As Cristiano Ronaldo cut Napoli’s defense wide open at the Santiago Bernabeu, spectators saw an evergreen athlete. I saw a smiling dragon…
When I was a kid, I loved Dungeons and Dragons. Chief among my joys of that game was the mythology of dragons which was part of the game. Of all the mythologies in the world which are flush with monsters of every category, dragons were, to me, the most fascinating.
When I see Cristiano Ronaldo have a game like the one he had last Wednesday versus Napoli in the first leg of their Champions League Last 16 contest, I am reminded of the fantasies and fables of my wonderful youth.
He smiles like I imagine a dragon would smile. He knows his game remains lethal to every club which dares to try and steal his treasure and the Santiago Bernabéu is his lair.
His relationship has been difficult – at times – with the merengue faithful but, in recent years, I have also seen a remarkable event in his tenure. He is, widely, now considered one of our own. He is given that rare exception where his foreign national status is disregarded in favor of his exceptional service to the club.
This, even at a worldly club like Real Madrid, is a big deal. Many an international player has a had a difficult time acclimating to that environment and there is no endearment between the Portuguese and the Spanish – despite their intertwined history and geographic proximity.
Anyone who doesn’t believe so should see how, at least early on in his tenure, Jose Mourinho had a very difficult go at being accepted. His antics were seen as – by the purists of the Castellana – very roguish, counter-cultural and even (by his own doing, sadly) vicious.
Similar ideas were spread about very soon after the CR7 era began at Real Madrid. First, there was the immediate concern about his number 7, which certainly was not going to be his number right away no matter where he came from and how much promise he offered to the club.
The 7 at Real Madrid is sacrosanct; however, instead of dismantling that mythos with subpar performances and off-field issues, ‘The Smiling Dragon’ has added to that folklore. Ronaldo has – statistically, physically and absolutely – established his reign among the greats of the current game.
SYMBOLIC: Raul gives his number 7 shirt to Ronaldo during the 2013 Santiago Bernabeu Trophy match against Al Sadd
And last Wednesday, when he faced a very powerful Napoli, he went to work with a smile on his face with every foul, missed chance, unlucky break and disappointment that populate the world’s beautiful game.
If Benzema is the lion who roared again with that spectacular finish to Dani Carvajal’s masterpiece cross, Cristiano was the dragon who was ever-present and who attacked Napoli relentlessly. And I could swear, even after Napoli scored first with that deft piece of skill, he was smiling for the full 90 minutes.
Like every dragon, he is a known threat. He is the ever-present threat of the rogue wave in the ocean, the bitter chill of the northern wind, the rush of fear down the spine in the dark of night. And he knows it.
He certainly wishes to maintain his numerical superiority in competitions big and small (as every legend does) but Real Madrid’s #7 is also very much aware that he can play the game as a man who has nothing left to prove.
Then, when it seems he has no fire left to breathe, he floats through defenses like a dragon through the clouds and he strikes with a sublime pass which Toni Kroos converted past the great Pepe Reina. No goals in Ronaldo’s name on that night, but an undisputed milestone as the UEFA Champions League’s all-time top-assist maker. Job done.
…And then, the dragon smiled.