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Ronaldo, the skinny kid who brought fame to Funchal

A car park with a spectacular view of Funchal bay now stands on the site of the house where Cristiano Ronaldo grew up and became a football genius in the dusty streets.

The superstar’s name now brings tourists to the island of Madeira and the main town will again fall silent each time Ronaldo is playing for Portugal in the European Championship finals in June.

There is a three metre (11 feet) high statue in Funchal, the CR7 Museum has wax effigies of the footballer alongside some of his trophies and Ronaldo’s face stares out from holiday guides.

In Funchal, local people say the town hall decided to demolish the modest Ronaldo house to put off onlookers after the footballer’s father died in 2005.

But they also love to recall their favourite Ronaldo tales.

“When he was six years old, Cristiano juggled the ball alone in front of his house. The ball never touched the ground,” said a neighbour from the time, 73-year-old Adelino Andrade.

Now 31, Ronaldo remains one of the most marketable sports superstars, a fashion icon who is not ashamed to show off his six-pack abs.

Neighbours recall a skinny boy running around the Santo Antonio district on a hill overlooking Funchal, capital of the island which each year welcomes about one million tourists with its sunshine and volcanic beauty.

Portugal’s captain first attracted scouts playing for CF Andorinha, a modest club which proudly shows off its links to the player.

“We opened the football doors for him. He needed a club to show his talent,” said Androinha’s president Jose Bacelar, 67, who coached the senior team when Ronaldo first joined the club at the age of seven.

“It’s Andorinha that was lucky that he started here,” Bacelar added. “Even at that time, he had an extraordinary technique.”

There are Ronaldo portraits around the club. The face of the young Ronaldo stares out from the club shirts that players wear now.

Andorinha have banned the use of Number 7 on their shirts. It is reserved for the star, “if he decides to come back one day”.

The Ronaldo name was already well known at Andorinha before he arrived. His father was a caretaker at the club.

“He was very close to his father, who took him by the hand to Andorinha,” recalled ex-neighbour Andrade.

The family was poor. Neighbours recalled that the father was known to have a drink and his mother, Dolores Aveiro, was a powerful figure in the family. Ronaldo has a brother and two sisters.

“Cristiano learned the hard way, through adversity,” said Bacelar. “Things are too easy for young people today. There won’t be another Ronaldo come through.”

Ricardo Santos, 30, played alongside Ronaldo at Andorinha.

“Things were difficult at home for him. So he spent a lot of time in the street playing football,” Santos said. Ronaldo played with his friends and cousins, who were all older and tougher. “You learn other ways to play in the street,” he added.

The youths who play on the Andorinha pitch now dream of following in Ronaldo’s footsteps.

“Ronaldo is the best model,” declared nine-year-old Jose Pedro. “When I take a free-kick, I do exactly like he does. It always goes in.”

At the age of nine, Ronaldo joined the Nacional Madeira team. The rest is history. He was spotted by Sporting Lisbon, transferred to Manchester United as a teenager and then went to Real Madrid in what was then the world’s highest transfer.

Ronaldo now has more trophies and records than he can count.

“At the time, he was already special,” said Santos. “I remember one match and we were leading 3-0 when he went off with an injured head. In the end we lost 4-3.”

Everyone who knew Ronaldo says that he always had a ball at his feet. It was through non-stop practice that he became a superstar.

“Cristiano is never satisfied, he always wants to be better,” said his cousin Nuno Viveiros, who grew up in the same district and now looks after the Ronaldo museum in Funchal.

Having won the Champions League and national titles across Europe, a trophy with Portugal, for whom he will be the lynchpin at Euro 2016, “is the only little star missing” from his record, said his cousin.

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