Cristiano Ronaldo is a compassionate warrior, believes ex-coach Dan Gaspar

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He knows Cristiano Ronaldo better than anyone else. He is one of the few fortunate coaches who had been involved with the meteoric rise of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. A close friend of legendary manager Carlos Queiroz and FIFA World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Dan Gaspar sometimes gets miffed at how the term “arrogant” gets thrown at his brightest pupil unnecessarily.

Apart from being Iran’s assistant coach under Queiroz, the 65-year-old has also worked as a technical assistant and a goalkeeping coach for Portugal and South Africa at the national level, and Sporting CP, Benfica, and Porto at the club level. In an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, he shares his thoughts on coaching, Portugal’s historic UEFA European Championship triumph, and obviously his days with Ronaldo.

After being associated with Portuguese football for decades, how did you feel when Ronaldo led Portugal to their first-ever Euro five years back?

It’s an honor and a privilege to be a very small part of such an amazing journey. The success Portugal have attained in the international arena becomes even more incredible when you consider the small population [just over 10 million] of the country. Every Portuguese citizen’s heart was filled with joy when Cristiano raised the Euro Championship trophy. I believe it was one of his proudest moments. He led the team to victory on and off the pitch. It was a tournament where Ronaldo not only demonstrated his world-class skills but also proved to be a world-class captain.

Season after season, Ronaldo racks up more minutes on the pitch than any other member of the squad. As you have seen him closely, how does he keep himself super fit even at the age of 36?

Once during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Ronaldo and I were alone in the steam room. I had asked him, “What motivates you?” and he had simply replied, “Winning. I want to be the best in the world, the best of all time.” Ronaldo lives every second, minute, hour, day, week, month, and year of his life working hard to be the best of all times by shattering records. He surrounds himself with a world-class team, the best medical staff, nutritionist, performance trainer etc. who are all on the same mission. He’s always the first at the training ground and the last one to leave.

There is a debate that Ronaldo is generally egoistic and does not respect his teammates. What’s your take on that?

There are different types of leaders. Ronaldo is one of those leaders who demonstrate not with words but instead through his actions. People often confuse arrogance with confidence. His leadership and maturity have evolved over the years. Through your experiences, you gain wisdom, knowledge, and compassion. What people don’t realize is his tremendous generosity behind the scenes. He has a huge heart.

Dan Gaspar with former Iran head coach Carlos Queiroz.

How was your experience working for Queiroz and Scolari?

Two different coaching and leadership styles.

Carlos Queiroz is a visionary. He is consumed with attention to detail both on and off the field. He crafts and shares with his staff a very crystal-clear picture of his methods and mission. He implements the vertical integration process which means all departments are linked together with the same purpose. The responsibilities are allocated and assigned. If you have the privilege of working with Queiroz, you need to be prepared to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His work ethic is incredible. A consummate professional. A master educator and motivator.

Luis Filipe Scolari is a World Cup champion. A proven winner. I believe his style of coaching is reflected by his Brazilian culture. First, he has had the opportunity to train and coach the best players on the planet. As a result of the Brazilian players’ talent, his environment was loose and fun. Scolari has a big presence who battled hard for his beliefs. Strong personality and motivator. His loyalty was unconditional with the players and staff. If he believes in you, he will win or lose with you until the very end. His loyal staff was always part of his new projects. He trusted them and gave them the freedom to express themselves and add value to the process. With any new project, the first thing he would bring into camp was a sports psychologist who would gather information based on a questionnaire.

Dan Gaspar, on the left, with former Brazil head coach Luis Filipe Scolari, on the right.

Lionel Messi is likely to leave Barcelona at the end of the season. What’s your take on that?

Lionel Messi is a great player. However, I believe he is at his best when he plays in Barcelona’s style of play. Barcelona need to retool and provide a better supporting cast to Messi. They are simply not good enough at the moment.

The Indian Super League has garnered some interest in recent years. Legendary players like Zico, Marco Materazzi, Robert Pires, and Luis Garcia have coached or played. Do you have any plan to coach here if offered?

I have been very fortunate and blessed to have worked on four continents with world-class coaches and players at the highest levels. I love the challenge to make a difference in every project I’m deeply involved in. I have spoken to colleagues who have worked in the Indian Super League and would be open to an opportunity to share my knowledge with India.

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My name is Dan Gaspar and I want to share a story about Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a story that I’m sure you are not aware of, but one that needs to be told.

I believe in destiny — this is an example. Behind the superstar is a genuine and caring human being.

I was fortunate to be invited by Professor Carlos Queiroz, Portugal national team coach, to join their staff for qualification for the 2010 World Cup. I have worked with Carlos before, and I felt honored to be a part of Portugal’s preparations this time around.

Not long after, I received a phone call from a good friend, John Moreira. John has worked at Star Goalkeeper Academy, a camp that I own.

He and his family are good friends of mine and have been for many years. His son Brandon, who was a quality footballer, was experiencing knee problems. The doctors initially thought he was suffering from a football injury. It turned out that Brandon had Osteosarcoma (bone cancer).

The Moreiras had a difficult decision to make; amputate the leg or receive chemotherapy in the hopes that they could catch all of the cancer.

Brandon’s passion was football. The thought of having one of his legs amputated was devastating to the teenager. He couldn’t imagine a life with one of his legs missing. The family opted for chemotherapy.

Throughout this trying period, John had kept in touch with me and regularly updated me on Brandon’s status. So, it was devastating to hear that not only did the chemo fail to shrink the size of the tumor, but also the cancer had metastasized to other parts of the body.

John and I shared a special bond and I felt compelled to be there for my friend and his family. I jumped onto a plane and flew to Toronto.

Brandon was a very special young man. Instead of me offering Brandon support and courage, Brandon gave me much more than I could give him.

He was calm, brave and his warrior-spirit imbued his house with a sense of peace. He was an inspiration. Despite having lost a considerable amount of weight and entangled in oxygen tubes, in his soft-spoken voice he always managed to say just the right thing.

He pleaded with everyone to not be angry, and that God is good. Sixteen years old! That was his gift to all of us.

His dad John said that Brandon had created a bucket of wishes. One of his wishes was to go to Old Trafford and watch Ronaldo train. Given the circumstances, that wish was not going to come true.

Like so many kids around the globe, Ronaldo was Brandon’s idol. He thought Ronaldo was the best footballer on the planet. Pictures of the Portuguese winger in full gallop gliding with ease past bewildered defenders covered Brandon’s bedroom wall.

John asked me if I would contact Ronaldo and asks him to call his dying son. I informed John that I did only one game with Portugal’s Under-23 team with Ronaldo. The likelihood of Ronaldo remembering me was remote, but I would do my best.

I wanted so badly to fulfill Brandon’s wish. He was a remarkable human being, and it was the least I could do for my friend and his son.

I called the head coach of Portugal, Queiroz, and explained Brandon’s situation to him. Carlos and I have worked together on many projects and we have known each other for years. We are brothers.

I said to Carlos: “I have not asked you for much, but this is a special request, and it would mean a lot to me if you could help me as well as my friend.”

Carlos said he would do his best, but he could not make any promises. But I knew that if anyone had the influence to be able to help me to help Brandon and his family, it was him.

To contact Ronaldo, you have to go through several layers of people – agents, managers, lawyers, etc.… and you never know how long that may take.

Carlos called me back the same day and said: “The mission is in motion.”

I knew that Carlos would come through.

In the meantime, I knew Brandon was a Manchester United, Benfica, and FC Porto fan. I called my contacts and asked if they could call Brandon, to give him strength and urge him to continue to fight his battle.

José Moreira from Benfica and Vitor Baia from FC Porto all called to wish him well. They were all special, but they were not Ronaldo – he had still not called.

I needed to get back to the University of Hartford. The Hartford Hawks had a game on Saturday evening, and I flew back on the Friday before. Saturday was a great evening. The University of Hartford beat The University of New Hampshire and I also received a call from John that Ronaldo did call.

It was a tremendous relief for me, and I knew what it meant to Brandon. In fact, he promised Brandon he would call the following day.

Brandon’s house was full of his friends, anxiously waiting for his phone to ring. Ronaldo did not disappoint. He called and Brandon and a house full of friends and family were overjoyed.

Manchester United was playing away to Chelsea that weekend in September. Ronaldo promised to send his match jersey and boots to Brandon.

Brandon was ecstatic, but it was the conversation that he cherished most. He said, “I can’t believe I just spoke with my idol, Cristiano Ronaldo – I am the happiest kid alive.”

A couple of days later Ronaldo went on to text Brandon to see how he was feeling.

Brandon, only 17, died on October 3, 2008. Ronaldo sent his autographed boots, framed jersey, and a telegram with his condolences.

But in his telegram, it was this message that moved Brandon’s family the most. It said: “True champions are those who fight till their last breath and that is the image I have of Brandon.”

I returned to Toronto to attend Brandon’s wake and funeral. All of Ronaldo’s items were wrapped around the casket. It was amazing.

In February, I returned to Toronto to do a goalkeeper seminar. John asked me to go for a ride. We went to Brandon’s mausoleum. I was stunned by what I saw – Cristiano Ronaldo’s bronzed jersey and boots. Beneath them were engraved the words from Ronaldo’s text message.

Queiroz invited me to join Portugal as it prepared for its World Cup qualification match against Albania on June 6, 2009, and a friendly match against Estonia on June 10.

It’s fascinating how life works. Of course, I accepted the invitation to join their staff with honor. The team included the FIFA selection for the 2008 ‘World Player of the Year’, Cristiano Ronaldo. His transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid was a world record.

When John’s family knew I was going to join the national team again, they had a request. They had several items they wanted Ronaldo to sign, and they wrote a thank you card for him.

I flew to Toronto to meet with John’s family and to pick up the items they wanted signed by Ronaldo. Then it was off to Lisbon for a national team training camp.

When I arrived, I let a few days pass before I approached Ronaldo. As you can imagine, everyone wants a piece of him.

During lunch one afternoon, Ronaldo and I were near the buffet table. I told Ronaldo that I had a special story to share with him and could we spend a few minutes together? He agreed and met me in my room.

It was an emotional meeting as I shared with Cristiano all the details of the impact he had on Brandon, his family, and friends. Ronaldo listened carefully.

I wanted to emphasize the responsibility an athlete like Cristiano has to young and impressionable people like Brandon. As we talked, it was touching to see a vulnerable and compassionate side to a guy who is a warrior on the field.

The last thing I mentioned to Ronaldo was that Brandon had kept a daily diary. On the last page, it read” “I spoke to Ronaldo; I can now go to heaven.”

That is the real truth behind Cristiano Ronaldo.



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