Cult of Cristiano Ronaldo distracts from Real Madrids brilliance | Barney Ronay

Real Madrid are on the verge of a third Champions League title in four years, yet Ronaldos smothering persona is obscuring an exceptional event

Cristiano Ronaldo has been grandly ever-present before Saturdays Champions League final, lurking behind every object in your eyeline like the sky, or God. Away from football the Ronaldo newswire has been ticking and whirring away through the night. Ronaldo reveals his summer style secrets. Ronaldos girlfriend may or may not be pregnant. Ronaldo has been declared the most famous athlete on Earth by an algorithm.

As Real Madrid and Juventus complete their preparations for an intriguing final in Cardiff a large part of the analysis has, as ever, been bound up in trying to explain Ronaldo. Rarely can such miniature, deceptively simple athletic craft have been so carefully picked over. Not least in the last two years as Ronaldos movements have been scaled back into the supreme repetitions of his role as a pure goalscorer. And so the search goes on for the definitive take on that stylised robo-deity brilliance, the same movements, the same routine exceptionalism, a kind of chem-sex football, all manly, muscular, sculpted hunger.

It is probably key to the wider fascination that Ronaldos persona has become so hilariously glazed and distant. Like all the best icons he is alluringly blank. Ronaldos Instagram account is the fifth most followed in the world but also surely one of the most thrillingly bland.

Andy Warhol once said: My idea of a good picture is one thats in focus and of a famous person. Warhol would have really liked Ronaldos Instagram. Here it comes now. Cristiano is cycling on an exercise bike in a pair of designer jeans. Cristiano is leaning on his kitchen counter beaming cloudlessly like the youngest-ever president of the galactic space federation. Cristiano is in a backwards baseball cap doing a thumbs-up with Julia Roberts and pretending he knows who she is, but victorious, however briefly, in the constant struggle to keep his clothes on.

What does Ronaldo really do with himself, in those moments when he is simply being Ronaldo, unobserved? There are a few established facts we can go on. He owns a car that goes 254mph. He does 3,000 sit ups a day. His favourite song is I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly. Perhaps Ronaldo likes to do all three things at the same time, driving at 254mph while doing sit-ups and listening to I Believe I Can Fly. Training gear. Six pad. Warhol also said: I want to be a machine.

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Ronaldo isnt actually a machine, although if he were he would be a very good machine probably the best machine ever. The reason for going on about this here is that slight feeling of embedded confusion, of so many waves of guff to be shed and waded through around the edges. The cult of celebrity personality has always been a part of football but not quite like this. The Ronaldo persona, the sheer weight of his presence feels like a distraction from the more interesting issues around his team.

Real Madrid are, lest we forget, on the verge of something exceptional in Cardiff, a game away from a third Champions League in four years. Should this happen Zidane-era Madrid will be the first team since Arrigo Sacchis great Milan in 1990 to retain the European Cup. On their record they can also claim to be one of the greatest club teams ever. Three in four years: only Bayern Munich in the early 1970s, the Ajax of Johan Cruyff and the all-star Madrid team who won five in a row in the 1950s have bettered this.

Which is an odd thing in itself. Because generally and clear your mind of Ronaldo; put the sixpad down we love these great teams in other ways. We feel theyre not just great. They mean something. Cruyff and post-Cruyff Ajax meant something. Some have theories about total football as an emblem of the enskilling of human beings, a pushing back against the alienation of post-industrial life. This is almost certainly a load of wiffle but it is persuasive, romantic wiffle. Cruyff talked a lot about the mathematics of that team, about football as a function of distance, making a connection between the teams style and his own exceptional facility with mental arithmetic.

Cristiano Ronaldo is said to own a car that goes 254mph, does 3,000 sit-ups a day and his favourite song is I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly. Photograph: Pierre Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

This is obscure but its interesting. Its a thing. Just as Manchester United in the 1990s were interesting, a team who expressed a certain home-town verve, a city-based confidence, and Sacchis Milan were a brilliant, living science project, an ideal of sustained, fearless collectivism.

What does this Madrid team mean? On the face of it, it means there are really good footballers in the world and that if you have lots of money and a really good brand you can buy them.

Not that this Madrid arent a wonderful team. These are wonderfully irrepressible footballers in their own right. The midfield three of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are droolingly good. The defence are supremely assertive and athletic. This is no hurled together collection of stars either. The first choice XI have been at the club for, on average, six and a half years.

But still. Being exceptional: this is their exceptional quality. Just as if it means anything this team are simply the ultimate expression of the super-club culture, of the extraordinary centralisation of power and resources.

Football has always been like this. Madrid have always bought big. They tried to buy Pel for 15m in 1974. But not quite to this extreme, desiccating degree. The value of the Madrid starting XI often tops the 350m mark. Their rivals are almost all variations on this.

And of course attempts to succeed some other way are caught up and in the ripples of this voracious inferno. Try building something now. Monaco, who might have grown to dominate the next five years, are already in the process of being dismantled. And so on we go. Juventus are also a wonderful team and well capable of spiking that bid for club football ultimacy.

For now Madrid remain gloriously poised, if still somehow a little vague around the edges. Looking for something to love, to feel moved by, you find yourself staring as ever at those endless Ronaldo repetitions, alluring, unstoppable, and opaque in their chanceless brilliance.

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