not the most important thing. What matters is that we won and we're in the fight to go to the World Cup." He added, "The team is good. We have a lot of young players."
That being said, when he signed his new deal in 2016, Ronaldo said that ideally he wanted to sign another contract when his current one expires that would keep him playing until he's 41, and he wanted to stay with Real Madrid for the rest of his career.
In the meantime, no matter what any critic thinks of his attitude, he couldn't be more devoted to his family.
Ronaldo is the youngest of four, born Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro in the city of Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira to José Dinis Aveiro, a municipal gardener and equipment manager for the local team CF Andorinha, and Maria Dolores dos Santos Aveiro, who worked as a cook. As a little boy he kicked a soccer ball around in the street, as so many kids start out doing, and when he was 7 he joined his first youth team at his father's urging.
In a 2017 essay for The Players' Tribune, Ronaldo remembered his father, who died in 2005 at the age of 52, always attending his games alone because his mother and sisters had no interest in football. But finally, one day, they showed up.
"Life was a struggle back then in Madeira," he recalled. "I was playing in whatever old boots my brother passed down to me or my cousins gave me. But when you're a kid, you don't care about money. You care about a certain feeling. And on that day, this feeling, it was very strong. I felt protected and loved. In Portuguese, we say menino querido da família."
Ronaldo was only 11 when he moved to the football academy at Sporting Lisbon. Knowing that he was skilled but really skinny, he determined then and there to train harder than everybody else in order to be the best. He would sneak out of the dorm at night, but only to go work out more.
When he turned pro at 17, his mother was prescribed sedatives to take at his matches, she got so nervous.
Fifteen years later, with his own impoverished beginnings long behind him (the airport in Madeira is now named after him), he has donated millions of dollars to the likes of UNICEF, Save the Children and World Vision to help kids in need. Quality medical care is also high on his list of causes, as his own career would have been over before it began if he hadn't undergone surgery at 15 to repair a racing heartbeat.
Back in 2004, he flew to Indonesia to help raise money for tsunami relief after he saw footage of a young victim wearing his No. 7 Portugal jersey. In 2008, he donated damages he won in a libel suit to a Madeira charity, and in 2009 he gave $165,000 to fund a cancer center at the hospital in Portugal where his mother was treated.
"My father always taught me that when you help other people, then God will give you double," he said in 2013. "And that's what has really happened to me. When I have helped other people who are in need, God has helped me more. When I go home, my mom says: 'Son, you have done a good act in helping other people. It's good that you are interested in how the world lives.' It is so nice to hear things like that from people who are so important to me."
In 2012, the cousin of a 9-year-old boy named Nuhazet, who had been battling cancer since he was a baby, got in touch with Ronaldo's agent through some well-connected friends. One of the child's wishes was to see a Real Madrid game, so Jorge Mendes helped arrange a trip for the boy and his parents to fly from their home in the Canary Islands to Madrid for the final game of the season. Nuhazet met Ronaldo and got to watch the game from the star's family box, sitting alongside Irina Shayk at the time.
After learning that doctors had told Nuhazet's family that the only option left was to try some experimental therapies, Ronaldo and Mendes paid for the new course of treatment.
In 2015, after being asked do donate some signed items for a silent auction to help fund a 10-month-old boy's brain surgery to treat a neurological disorder, he instead footed the entire $83,000 bill and continued to pay for $8,000-a-visit follow-ups.
He followed that up in 2016 by donating the entire $700,000 bonus he got for Real Madrid's Champions League title win—the one he celebrated most ostentatiously—to charity.
The competitive fire still burns, but as Ronaldo himself acknowledges, for the last nine years he has been something far more important than a soccer player.
Reflecting on Real Madrid's 2017 championship, he wrote on The Players' Tribune that the moment meant something else entirely to him once Cristiano Jr. joined him on the field.
"It is a joy that I did not understand until I was a father," he wrote. "There are so many emotions happening simultaneously that you cannot describe the feeling in words. The only thing I can compare it to is how I felt when I was warming up in Madeira and I saw my mother and sister huddled together in the stands."
Inscribed on the heel of his Mercurial Nike soccer shoes were the words, "El sueño del niño," meaning "the dream of the child."
To be sure, Ronaldo has consistently given credit to his son for keeping him grounded and focused on what matters in life. He has never revealed the identity of Cristiano Jr.'s mother, telling Jonathan Ross in 2015 that he would tell his son about her when the time was right.
The athlete has full custody and it's been reported that he paid close to $13 million to the boy's biological mother. "People speculate I was with this girl or another, or there was a surrogate mother. I have never told anyone and never will," Ronaldo told Ross. "When Cristiano is going to grow up, I am always going to say the truth to him because he deserves it, because he is my son, but I am not going to say because people want me to say."
In June 2017 Ronaldo confirmed that he was a proud father of three after welcoming twins Eva Maria and Mateo Ronaldo.
He explained that he missed their birth because he was off competing with the national team, but after they lost in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup to Chile (Ronaldo was MVP of the three previous games), he got the go-ahead to leave and miss Portugal's third-place match. "I am very happy to finally be with my children for the first time," he wrote on social media, thanking the soccer powers that be for their understanding.
Their birth certificate reportedly doesn't list the name of the woman who gave birth to them, fueling the assumption that they arrived via surrogate.
He and Georgina Rodriguez were first spotted strolling around Disneyland Paris together in November 2016, and they made their red carpet debut at the Best FIFA Football Awards the following January, where he accepted the first-ever FIFA Men's Player of the Year honor.
By all accounts, Ronaldo loves being a family man—and his football legacy looks to be in pretty good shape too. Though of course, what he'd really love is a World Cup title for Portugal.
"Ronaldo's ambitions are limitless, so I'm sure he'll want to win every competition his club and country enters until he retires," Tom Kundert, an expert on Portuguese football, told ESPN as Portugal embarked on qualifying for the 2018 cup. "Seeing the way he celebrated Portugal's triumph at Euro 2016, it is obvious how much playing for his country means to him. If you told him he could only win one more trophy in his career, I'm 100 percent certain he'd choose the 2018 World Cup."
They came up short in 2018, and Ronaldo has said that he's planning on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to be his last international competition. (He actually said that in 2016, because he's nothing if not a scrupulous planner.)
But despite his enduring commitment to soccer and amid all the flamboyant trappings of wealth that are part of Ronaldo's image, it isn't difficult to figure out what's actually more important to him than anything else in the world.
He may always be on a private jet or sunning on a tropical beach somewhere, but now he travels as just one member of a soon-to-be eight-person team.
(Originally published Oct. 12, 2017, at 5 a.m. PT)