My wild goose chase in a quest to hear Ronaldo say something — anything
The Post embarks on a fruitless Keystone Cops chase around the city to try to catch a fleeting word with a football legend
If you were a member of the ragtag cadre that is the sports press in Hong Kong, you would have to have been living under a rock to miss the trumpeted visit of Real Madrid legend Ronaldo.
Not Cristiano Ronaldo, but the original sensation who first made the name famous through his feats at the Spanish giants.
He was here to pull promotional duty for various projects. Seemingly, every sports publicity person in Hong Kong let the Post know about it, too – with a flurry of opportunities to meet “The Phenomenon”.
The former Brazil striker is still a household name in Asia after lifting the 2002 World Cup here. Such is his popularity in Hong Kong that on his last visit, on a preseason tour with Real Madrid in 2003, police had to cordon off an area in Hung Hom when hundreds of fans got word the great one was visiting a jewellery store famous for its HK$55 million, solid-gold bathroom with two gold toilets.
“He didn’t say a word,” a Hang Fung jewellery spokeswoman said at the time. “But he was very interested in the gold toilets and we gave him a souvenir gold mini-toilet.”
This trip was a little more straightforward. Among other things, the 40-year-old was here as Real Madrid’s club ambassador for the local Dreams Foundation, putting a famous face to the collaboration’s social and sports projects for young people throughout Asia.
His specific role? “Ronaldo is like a mirror, he reflects all of the positive values of Real Madrid and can be a real example to the kids in our football and basketball clinics,” said Julio Gonzalez, managing director of the Real Madrid Foundation.
“His motivation, respect, spirit and his solidarity with his teammates ... throughout his sporting life, Ronaldo has exemplified all of these values, which also illustrate our foundation.”
So it was, in a 17th-floor boardroom at the Marco Polo hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Post eagerly awaited the arrival of Ronaldo, whom, I was told, would accompany Gonzalez for an interview.
But Ronaldo was running a bit late – maybe it was the time difference, or a bit of jet lag.
Awkward small talk filled the air between reporters, Real Madrid Foundation staff and Dreams Foundation directors.
I’m given a Real Madrid pin badge as a souvenir – but have to lightheartedly inform the club employees that I’m a Manchester United fan.
Gonzalez instead points to a small Portuguese cake on the table and suggests I try it. “It’s from Jose Mourinho,” he jokes.
Ronaldo signing shirts for the Real Madrid Foundation in Hong Kong last week pic.twitter.com/tL5JGS6irk
— Nicolas Atkin (@NicoSCMP) May 31, 2017
Word gets around the 17th floor of the Marco Polo that Ronaldo is on his way. A group of excited hotel staff enter the room, giddy as a class of schoolchildren, hoping to get a picture with a football icon.
Finally, in walks the big man, dressed in a dapper white designer T-shirt and navy chinos – a sharp contrast to the suited directors. Hey, football royalty do not conform to your stuffy dress codes.
Ronaldo shakes some hands, signs some replica shirts, poses for some group photos but does not answer any questions before he is whisked away by his team, who say they are behind schedule and must head over to the Hong Kong Football Club for another event.
Undeterred in our quest to grab a quick chat with Ronaldo, the Post hotfoots it to Happy Valley.
Inside a conference room at the Football Club, Ronaldo and his entourage give another meet and greet. He is scheduled to talk briefly about the foundation but is again stopped from speaking, denying journalists the chance of catching a soundbite.
Now sporting a smart beige blazer, Ronaldo is taken down to the hockey pitch, which is playing host all weekend to the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, for a Real Madrid Foundation clinic with young children decked out in replica jerseys.
Word clearly gets around Hong Kong fast, though, when a sporting legend is visiting. There are hordes of baying fans watching on from the stands and surrounding areas, clamouring for a selfie, an autograph or even a hug – and he obliges as much as he can.
— Nicolas Atkin (@NicoSCMP) May 26, 2017
Time is still tight. He is soon whisked off again ahead of a private dinner, flanked by a squadron of security personnel as he tries to leave the pitch, a near stampede ensuing as Ronaldo is mobbed.
Ronaldo does his best to sign as many autographs as he can, but the security guards seem to panic and step up their efforts to extract their man, shouting for space and forming a human shield around him that plods towards the exit.
There is a press conference and another photo opportunity at the Marco Polo the following day, but again, everything is kept on message and access to Ronaldo restricted.
For sure, Real Madrid know the value of celebrity wow factor. It fuels the Spanish giants’ ‘galactico’ transfer policy, and evidently their commercial plans, too.
But it is an increasingly prevalent negative trend of big sports clubs’ press operations to try to control the narrative and make sure that only what they want to publicise is given column inches.
Even my questions to Gonzalez had to be vetted ahead of time.
There seems to be an irrational fear among clubs of letting a journalist ask unfiltered questions to the star name they are wheeling out to promote their latest ventures.
After all, maybe I just wanted to ask Ronaldo where I could pick up one of those dapper designer T-shirts ...