Cristiano Ronaldo's new public image: Portugal hero has reinvented his persona off the field
After Portugal's first-leg win over Sweden last week, Cristiano Ronaldo was led out to the press area not by a stressed director of communications but by his three-year-old son.
Cristiano junior marched on ahead of his father who had just scored the goal that laid the foundation for Portugal's passage into next summer's World Cup finals. "Nunca falla" ('he never fails') said the toddler bringing a broad smile to his dad's face and laughter from waiting reporters.
The show wasn't 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 made 14 months ago that seemed to be rooted in a 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 one hundred-foot high billboard poster of him modeling his latest line of underwear that currently hangs in Madrid's municipal hall perhaps does not help.
But there has been an image makeover in the last 12 month and the personality has broken through to win over many of the previously unconverted.
It was at the start of last season, after a routine win over Granada in which he had scored twice but not celebrated, that Ronaldo told reporters: "I am sad." Before the game he had called an impromptu meeting with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and told him he wanted to leave. Perez' response amounted to 'find someone who'll pay me the money to sign Leo 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 private estate of La Finca 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 capital.
National newspaper El Mundo suggested he had taken Russian girlfriend Irina Shayk to the theatre to see The Lion King, entering with sunglasses when the lights had already been dimmed for curtain-up, only to leave before the recess because he had been swamped by fans demanding photos and autographs despite his requests to be left in peace.
Constant pestering in public has stopped him going to his favourite local restaurant from where he now had his food delivered; and he spent afternoon's working out alone in his private gym to the point where the club were concerned that he was overworking his body and increasing the chances of injury.
There were perhaps shades of exaggeration in the portraits, no doubt helped along by those in the club wishing to paint Ronaldo as the bad guy in the cold war over his new contract. 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 falling out with close pal Marcelo and his relationship with the Spain players had been strained by a European Championship semi-final defeat to them, after which, unlike team-mate Pepe, he did not go into the victor's dressing room to congratulate Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos.
Racing to 151 goals in his first 150 games had done nothing to endear himself to Real Madrid supporters – some who even whistled him in one game. And people were upset that despite earning around €27,000 (£22,500) a day – one and a half times what the average Spaniard (if he was not among the five million unemployed) earned in a year – he wanted a new contract that would improve his €10m (£8.3m) 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 52% tax on the salary meaning it costs them almost £40m a year. But respect has been earned too.
He stood up to Mourinho in that crash-and-burn final year under the now Chelsea manager. The image of Ronaldo and Mourinho stood on either side of the Santiago Bernabeu tunnel ahead of the coach's last game – with not a glance or a word exchanged between them – spoke volumes. The two had clashed in many behind closed-doors exchanges and he had surprised team-mates by standing his ground.
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 in-tact. 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.
"Is he going to play for Portugal one day? Reporters asked Ronaldo last week as he walked 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 recount that makes him Fifa's World Player for 2013 in January will confirm that.