Ronaldo the pantomime villain set to take up leading role
Madrid star's ego finally taking back seat as he closes on World Player of Year award
After Portugal's first-leg World Cup play-off win over Sweden last Friday, Cristiano Ronaldo was led out to the press area not by a stressed director of communications, but by his three-year-old son.
Cristiano Jnr marched on ahead of his father, who had just scored the goal that laid the foundations for Portugal's passage to next summer's finals. "Nunca falla (he never fails)," said the toddler, bringing a broad smile to his father's face and laughter from waiting reporters.
The show was not over. As Ronaldo fielded questions, his son first urged him to call things to a close with a "Let's go, daddy," and then had the press corps in stitches with: "Is it tonight that I sleep with you, daddy?" Ronaldo did his best to continue, but was also struggling to stop laughing.
People have drawn certain conclusions about the 28-year-old Real Madrid forward since his move away from Manchester United in 2009.
The famous "I'm sad" comment 14 months ago that seemed to be rooted in dissatisfaction at not being the world's best-paid player and statements such as "people boo me because I'm rich, good-looking and a great player" reinforce the perception. A 100-foot high billboard of him modelling his latest line of underwear that hangs close to Madrid's municipal hall perhaps does not help.
But there has been an image makeover in the last 12 months and his real personality has broken through to win over many of the unconverted.
It was at the start of last season, after a routine win over Granada in which he had scored twice, but did not celebrate, that Ronaldo told reporters: "I am sad." Before the game he had a meeting with Real president Florentino Perez and told him he wanted to leave. Perez's response amounted to: "Find someone who'll pay me the money to sign Lionel Messi and you can go."
The picture painted of Ronaldo in the days following his declaration of discontent was one of a lonely male diva. It suggested his daily routine of driving from his residence on the outskirts of Madrid to the club's Valdebebas training complex on the other side of town was only occasionally broken by an ill-fated attempt at enjoying life in the Spanish capital.
National newspaper 'El Mundo' suggested he had taken Russian girlfriend Irina Shayk to the theatre to see 'The Lion King', entering with sunglasses on when the lights had already been dimmed, only to leave before the interval because he had been swamped by fans demanding photos and autographs despite his requests to be left in peace.
Constant pestering in public had stopped him going to his favourite local restaurant from where he now had his food delivered; and he spent afternoons working out alone in his private gym to the point where the club were concerned that he was overdoing things and increasing the chances of injury.
There were perhaps shades of exaggeration in that image. But there were other signs that all was not well.
In a dressing-room fractured by the combustive presence of Jose Mourinho, he had become withdrawn. His relationship with the Spain players in Madrid's squad had also been strained by Portugal's European Championship semi-final defeat to them, after which, unlike team-mate Pepe, he did not go into the victors' dressing-room to congratulate Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos.
Racing to 151 goals in his first 150 games had done little to endear him to Real supporters – some even whistled him during one game. And people were upset that despite earning around €27,000 a day – 1.5 times what the average Spaniard earned in a year – he wanted a new contract that would improve his €10m-a-year salary.
The makeover since then has been stunning. He got the new deal and now earns €17m net, making him the world's highest-paid player, despite the fact that Madrid pay the 52pc tax on the salary, meaning it costs them almost €40m a year. But respect has been earned, too.
He stood up to Mourinho. The image of Ronaldo and Mourinho standing on either side of the Bernabeu tunnel ahead of the coach's last game, with not a glance or a word exchanged between them, spoke volumes.
He was looking back up the stairs that lead away from the pitch to Ramos and Casillas, whom he had long since made peace with. They remain Real Madrid's first and second captains but when neither plays Ronaldo wears the armband, and has become the club's leader. No one at the club has made Gareth Bale feel more at home in his first three months in Spain.
The chants of 'Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d'Or' that came from all four sides of the stadium when he scored the 23rd hat-trick of his Madrid career two weeks ago against Real Sociedad laid down another marker.
Even in Barcelona there has been a change of opinion. It has not been forgotten that he remained on the periphery of the various Clasico pitched battles with his dignity intact.
He will never be their prince charming, but he is no longer the pantomime villain he once was – if you like football, it's hard not to like Ronaldo, even in Catalonia.
He wore designer glasses for the press conference that marked his new contract back in August. What might once have been another pretentious stunt actually had comic value as he drew them down the bridge of his nose so as to get reporters in the press conference into focus.
He has stopped taking himself so seriously. The military-salute celebration in the game that followed Sepp Blatter calling him El Comandante at the Oxford Union showed as much. He reacts better than ever to the teasing chants of 'Messi, Messi'. The Swedes tried that in Stockholm on Tuesday and paid for it with a hat-trick and World Cup elimination.
Messi was asked yesterday at his Golden Boot award ceremony if he thought this was Ronaldo's finest hour. He surprised everyone by saying he felt Ronaldo had been playing this well for the last few years. The Argentinian's domination of the Golden Ball is about to come to an end.
"Is he going to play for Portugal one day?" reporters asked Ronaldo last week as he walked past them with his son.
"He never stops asking me for the ball, but it's a bit early to say," he replied. Ronaldo is the daddy now. No doubt the Ballon d'Or count that makes him FIFA's World Player for 2013 in January will confirm that. (© Independent News Service)