Special touch of a superstar
Portugal talisman Ronaldo hailed as world-class talent both on and off the pitch
WHEN Dan Gaspar welcomes two budding Irish footballers to the University of Hartford in August, he will tell them about the real Cristiano Ronaldo -- the person behind the perception.
The affable American wishes the world knew that Ronaldo better. Gaspar has been granted leave from his post as head coach at the Connecticut university to join the Portuguese backroom staff at this World Cup.
A friendship with Carlos Queiroz has opened the door to an exciting opportunity, the possibility to get up close and personal with the icon that is Ronaldo, whom he describes as a "world-class player and a world-class person".
After more than three weeks of shadow boxing, the real business for Portugal gets under way today when they meet the Ivory Coast in Port Elizabeth. Naturally, much of the attention will be focused on the most expensive footballer in the world.
Every mannerism, including the trademark fits of pique, will be captured and repeated. In turn, judgments will be made. Gaspar believes the 25-year-old should be seen in a different light, as a fierce competitor with a gentler side.
"People forget that football can be a game of emotions," said Gaspar, speaking to the Irish Independent from the Portuguese camp ahead of the final preparations.
"I'm close enough to see the things that happen to him, everything he has to cope with. It's not always easy to react well on the pitch, especially when you see the tackles he endures every time he plays, but I'm lucky enough to know his class as a human being.
"It's not easy being Ronaldo. Everywhere he goes, there are people following him. I've seen that here. Every word and every move is tracked and yet he's still just a young man. He's come from humble beginnings, but he's a self-made man. Nothing's ever been given to him and I respect that because he has a desire to be the best.
"To me, he's the ultimate competitor -- the total package. He could have played any sport. He's competitive at everything, not only the best soccer player. In camp, he's the best ping pong player, the best pool player, the best fussball player. He hates to lose."
Gaspar got to know the individual behind the exterior when he came to him with a special request less than two years ago, when he was invited into the Portuguese set-up by Queiroz as a goalkeeping coach.
A good friend, John Moreira, based in Toronto, received the devastating news that his son Brandon had cancer. The 17-year-old always wanted to visit England and watch Ronaldo play for Manchester United. Tragically, the terminal nature of his illness would make such dreams impossible.
Gaspar had only met Ronaldo once at this point, and asked Queiroz if there was anything he could do, considering the layers you have to go through to approach such a star.
Between them, they succeeded and, with family and friends around, Brandon received a phone call from his idol one evening to enquire about his well-being. Manchester United were playing Chelsea that weekend, and all Ronaldo's gear from that game would be winging its way to Canada. It was followed up by a text message a few days later to see how he was doing.
When the youngster lost his battle for life on October 3, 2008, Ronaldo sent his boots, a framed jersey and a special message for the family. It read: "True champions are those who fight until their last breath, and that's the image I have of Brandon."
"A lot of people don't get to see that side of him," explained Gaspar. "He's a special person."
The affable American is proud to be in the privileged position of being able to work with athletes of that calibre. It's something he can bring back to his work at Hartford.
Later this year, he will welcome Irish recruits Tomas Boyle from Celbridge and Sean McKinney from Derry into his domain after they came through the trials arranged by the Pass4Soccer programme, which offers scholarships in the US.
A chance meeting with Queiroz in 1992 set him on the path to mixing collegiate work and a dalliance with the big time. When the US Cup came to Connecticut -- a competition that Ireland participated in -- Gaspar was a liaison officer and struck up a friendship with the Portuguese manager, another former goalkeeper.
The American offered to pay his way to Europe to continue his coaching education and, from there, a wonderful association developed. The duo combined again at Porto, Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Grampus Eight (in Japan) and also had a stint with the South African national team, before Queiroz's took charge of his country, which provided another opening.
From that time in South Africa, Gaspar knows his current neck of the woods well, although he admits to have been bowled over by the friendly response they have received in a country where there are 500,000 people of Portuguese descent.
Some 200 cars followed them from the airport, and training sessions were mobbed until they finally decided to close them up last weekend.
Double sessions have been reduced to single sessions as the kick-off approaches, with the focus mainly on tactical work and concentration ahead of a hugely significant meeting with the Ivorians.
Away from the training ground, there have been other activities.
"We believe that a happy team off the park is a happy team on it," said Gaspar.
To relieve the boredom, they have mixed things up a bit. Before they left Portugal, the local military came in and set up an assault course on the training ground to encourage team bonding. Comedians, and other entertainers come in for a night here and there. They also found time to go on safari and even be entertained by a South African magician. Sometimes, they just play bingo.
Every minute is planned. Gaspar and the three goalkeepers -- Eduardo, Beto and Daniel Fernandes -- spend the training sessions together, and have placed an emphasis on the mental aspect of the game.
They have watched the opening games, and noticed the difficulty that goalkeepers have experienced with the controversial Jabulani ball, with Denmark's Thomas Sorensen yesterday saying that the new creation is ruining the tournament. Yet the Portuguese squad have made a conscious decision to focus on positive vibes.
"We decided after our initial discussion that the best thing is not to discuss the negatives; we have to decide that we love the ball and accept it for what it is," Gaspar explained. "The more you complain about it, the bigger an issue it can become.
"We're very optimistic and confident going into this," he continued. "There's a real togetherness in this camp."
The reality, however, is their hopes and dreams could rest on the well-being of one man. Cristiano Ronaldo has seldom known it any other way.