The mysterious case of St. Cristiano Ronaldo and the overturned penalty

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We investigate what possessed Cristiano Ronaldo to turn down a penalty in Saudi Arabia...

Many referees around the world are familiar with the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo bearing down on them, finger wagging in dissent – but this is surely the first time he’s ever been asking for a decision to go against his own interests. Chinese referee Ma Ning has the distinction of being the first referee in history to have Ronaldo tell them that they shouldn’t give him a penalty.

The incident, in case you haven’t seen it yet, took place in the fifth game of the Asian Champions League group stages as Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr took on Iranian champions Persepolis. Midfielder Soroush Rafiei tried to take a touch in the box rather than clear it, made a hash of it, and Ronaldo nipped in between defender and ball before going down. It looked like a penalty, and it took quite a few slow-motion replays to reveal that Ronaldo had been dragging his left leg, looking for contact before it came.

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Cristiano Ronaldo breaks character to appeal against a penalty he won while playing for Al-Nassr.Cristiano Ronaldo breaks character to appeal against a penalty he won while playing for Al-Nassr.
Cristiano Ronaldo breaks character to appeal against a penalty he won while playing for Al-Nassr. | AFP via Getty Images

It still seems likely that VAR would not have encouraged Mr. Ma to overturn his decision had Ronaldo not argued against himself – it hardly had the ring of the clear and obvious error to it. But the decision was indeed reversed and the game limped on towards a 0-0 draw.

The question, then, is what possessed Ronaldo to confess his sins to the referee in the first place. After all – he went looking for the penalty in the first place. It might be a stretch to call it a dive but he certainly left his leg dangling in the hope of contact and an ensuing spot-kick, and it was hardly the first time in his career that he’s done that. If Ronaldo was possessed by the Corinthian spirit, then it would have been a very new experience for him.

For all his undeniable greatness as a player, Ronaldo has always represented the win-at-all-costs mentality – indeed, he’s been its apogee throughout his career. Few players in world football have worked as hard as him to get where he is, and few players have been as willing to throw themselves to the dirt, bawl in feigned agony or bellow in the referee’s face in order to win set pieces and edge themselves closer to the next goal and the next three points. That is who Ronaldo has always been, and why he is so idolised by the kind of terminally-online fans who also hero worship billionaires. He has been the walking sporting exemplar of the internet-friendly libertarian, zero empathy, maximum gain philosophy. Well, until now.

Has Ronaldo matured and changed over the years? Has he finally decided that the principal of sporting fair play outweighs his own selfish needs? Has his time in Saudi Arabia offered him a new perspective on life? Or is it simply that a dead rubber match against a team from Iran didn’t set his competitive juices pumping enough to press his case? Al-Nassr were already through to the next round, after all, having won four in four.

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Maybe he was thinking of the children. As he walks the streets of Riyadh, has he seen groups of little children in the streets with enormous amounts of Brylcreem in their hair throwing themselves to the ground and yelling in poorly-acted pain every time one of their friends touches them? Has he contemplated the outsized influence his actions and attitudes have on impressionable young fans?

Or perhaps it was a horribly cynical move, concocted with the aid of his advisers, to give his legions of social media followers some material to share on TikTok with which he can be painted as a humble, honest man regardless of the mountain of evidence that he has, like so many other professional footballers, been quite content to cheat on a weekly basis throughout his life. Unlikely, probably, but it’s certainly a good video to share alongside, say, a falsified image of Lionel Messi doing something awful like committing a foul or committing an armed robbery in Preston. Neither of which have ever happened, of course. Just to be clear.

Most likely, though, is that it was just a moment of madness and nothing quite so calculated. Ronaldo probably spent the evening in his Saudi penthouse lying awake and staring at the ceiling, wondering what had just happened. Is this the man he is now? Does he not care about breaking Saudi Pro League scoring records any more? Is he finally satisfied with his lot, to the extent that he can’t be bothered to go through with the act of conning a referee in a match he would never even have been aware was happening back when he was at Real Madrid?

Whatever the cause of his sudden outbreak of saintliness, perhaps we should just be grateful given how many youngsters – including professional players at the highest level – seem to mimic his every move. Maybe Alejandro Garnacho will start adding moments of remarkable sporting honesty to his copycat ‘Siuuu’ celebrations? It would be a step in the right direction for all of us...

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