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Saturday 8 June 2019

tortoise case file • privacy & power

Untouchable

By Tony Evans

Cristiano Ronaldo is elusive. Defenders cannot catch him. Even at 34, in what should be his waning days as a footballer, he was still good enough to shoot Portugal into the Nations League final against Holland this week with a hat-trick of goals in the 3-1 victory over Switzerland. Fernando Santos, his international manager, called him “a genius”.

Ronaldo completes his hat-trick for Portugal this week in the Nations League semi-final against Switzerland

Kathryn Mayorga calls him a rapist. The 34-year-old American wants to see the Juventus forward in court to face charges that he sexually assaulted her in a Nevada hotel. Ronaldo admits there was a physical encounter but claims it was consensual. The 10th anniversary of the alleged attack is on 13 June and the case shows no sign of nearing its conclusion. A Las Vegas police criminal investigation is making little headway and Mayorga’s lawyers cannot get close enough to the Portuguese to unnerve him. For a brief moment in time it appeared the #MeToo movement would at least force powerful men to confront claims made against them. Ronaldo is demonstrating that this was an illusion. He may well be innocent but seems to have no interest in proving his lack of guilt. The Juventus superstar lives in a bubble of wealth and fame that insulates him from these allegations.

Leslie Mark Stovall, the attorney engaged by Mayorga, has filed a civil suit against Ronaldo in federal court in the United States. A similar claim in the Nevada state system was withdrawn because federal laws are easier to enforce when dealing with non-US citizens. Trying to pin down a fantastically rich and famous footballer ratchets up the degree of difficulty of this type of legal action to almost impossible levels.

Ronaldo can afford the finest legal services in the world. Stovall & Associates is not quite in that league. There is a clear sense that the firm is not quite sure how to handle the media attention that a case like Mayorga’s brings. Larissa Drohobyczer, who deals with inquiries on the case, is slow to respond and there is a reluctance to engage on even the most general questions. Perhaps she is too busy blogging for the company’s website. In March she contributed an article entitled ‘Dog Bites: Infections and long-term injury.’ Negative publicity may be the only thing that can hurt Ronaldo but Stovall is not equipped to harness the power of the press. The lawyer is up against a finely tuned PR machine that has spent years finely tuning the player’s image as a role model and hero.

Kathryn Mayorga’s lawyer, Leslie Mark Stovall, has struggled to compete against Ronaldo’s finely tuned PR operation

Stovall hired a bailiff – a process server – in Italy to present Ronaldo with a writ. The bailiff spent months stalking the player but was unable to hand him the papers. “It is very hard to get near to footballers,” said a security and investigations expert based in Turin. He is unconnected with the Ronaldo case and prefers to remain anonymous but understands the level of cosseting celebrity sportsmen receive. “They are protected 24 hours a day. Juventus make sure it is difficult to get near them.

“A rich man can hide from the law even if they are in the public view.”

The obvious points of contact are the most secure. Ronaldo bowls into the Vinovo, Juve’s training facility, in his white Rolls Royce Cullinan. He is waved past the guards and barely gives the handful of fans hanging around near the gates a second look. No one at the facility is prepared to accept any paperwork on Ronaldo’s behalf. It is the same when he leaves, heading back to Collina, a leafy area just across the River Po from central Turin. It is the traditional district where footballers and VIPs reside. This is Piedmont’s Beverly Hills. It is close to the town centre but secluded – and crawling with security.

Ronaldo lives here with Georgina Rodriguez, his fiancé. They are not completely reclusive. “He is sometimes seen around the city,” Lorenzo Bettoni, a local journalist said. “Not too frequently but sometimes, yes. His fiancée Georgina does go around the city much more than him. She often shares social media stories from the central Parco del Valentino or from some of the main squares. Less than a month ago Georgina and Ronaldo went out for a night walk in the city centre. Of course, it was not crowded and it wasn’t full of fans so they could enjoy it more.”

Ronaldo and his fiancée Georgina Rodriguez are occasionally seen together in Turin

Occasions like this offer process servers a small window of opportunity, although the presence of minders would present a challenge. Ronaldo is never unprotected. The club are his first line of defence. On matchdays Juve’s Allianz Stadium is in lockdown. The coach carrying players to the Atalanta game is surrounded by a police escort and goes through a perimeter gate and inside the bowels of the stadium before its occupants disembark. A couple of hundred hand-picked fans, mostly children, are the only members of the public who can get near. They stand behind barriers lining the walls of the corridor. The players walk to the dressing room with their arms outstretched, touching the eager fingers of their acolytes on each side. Ronaldo goes through the routine without making eye contact. He appears serene, otherworldly and looks curiously young. Before kick off he receives the Italian player of the year award to adoring applause. He high-fives the zebra mascot.

“He’s a narcissist,” a coach who has worked with him, said. “He trains really hard to make himself better. But he thinks the other 10 players are there to make him look good. Everything is about him.”

“He’s a nice boy,” another backroom staff member at one of his former clubs said. “He likes to be loved. He spends so much time looking in the mirror. If you say ‘Your body’s looking good today, Cris,’ he’s delighted.”

A former colleague commented: “If he could make love to anyone it would be himself.”

During Ronaldo’s time at Real Madrid eyebrows were raised about his relationship with Badr Hadi, a Dutch cage fighter of Moroccan descent. The striker spent much of his spare time flying to north Africa to socialise with Hadi. The cage fighter published a photograph on social media holding Ronaldo in his arms like a bride being taken across the threshold with the caption: “Just married. Hahahaha. Always there to pick you up bro.” It sparked speculation about the player’s sexuality but those who have worked with Ronaldo have a different theory.

“He loves being around beautiful people,” a former colleague said. “Of either sex. But his ultimate sexual partner is in the mirror. If he could make love to anyone it would be himself.”

In Turin no one cares about Ronaldo’s sex life. On a wet night outside the Allianz every fan that was asked about the rape allegations shrugged and gave a version of “she’s just after his money”. One fan, wearing the Clockwork Orange logo of the Drughi Ultras, spat out “Fuck her.”

A Juventus fan holds up a banner of “CR7” in November last year

Bettoni confirms the lack of interest in the Mayorga case. “Does anyone care? Honestly, not too much,” he said. “Fans have always defended him. The media talk about it only when it is impossible not to talk about it. Even when there are news updates from the US there is not too much noise on the TV or in the papers in Italy.”

It is as if nothing happened 10 years ago. But something happened.

On the afternoon of 13 June, 2009, Mayorga reported to police an assault that occurred in the early hours. She underwent a rape kit examination at hospital but did not name Ronaldo, instead saying she had been raped by a “public figure” and “an athlete”. She felt intimidated because of his fame. The nurse’s notes were stark: “Patient’s rectum penetrated,” they say, adding that the ejaculation occurred “in assailant’s hands”.

Mayorga went to a female lawyer on the recommendation of a friend. The attorney was inexperienced and insensitivity shown by some policemen unnerved the then 25-year-old. After she named Ronaldo things got worse. The footballer’s lawyers employed private detectives and, whether by design or ineptitude, Mayorga noticed that she was being followed and observed. Her mental state deteriorated. The decision was made to settle. In the negotiations Ronaldo’s lawyers were like a Champions League team playing a pub side. Mayorga received £295,000 and signed a non-disclosure agreement. One of the purposes of serving the Portuguese with civil papers is to begin the process of overturning the non-disclosure clause.

Ronaldo, even a decade ago, could afford a payoff. He was earning an estimated £36 million per year after his move from Manchester United to Real. Now he is considerably wealthier. His net worth is estimated at £305 million. He owns a fleet of cars – the centrepiece being a £3.7 million Bugatti Chiron – and a variety of properties, including a £13 million apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan. The forward signed a lifetime sponsorship deal with Nike three years ago worth in the region of £790,000,000. The American company and EA Sports, his other main sponsor, expressed concern over the Mayorga allegations but took no action. The money continues to come rolling in. Ronaldo can afford the finest lawyers, engage scores of private detectives and squads of bodyguards.

Rodriguez gave birth to their daughter six months after Ronaldo had twins, probably from a surrogate mother

After the deal with Mayorga was negotiated he moved on. He had three children, a boy with a surrogate mother in 2010 and twins – one of each sex – seven years later who were likely conceived from frozen embryos. Six months after the arrival of the twins, Rodriguez gave birth to another little girl. Ronaldo’s life was unconventional but superficially wholesome.

Then Football Leaks produced information that could eventually shatter the illusion. The website was created by Rui Pinto, a Budapest-based Portuguese hacker. Pinto was mainly interested in exposing the financial underbelly of the game but in January 2017 he stumbled upon a file labelled “Las Vegas”. He opened it and found it contained details of the payment to Mayorga. Three months later Der Spiegel ran the story and named Ronaldo but not the alleged victim. The player’s agent called it “a piece of journalistic fiction”. There was only the merest flicker of interest across Europe. That began to change last summer when, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, Mayorga engaged Stovall and the lawyer approached Football Leaks for more information. What Pinto delivered was dynamite. It was a 27-page copy of an apparent interview with Ronaldo by one of his legal team. There were numerous transcripts of the conversation but the earliest version was shocking. Ronaldo, referred to as X, appears to back up the account of the incident provided by Mayorga (Ms C). “Did Ms C ever raise her voice, scream or yell?” X is asked.

“She said no and stop several times,” is the alleged reply.

Ronaldo is not very good at taking the blame. Against Atalanta his passing was off and he frequently wasted the ball. Even when it was clearly his fault he raged against his team-mates, gesturing dismissively and walking off with an angry little swagger. “He’s got worse throughout the season,” Bettoni said. “At the beginning he didn’t complain much. At the end of the season it was not rare to see him upset with the rest of his team-mates.”

“He’ll take responsibility for the glamour moments,” one of the coaches said. “If it’s a free kick to win the game, he’ll be at the front of the queue. He doesn’t like the dirty work. He’ll take responsibility for things that make him look good.”

It may well be that Ronaldo never has to face up to the accusations directed his way. Juventus are touring the Far East in the summer even though America has become the most important destination for big clubs. It’s been reported that the choice has been dictated by the fear that Ronaldo could be arrested if he set foot in the United States. Juve deny it is linked with Ronaldo’s situation but the statute of limitations in Nevada is 20 years for rape. It could be another decade before Ronaldo could safely return to Vegas.

Ronaldo may never have to face up to the accusations directed his way

There is also some unease about whether evidence supplied by Football Leaks would be admissible in court. Sports Illustrated’s legal expert Michael McCann believes the acceptability of hacked information is likely to be one of the main battlegrounds if the case goes that far. Christian Schertz, one of Ronaldo’s team of lawyers, has already claimed Mayorga’s suit is “blatantly illegal” and infringes privacy laws.

Ronaldo is a hard man to pin down. Mayorga and her lawyers may have no more luck than the legions of defenders who have chased the Portuguese pointlessly for his entire footballing career.

Further reading

Oliver Kay in The Times celebrates Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Manchester United in 2003 as the UK’s most expensive teenage signing

A New York Times profile of Cristiano Ronaldo as he prepared for one of his great triumphs: Portugal’s victory in the Euro 2016 final

Ronaldo’s Instagram feed. He is the most-followed individual in the world