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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Soccer Star’s Misadventure Leaves His Fans Smirking

RIO DE JANEIRO — In a city famed for sexual tolerance, the men who shine on the soccer field are held to a different, more macho standard.

Ronaldo Luis Nazário de Lima, a striker for the team AC Milan, has been in Brazil recovering from a knee injury.

Fans cringed on Monday when the Brazilian soccer icon Ronaldo Luis Nazário de Lima — known simply as Ronaldo in the soccer world — was questioned by the police here after he invited three male, cross-dressing prostitutes to a pay-by-the-hour motel room.

Ronaldo, the striker for Italy’s A.C. Milan team, told the police he tried to send the transvestites away, with payment, after discovering they were men. But one of the men argued he was not given the agreed amount, and the police intervened, making public a private moment that is exposing how seriously some Brazilians take soccer’s manly culture.

Prostitution is legal here, and Ronaldo faces no criminal charges. His behavior was “at most, immoral,” Carlos Augusto Nogueira, the investigating officer, said in televised statements.

But not all of Brazil’s soccer fans seem ready to forgive and forget. Reports of Ronaldo’s wild night, which ended around 8 a.m., have become Page 1 news here.

To be clear, the criticism he is facing is nothing compared with the media frenzy that would probably have erupted in other countries where prostitution is illegal — and sexual mores more rigid. Still, the fact that Ronaldo’s misadventure has been front-page news here for several days — and that some cartoonists and blogs have made him the butt of jokes, even as other commentators have said his behavior is unbecoming of a role model — is evidence that soccer stars are held to a different standard.

For those fans, the essence of the so-called beautiful game is deeply masculine, and its big-name players are expected to be exemplars of heterosexuality.

“Fans here aren’t shocked by footballers going with prostitutes,” said Roberto da Matta, an anthropologist. “But many will question the player’s masculinity.”

Fernando Santos is one. “My guess is behind closed doors a lot happened between Ronaldo and those three transvestites,” said Mr. Santos, 45, who was drinking a beer Thursday after playing a pickup soccer game. “If he plays in Brazil again, there will be insults from the stands.”

Ewerton Correa, who was sitting nearby, offered a preview. “They say Ronaldo is bringing three new players to the team and paying their salaries,” said Mr. Correa, 36, drawing laughs from other men at the field.

Since joining Brazil’s national team at the age of 17, Ronaldo, now 31, has been linked with a procession of gorgeous women, from models to celebrities.

Two former girlfriends who posed in Playboy in 1998 were nicknamed “Ronaldinhas” in the magazine. A year after that, Ronaldo married and had a son, divorcing after four years. He was later briefly engaged to the Brazilian model and MTV V.J. Daniela Cicarelli, and later dated the Brazilian model Raica Oliveira.

Now, his image as a legendary womanizer has been clouded by his apparent confusion, however momentary, over whether the prostitutes were even women.

“The football milieu here really distances itself from any hint of homosexuality, despite it being accepted in society at large,” said Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, a former soccer star who is also a doctor and a soccer columnist.

Ronaldo has received reverential treatment by the Brazilian news media over the years, owing to his memorable exploits on the soccer field. After growing up in Bento Ribeiro, a humble neighborhood in Rio, he played nearly all his professional career abroad and has become one of the highest-paid players in the world. He regularly returned to play for the Brazilian national team and is the world’s leading career goal scorer in World Cup competitions, with 15 goals.

But persistent knee injuries have slowed his career, and his latest, suffered in February, ended his season and fueled speculation that the three-time World Player of the Year would finally be forced to retire, which he has denied. Some sports commentators here are betting that Ronaldo eventually returns to a Brazilian club.

“His plan is to head back to Milan soon,” said Felipe Bruno, Ronaldo’s spokesman.

On the night in question, Ronaldo was out on the town after watching his beloved Flamengo, the club he rooted for as a boy, play at Maracana stadium. Later, at around 4 a.m., he picked up “Andreia Albertini,” a 21-year-old transvestite whose real name is André Luis Ribeiro Albertino. Once at a motel, Mr. Albertino suggested calling in two colleagues, according to local media reports and interviews Mr. Albertino gave on television.

The police did not respond to inquiries about the incident made on Friday.

Two of the prostitutes accepted payment of about $600, Mr. Albertino said on television. But Officer Nogueira said Mr. Albertino asked for a payment of about $30,000 in exchange for keeping the story from the press.

Officer Nogueira also said Mr. Albertino claimed that Ronaldo threatened to hurt him. Mr. Bruno denied that Ronaldo made any such threat.

In a statement Mr. Bruno said, “The recent events involving the athlete Ronaldo are of a personal nature.” He denied reports the player would face more police questioning, as well as Mr. Albertino’s allegations that Ronaldo took drugs on the night in question. “Ronaldo doesn’t use drugs at all,” he said.

Ronaldo’s agent, Fabiano Farah, said in an e-mailed statement sent Friday: “He has committed no crime, he has broken no law. On the contrary, he is the victim in this case.”

The Ronaldo incident is not the first time expectations about a soccer player’s sexuality have stirred controversy. In São Paulo, the site of one of the world’s biggest annual Gay Pride parades, the director of a prominent soccer team last August accused a midfielder of being gay. The player filed a complaint for slander.

Judge Manoel Maximiano Junqueira Filho dismissed the complaint, stating that soccer was a “virile game” and “not homosexual.” He suggested that a homosexual player should leave the team or start a team or league of their own. After being criticized, the judge later withdrew the opinion.

A few years ago, a group of transvestites set up a team of their own, Roza FC, which played near Bento Ribeiro, where Ronaldo grew up. Determined to fit into the soccer-crazed culture, they were believed to be the world’s only all-transvestite team, said Alex Bellos, author of “Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way.”

“They were saying, ‘We can play football, too,’ ” Mr. Bellos said. “It was a way for them to try to win acceptance.”


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