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I took a trip to Cristiano Ronaldo's home, Madeira, and found an island where he is worshipped like a god by adoring locals and fans alike

Barnaby Lane   

I took a trip to Cristiano Ronaldo's home, Madeira, and found an island where he is worshipped like a god by adoring locals and fans alike
  • The beautiful island of Madeira on which Cristiano Ronaldo was born is a shrine to the soccer icon.
  • The Manchester United star is omnipresent, especially in the capital, Funchal.

MADEIRA, Portugal — Within moments of touching down at the Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport in Funchal, I knew I'd arrived on an island that is infatuated with its biggest ever star.

While the name of the airport was, of course, a giveaway, it was a short conversation with a staff member that really made it clear.

"So, do you like Manchester United?" the man asked me as he checked by vaccination credentials.

Perhaps he was just trying to make small talk with a Brit in his twenties travelling alone and soccer was the first thing that sprung to mind, but I'd given him no indication at this point that I was a sports reporter, nor that I even liked soccer.

"I'm a Chelsea fan," I told him, truthfully.

"Where are you staying?" he then asked, looking almost disappointed with my first answer. When I told him I was staying at the CR7 Funchal — Ronaldo's own Ronaldo-themed hotel — his face lit up again.

"So you like Cristiano!?" he exclaimed, adding before I'd even had a chance to answer: "He is the best."

A brief exchange about Ronaldo's exploits for United this season followed, before I asked which bus to take and went on my way.

"Make sure you go inside the museum!" he said as I walked off.

While the exchange lasted just a couple of minutes, it gave a great flavor of what I was to expect in the following four days on Madeira — an island truly obsessed with its greatest son.

Ronaldo is worshipped like a demigod on his home island

Ronaldo was born in the São Pedro parish of Funchal, Madeira's capital, and spent his formative years living in the nearby parish of Santo António with his parents, his older brother, and his two older sisters. He grew up poor, having to share a room with all three of his siblings.

His journey to soccer stardom began aged seven when he began playing for local club CF Andorinha, where his father was the kit man. Aged 10, he signed for CD Nacional, his first professional club, before two years later, he left Madeira to join Sporting Lisbon after a successful three-day trial.

The rest, of course, is history.

In spells with Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus, Ronaldo has proved himself to be one of soccer's all-time greats, scoring hundreds of goals (800 to be precise), and ascending himself to a pedestal on which only a few other players — namely Pele, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi — can claim to stand.

Despite having left as just a boy, Ronaldo is omnipresent on Madeira. He's the island's most famous export, outstripping its delicious fortified wine in notoriety, and the islanders really want you to know about it.

Inside the airport, which was renamed after the Manchester United star in 2016 and has his face as its logo, there is a shop which sells an array of Ronaldo-themed items. Outside lies the infamous bust of the striker which was so lamented when it was first revealed that it had to be replaced.

Next to the Funchal's harbour is Praça CR7 – a town square named after Ronaldo.

On the square is Ronaldo's hotel — where I had the pleasure of staying — as well as his own museum, which is run by Ronaldo's brother, Hugo, and houses more than 200 trophies and countless other pieces of memorabilia.

There's also a three-meter tall bronze statue of the man himself, which during my four-day stay had an almost constant queue of people near it wanting to pose for photographs.

Venturing away from the harbour, Ronaldo's presence doesn't waiver. Splattered across Funchal and further are various pieces of artwork of the Portuguese icon, the most impressive being a graffiti mural of him celebrating his Euro 2016 win with Portugal. Shops are filled with Ronaldo shirts and restaurant owners proudly display photos of themselves and their staff with Ronaldo on the walls of their establishments.

Up in the hills is the Estádio da Madeira – the home of Ronaldo's boyhood team Nacional. The stadium is yet another homage to striker, with its museum full of memorabilia from his brief spell at the club. The club's academy is also named after him and features his photos on its entrance.

Madeira, especially Funchal, is a shrine to Ronaldo, and his followers from across the world flock to the island to pay their respects to their idol.

"Sometimes I ask people who come here, why they chose Madeira, and some of them say they chose it because they wanted to see the land of the best in the world," Nuno Mendes, who is the director of the CR7 Museu, told Insider.

"Especially kids that are crazy about football. Sometimes their parents tell me that they wanted to go elsewhere but say that they came for the children."

Martim, a Nacional fan, sat near me as we watched Nacional take on Chaves on a chilly Monday night amid a crowd full of English, Scottish, German, Spanish, and even Americans.

"There aren't many places you'd come on vacation and go and watch a second tier football match. People come because it's Ronaldo's old team," he said.

"People come to Madeira simply because of Ronaldo."

Ronaldo's fame has been huge for the island

Not everybody who visits Madeira comes because of Ronaldo.

It is, after all, a beautiful island in its own right, rich in culture and history. It also boasts beautiful weather almost all year round, with temperatures rarely dropping below 61 degrees Fahrenheit and peaking at 100, making it an ideal location for a sunny getaway.

There is no doubt, however, that Ronaldo's rise to stardom has been of huge benefit to the island.

In 2005, two years after Ronaldo had first joined Manchester United, Madeira had 1,010,000 tourists visit the island, according to the University of Madeira. By 2017, the year which Ronaldo won his fifth Ballon d'Or, that number had risen to over 1.5 million, according to Statista.

A study published by the University of Coimbra, per The Portugal News, in November highlighted that Madeira was voted as the "Best Island Destination in the World" between 2015 and 2020 at the World Travel Awards, adding that "the notoriety of Cristiano Ronaldo influences a whole chain of attitudes, reactions and personal and social behaviors with a positive impact on tourism in Madeira."

The study also stated that the awards coincide with a large increase the number of followers Ronaldo has on Instagram, while a survey of 500 people mostly agreed that Ronaldo "positively influences the image of Madeira."

Ian Coates of Archipelago Choice, an award winning travel agency which specializes in organizing vacations to the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde, has seen Ronaldo's impact on the island first hand.

"I would definitely say that's true," Coates told Insider when asked if he believes Ronaldo has positively impacted Madeira's tourist industry.

"The success of Ronaldo reflects well on Madeira. If you look at his social media, his following his huge, and what he does is just constantly create awareness. People always link Ronaldo and Madeira, always."

Ronaldo, in partnership with the local government, often posts about Madeira on his Instagram, which has over 375 million followers – more than any other person on the platform.

"He constantly keeps Madeira in the news," Coates added.

"The destination has already got history, it's a safe place to go to, the weather is great. It's four hours from anywhere in Europe. But then on top of that, you've got this guy that just so happens to come from Madeira and it just adds to that montage of great marketing tools that they have.

"Ronaldo is the ace in the deck."

Museum director Mendes, who lives in Funchal, has also witnessed Ronaldo's influence on Madeira, telling me that the museum has had "more than 400,000 visitors" since it opened in 2016.

"Ronaldo no doubt promotes our island," he said.

"Madeirans are very proud to have Ronaldo playing football and promoting the island because we need the tourism, we need the money that tourists spend here. Ronaldo brings a lot of people here."

Madeira loves Ronaldo, and Ronaldo loves Madeira

In Portugal, family is seen as the foundation of the country's social structure, while families also tend to stick close together in terms of where they live throughout many generations.

Both are true of Ronaldo, who owns a $9.7 million, seven-story mansion on Funchal's harbour, where he spent a large chunk of the early months of the coronavirus pandemic with his partner, Georgina Rodriguez, and his four children.

Ronaldo has also donated plenty of his own money to Madeira over the years.

Amid the pandemic in 2020, he donated five ventilators to the island's Regional Health Service. In 2016, he donated $100,000 to the island after a forest fire killed three and left others homeless. In 2010, when 51 people were killed in floods and mudslides, he played in a charity soccer match against Porto to raise funds for those affected.

"I was born and raised on the island. It's given me so much. This is why I want to make myself available to help in whatever possible way," he said at the time of the floods.

When Ronaldo first left Madeira as a boy for Lisbon, he often travelled back to the island to visit, missing his family and the "familiarity of living in a neighborhood where most of the roofs are an Iberian orange" and "no one needs to know the names of the roads because every family lives in the same house it has always lived in," according to The New York Times.

Though he eventually overcame his homesickness and went on to conquer the world, he has always made it clear where home is.

"Never forget where you came from," Ronaldo wrote on an Instagram post of him posing on the island last April.

"Home sweet home."


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