Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Cristiano Ronaldo stretches with teammate Pepe, in the background, during a Portugal soccer team training session in Oeiras, outside Lisbon, on Nov. 14.The Canadian Press

If you wonder why the World Cup is such a big deal, check out what Cristiano Ronaldo is doing right now. This is how you turn entertainment into a global happening.

We’re T-minus five days from launch. In major sports tournament terms, the week before liftoff is the time to work all the populist rage out of the system: ‘I am angry about capitalism/corruption/human dignity/social decay and I’m not going to take it any more.’

This is when you publish your most fire-breathing op-eds and yell as loud as you want. Don’t worry. No one with any power is listening.

Once the first ball is kicked, no one cares if they’re holding this thing on a ceremonial burial ground or powering it with coal. But protest gets this week to itself. That’s the billion-dollar accommodation the global sports complex has worked out with its many feeble opponents.

But look over there. Someone’s waving their arms. Is that … yes, I think that’s Ronaldo. It hard to hear him from here, but it sounds something like, “Never mind human rights. Look at meeeeee!”

Ronaldo’s soccer powers have waned, but his ability to draw a crowd remains best in class.

Right now, he should be gearing up for the last great hurrah of his era-defining career. Instead, he’s picking a fight at world soccer’s dinner table. Actually, several fights with several people.

The issue is the terms of Ronaldo’s employment. He is not that good any more. He would like to continue being treated like he is the absolute best.

The World Cup kicks off Sunday. Here’s what you need to know

How to watch Canada in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and everything else you need to know

This isn’t unusual. Most people can’t bridge the divide between the person they are and the person they think they are. Great athletes have an especially bad case of this condition.

But most of them have the sense not to talk about it in public.

Ronaldo is talking about it.

He went to Piers Morgan – the person most likely to stir the British media to a frenzy – and aired his many, many grievances. The subsequent interview is so juicy Morgan’s bosses can’t bring themselves to just release it. Instead, they’ve been serializing tidbits pulled from it. Each one of them has left the soccer world scandalized.

Ronaldo swiped at Erik ten Hag, his coach at Manchester United: “I don’t have respect for him because he doesn’t have respect for me.”

And former boss, Ralf Rangnick: “If you’re not even a coach, how are you going to be the boss of Manchester United? I’d never even heard of him.”

And curvy former teammate Wayne Rooney: “I don’t know why he criticizes me so badly … I’m not going to say that I’m looking better than him. Which is true …”

And the owners, the Florida-based Glazer family, whom he says “do not care about the club.”

And the team itself: “Since [former coach] Sir Alex [Ferguson] left, I saw no evolution in the club. Nothing had changed.”

There’s a lot more. Ronaldo even took a poke at United’s catering.

This is a person currently making a million dollars a week to not play football. How ever you feel about the man or his message, you have to admire the cheek.

But however incendiary the content, what really gets your eyebrows up is the timing.

Five World Cup 2022 group stage matches you need to watch

Canada last reached the World Cup 36 years ago. A look at what it was like, from the squad who was there

Had Ronaldo done this in August, it’s a big story, but there is an obvious end to it. The interview comes out. Manchester United throws its hands up and says, “See? What did we tell you?” and clips the guy. Sure, it’d cost it a small fortune. But at the top levels, the real purpose of a football club is making terrible, expensive bets on human resources. Ronaldo has become one of those, and not nearly the worst.

Instead, the interview is coming out just before the World Cup.

The English team is one of the favourites in Qatar. What are they talking about in England? A Portuguese guy who lives there part-time.

Everywhere people obsess about soccer – and that is everywhere in the world except here – this is the only story going.

Human-rights campaigners have been banging on about Qatar for more than a decade. This week was supposed to be their window to monopolize global attention. The football establishment was prepared to cede the moment to them. But Ronaldo had other ideas.

And there is no end in sight.

In the normal course of things, the undomesticated soccer media does not have direct access to players and coaches. But they do at a World Cup. By FIFA rule, every team has to roll at least one bold-faced name out every day to answer whatever questions are lobbed up at him.

If Manchester United fires Ronaldo, that’s something everyone will be asked about.

If it doesn’t, that’s something everyone will be asked about.

If Ronaldo plays well, that’s something everyone will be asked about.

If he plays poorly …

You get the idea. For at least the first week of this thing, barring some unforeseen outrage, Ronaldo is the story. No player in North America would ever do something like this, because no North American has the guts.

It’s a colossal risk on Ronaldo’s part. If he is bad or Portugal gets wiped out, it could be the highest-rated faceplant in television history. But this guy didn’t get where he is by taking measured steps. However, it ends, it will be watched.

There is no more overused word currently in common usage than ‘unprecedented,’ but this might be that. We’ve had wars before. But a world-famous sporting bajillionaire speaking directly to the entire world at length via the internet, at a time when everyone is primed to listen to him, in order to whine how no one listens to him?

This is vanity working at a Borgia-esque level, but with a human audience that is close to total. It feels more zeitgeist-y than anything else currently going in world affairs.

However it ends, this is Ronaldo’s sunset moment. You can only demand this sort of attention in this sort of way at this sort of time once.

If you were betting, you’d say it ends in tears and laughter (not the nice kind). But since no one’s ever tried anything quite like this before, maybe there is more to Ronaldo’s plan.

Maybe this can become even more farcical. Maybe we aren’t just kicking a ball around while everyone watches. Maybe we’re also writing one of the great satires of the age.