PARIS – When a clown acts sad, we know it is our cue to laugh. It's no different with Cristiano Ronaldo.
By broadcasting to the world that he is "feeling sad" but refusing to say why, Real Madrid's star has invented an amusing new parlor game — "What's eating Tristiano?" — to entertain us in these early days of the European soccer season when the action on the field hasn't yet built a full head of steam.
Could the world's most self-important player perhaps be miffed that Mario Balotelli at Manchester City has better hair? Did his young son make the mistake of asking daddy to get him Lionel Messi's autograph? Did girlfriend Irina Shayk give him nightmares by running their photos through one of those make-me-look-old mobile phone apps, showing him how the beautiful couple will appear when they're wrinkly? Who knows? Who cares?
And that's the fun of it. Beats watching the likes of Albania play Cyprus in the first round of qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup. With the Champions League not under way until mid-September and, in domestic leagues, Madrid, Manchester United and other major teams still dusting off summer cobwebs and breaking in new recruits, Ronaldo seized the opportunity for self-aggrandizement before the business of soccer gets truly serious.
Instead of shirt thumping and fist pumping, the melancholy one flagged that something was amiss by pointedly chewing his lower lip and not deliriously celebrating his two goals against Granada last weekend. As subtle as a trumpet, the playacting won't win him an Oscar but it got the desired result: attention.
"That I am feeling sad and have expressed this sadness has created a huge stir," he later stated to his nearly 13 million followers on Twitter. Was that a note of feigned surprise or smug satisfaction?
Genius. Not only did the melodrama generate headlines worldwide — "Rich, good-looking and sad Ronaldo rattles Real" was one in India — it even got its own Twitter hashtag. (hash)CristianoEstáTristePorque — CristianoIsSadBecause. Twitterati didn't need asking twice to fill in the blanks. One of the funniest guesses so far: "He plucked one eyebrow more than another and now he's not symmetrical."
Cristiano, you tease. He has given us so few clues — just enough to muddy the waters and so pique interest even further.
Saying his sadness stems from unspecified "professional" reasons and that "the people in the club know why" appeared to rule out a broken heart or personal problem.
And that's good, because it wouldn't be half as jolly poking fun at Ronaldo if we knew he had genuine cause to feel sorry for himself.
Assuming that he must be angling for more money from Madrid, some bores immediately whistled for their high horses, trotting out the usual stuff about out-of-touch superstars. How many sports cars does a man need? With Forbes.com estimating his annual earnings at $42.5 million, isn't that sufficient? Doesn't he realize there's deep recession in Spain, with unemployment at nearly 25 percent?
Yakety-yak. Criticizing players as greedy and overpaid is too easy. Behind each one of them on a silly salary is a silly club, too. Ronaldo is the marquee player, jersey-seller and scorer of 150 goals in 149 games for the highest-earning club in world soccer, with revenues approaching more than $600 million annually. Why shouldn't he push for more from Madrid if his market worth justifies it?
I have no idea if it does. His star agent, Jorge Mendes, isn't talking. But he is playing along with Ronaldo's little game, with a statement on his website saying he knows what's eating his client but "it is up to Cristiano Ronaldo himself to disclose them or not."
The melancholy one himself suggested the roots of his sorrow aren't financial. "I am accused of wanting more money, but one day it will be shown that this is not the case," said his tweet.
Not one day too soon, one hopes, because we're just getting warmed up to this guessing game.
But something "professional."
Mirrors in the Madrid dressing room not big enough for him, perhaps?
Or not enough of them?
Tubs of hair gel too small? (This, remember, is a player who quickly readjusted his hair after seeing himself on the stadium's big screen during a match at Euro 2012).
Not getting enough respect at Madrid?
Not enough adoration?
Certainly, seemingly nothing important enough for Ronaldo to feel compelled to just spit it out or, for the moment at least, to move elsewhere.
No, instead we've just got a riddle and the tears of a clown.
And they're never meant to be taken too seriously.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester