Jason Dasey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am

What was supposed to be a carefully choreographed sponsor's event with Cristiano Ronaldo as 'brand ambassador' was quickly ambushed by Spanish journalists, baying for blood.

Real Madrid's Ronaldo was presented to the world's media last week at a swanky reception in Madrid to extol the virtues of the Castrol Rankings, a new system that compares the best players around the world.

A busload of reporters from 17 nations, including faraway Vietnam, the US and Australia, had accepted invitations to attend Ronaldo's press conference, with the dangling carrot of one-on-one interviews afterwards with the reigning Fifa World Footballer of the Year.

But, blocking the view of the visitors who sat with local journalists was more than a dozen photographers, jostling for elbow-room and primed for the grand entrance of CR9 in a cramped function room.

'This press conference will be conducted in English,' stressed host Ray Stubbs, the veteran commentator, to the Spanish contingent who were armed with translation headsets. 'It won't start until all photographers are seated.'

Eventually the paparazzi settled down and the Portuguese peacock strutted in, accompanied by inspirational rock music. A brief explanation about the rankings followed - Ronaldo is third on the list behind Barcelona's Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi - before the session was opened to the floor.

One Asia-based journalist asked about Ronaldo's ankle injury before the local armada set sail with a barrage of questions in Spanish about the 'crisis' at Real Madrid, highlighted by the shock 4-0 Copa Del Rey defeat to AD Alcorcon, from the third-tier.

No fewer than five times he was asked in different ways if Real coach Manuel Pellegrini should be sacked. It got so out of hand Ronaldo announced he would not answer any more questions about Pellegrini or Alcorcon. Ahead of the derby at Atletico Madrid, Real were just one point behind Spanish and European champions Barcelona at the top of the Primera Division table. But since Ronaldo's absence from the end of September, Real dropped five points in La Liga, spluttered in the Champions League and were embarrassed in the cup.

It is only four months since Ronaldo's GBP80 million (HK$1 billion) move from Manchester United as part of Real Madrid's GBp220 million spending spree. But after nine goals in his first seven games, one Galactico has clearly become more important than the rest.

'Real Madrid without Cristiano Ronaldo,' explained Eduardo Gil of Spain's Info Press, 'is like a garden without flowers.'

With many more raised hands begging for questions about Pellegrini's apparently dim future, the press conference was cut short and Ronaldo marched out, with the dull but worthy Castrol Rankings a mere sidebar in the soap opera that is Los Merengues soccer.

Once the personal interviews began, I was shuffled downstairs to a smaller room. Ronaldo sat down in front of me, shaking my hand as a microphone was pinned under his trendy zip-up sweater.

What strikes you about Ronaldo is the size of the man. He seems taller than his official height of 1.86m and is also muscular and broad. A generation ago, George Best was a winger with similar tricks - another Manchester United number seven - and he stood at a slightly built 1.73m.

On a day that Ronaldo was speaking more than his fair share of Spanish - plus smatterings of his native Portuguese - his English was more than passable even though he overuses the word 'fantastic'. 'I did all the things I wanted to at Manchester, winning many things, I was really pleased to have been there six years,' he said. 'My cycle there finished, now I have a new club and I expect to win here what I won in Manchester. But I don't want to play against Manchester in the Champions League. It's a strange feeling if I play against them.'

What is it like being at Real Madrid and lining up alongside Kaka, who also joined the club last summer for an only slightly smaller sum of ?8.5 million.

'The club is fantastic but I expected that. And when you play alongside fantastic players, it's easier and Kaka is one of them. I'm really enjoying playing with him.'

Ronaldo admitted feeling nervous about the play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina, which will decide Portugal's 2010 World Cup fate.

When asked about the kind of legacy he would like to leave, Ronaldo paused as if he had been asked a different question to the rest and gave the most interesting response of our five minutes together.

'I have another seven, eight years in football, or more,' he said. 'If my legs give me a chance to play until 40, I want to play. I want to be on the first page of history, the same as Maradona and Pele. I know it's very tough, but in my head it's possible.'

And with that, Ronaldo unclipped his microphone, rose from his chair and walked into the next room for his final interview. Another busy working day in the life of the world's most expensive footballer was drawing to a close.