For big games at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, some reporters work from an 'overflow' area in the front row of the tier directly above the press box. From that position, for much of Tuesday night’s Champions League quarter-final second leg between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, it was impossible to avoid hearing exactly what the loudest supporters in the seats behind thought of Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance.
“Move around more, old-timer” and “don’t be such a selfish oaf” are polite versions of the regular comments overheard as Ronaldo struggled to have any impact on the game and blew a two-on-one chance in the first half. When Bayern increasingly took control after the break, and got back to 2-2 on aggregate through Robert Lewandowski’s penalty, the screams became much less repeatable here.
There was even a roar of angry delight when a ‘7’ appeared on the fourth official’s board with about 20 minutes remaining, and one gentleman thought Ronaldo was being substituted. And then muttered dismay when the number referred instead to Bayern’s Franck Ribery.
Fans around press seats at Bernabeu not at all impressed with Ronaldo's effort off the ball...
Just six minutes later Ronaldo headed in Casemiro’s cross to make it 1-1 on the night. Cue raucous celebrations and general positivity. But when Sergio Ramos’ own goal quickly tied things up again the grumbles returned, right until their main recipient hit the clinching goal in the first period of extra time.
After completing his hat-trick to make it five goals in total as Madrid progressed 6-3 on aggregate, the Portugal captain made it clear he was aware of what some people had been doing.
“I only ask that they do not whistle me here,” Ronaldo said on Spanish TV pitchside. “As I always give my best in every game. When I do not score goals I try and work hard to help Real Madrid. I am sticking to positive things. The team has been fine, we played well and obviously I am happy for the three goals.”
Ronaldo having 'shushed' the Bernabeu was then a major focus of Zidane’s post-match news conference. Asked if it was possible to be a true Madrid fan and also whistle the club’s record goalscorer, the former galactico declined [wisely] to answer directly.
“The fans know [what can happen] with the tension on the pitch, they will not reproach [Ronaldo],” Zidane said. “It happens and stays at that. The fans were important tonight helping the team. Cristiano answers on the pitch, and he scored three goals. In the key moments he is always there.”
Club captain Sergio Ramos also avoided picking sides. “I understand the fans and I understand Cris too,” Ramos said in the Bernabeu mixed zone. “He always gives his best. He can have good or bad games, as we all can. After all he has given us maybe the fans should think about it a bit more. But the Bernabeu has whistled all the great players, as it always asks for more. They are the most demanding fans in the world, that is why this is Real Madrid.”
Ramos was perfectly on message. Some of Tuesday's crowd definitely left the stadium congratulating themselves, thinking their barracking had inspired the match-winning hat-trick. Ronaldo’s own behaviour backs up that idea to an extent, having often said himself that he likes nothing better than proving ‘haters’ wrong, although that generally was taken to mean opposition supporters.
A look at the stats makes it quite surreal that anybody connected with Madrid could ever knock him. 395 goals in 386 games across all competitions. 41 hat-tricks. 100 Champions League goals. But then many Bernabeu regulars, especially the older, well-to-do ones, always want more. Being unsatisfied with ‘just’ winning is almost part of the club’s core values.
Ronaldo often uses his personal stats to brush away any criticism, and there remains a nagging feeling he is most proud of his four Ballon D’Or individual awards. Comments over the years, such as “if only everyone in the squad was at my level” after last season's home derbi defeat to Atletico Madrid, have not been forgotten either. Inside the stadium you get a better sense of just how egotistical his play can be. Especially now as all superfluous elements have been removed to concentrate on pure goalscoring.
The debate is unresolvable. Would Madrid have beaten Bayern, or won two Champions Leagues in the last three seasons, without Ronaldo’s goals? With a more team-orientated superstar would they have won more than one domestic championship during his seven seasons? However, Barcelona and Lionel Messi have won five over that time. And that still hurts many at the Bernabeu - from club president Florentino Perez down.
Which all brings us to Sunday’s Clasico – and the chance for Madrid to all-but seal this year's La Liga crown, or for Barca to blow the title race wide open. When Ronaldo shoots wildly from a narrow angle and the ball flies wide, there will be more whistles. Should Messi and Andres Iniesta be bossing possession in midfield, the stadium will take their frustration out on the biggest target. If he knocks home a deflected late winner from close range, the whole place will go berserk with joy.
32 years old now, Ronaldo is not going to change. And the Bernabeu crowd, also getting older all the time, is feeling more and more entitled. They really are made exactly for each other.