FUNCHAL, Portugal — The waiter at the little café used to be a soldier. A long time ago, Alberto Martins went to war with a boy he grew up with, Dinis Aveiro, whose son would grow up to be Cristiano Ronaldo.
They'd known each other since childhood when they flew into Africa on Sept. 4, 1974. They rode a rattling train with wooden benches through Angola, a train so slow they could get off and smoke and then jog to catch back up. Trucks took them from the end of the train line to a village by the Zambian border, a place named Mossuma. This was their new home, in the hot African savannah, with nights black and ominous, conjuring a familiar feeling for boys who grew up on an island surrounded by deep water and powerful currents.
They returned to that island after the war, and neither moved away. Aveiro worked a little, when he could find an odd job here and there, and he drank a lot, relying on the charity of friends for his next round whenever the money ran out, which it always did. Long before Ronaldo became famous, and before Aveiro fell low enough to sell his son's Manchester United jerseys so he could buy booze, he'd always tell his friends, including Martins, he had a son who'd get all the things he'd failed to get out of life. "My son will be the best player in the world," he'd tell them, and they would always laugh and roll their eyes.
"We would call him a fool," Martins says. "He always believed."
THESE STORIES ABOUT superstars always end up being about fathers and sons, don't they? The invisible things driving someone to greatness are often created by trying to live up to someone, or trying to live someone down. That's certainly true here. In Ronaldo's recent, bizarre self-commissioned documentary about himself, the intended id strut dissolved quickly into loneliness, riddled with windows into what seems like an obvious insecurity. In the first intimate shot we see of the Portugal star at home, he is sitting his son down for breakfast, and the only other thing in frame is a sad-looking framed portrait of an unnamed man.
This is Ronaldo's late father.
We learn that Aveiro went off to fight an unpopular war as a young man, drafted like all eligible men during Portugal's military dictatorship, shipped off to Africa to try to keep the colony of Angola from winning its freedom. He wasn't on the side of the victors, just a nation fighting to keep a final piece of a vanishing world. When he got home, he'd changed forever, the movie says. Aveiro drank himself to death and had a strained relationship with his son, and although he never hit his kids, the movie says, he beat Ronaldo's mother. When his father's liver failed, Ronaldo paid for him to fly private on an air ambulance to England for medical treatment. It was too late.
Beneath it all, Ronaldo remains the driven son of a broken soldier; boys like that often grow up trying to be more important than the next drink. Maybe he's still trying to prove something, to show his dad what he's become. The only real document of his feelings is the film, since he rarely gives interviews; his agent didn't respond to ESPN and his family wanted money in exchange for talking. Aveiro is also the next-to-last shot of Ronaldo's movie, old home footage of him watching his son play as a boy, and then the scene cuts to Ronaldo today, he of perfect abs and famous smile, in his full glory, as if he still wishes his father could see him now.
As the documentary suggests, Ronaldo never really understood his dad. But on the island of Madeira, there are aging veterans who do. They think about Aveiro whenever they see his son on television, both proud and sad. They're watching today as Portugal begins its 2016 European Championship against Iceland, and they have the answers to many of the questions Ronaldo never got to ask.
RONALDO'S FATHER SHIPPED out to a war that was already over, with no cause other than staying alive. During their training, a group of junior officers tired of being sent to a war with no hope of victory overthrew the military dictatorship and created a new, democratic government. When the dictatorship fell on April 25, 1974, the war basically came to an end.
By the time the No. 4910 Battalion stepped out of the plane and into the heat five months later, everyone on both sides knew the Portuguese army had lost. The men from Madeira were one of the last waves of soldiers, there to smoothly hand over the former colony to the victorious rebel forces. A train took them to Luso, and trucks took them to a battalion headquarters, where each company headed to different outposts, with orders to keep different factions of rebels from fighting each other, and to escort trucks of food along roads studded with mines.
The stories about the mentally damaging events that Aveiro witnessed are not true. A copy of the unit's records show that three men out of around 500 died, none from contact with the enemy. Disease killed one, an accident killed another, and one soldier got into a fight with a local ally and got shot. "It wasn't really war anymore," Martins says, "so we weren't really mentally prepared for war. To be honest, I think no soldier that was part of my battalion fired a shot against anybody."
For most soldiers, the worst part was the living conditions. Many of the men got malaria, sick in bed with chills, tremors and fever, three weeks without being able to move. The food rotted before it arrived, traveling all the way to the far reaches of western Angola.
"We starved," says Jose Manuel Coelho, who served in 2nd Company. "There were meals that we had just a bit of bread."
The men had nothing in the way of comforts — except a gasoline-powered refrigerator that held their most precious thing: cold beer. The soldiers lived on beer. "It was so hot that the water was always warm and wouldn't kill your thirst," Coelho says. "Beer was our best friend. They had Angolan beer: Cuca. The water was pulled from the river into a reservoir, but it wasn't treated. We didn't drink it. We drank beer instead. We were told the water could cause problems. It was used for showers, cooking and laundry. To drink, it was beer. When I drink a beer I sometimes think of Angola."
Everyone else thought Aveiro's 3rd Company had it the worst, so far out there alone, with no one around to give backup. But the truth is, some of the men loved it. Their camp had a long barracks with a metal roof, and the nearby village stood on the banks of a big river. They grew beards if they wanted.
"It was good," Martins says. "We didn't do anything. We had food. If we needed meat, we would hunt. Nobody bothered us. We would make steaks and sometimes gave some to the locals. We played football, played cards, we sang, from time to time we smoked a joint. I put on weight. It was just eating and sleeping. There wasn't anything to do. We just had to give back the equipment, destroy equipment, grenades and stuff."
There's a picture of Martins and Aveiro together, leaning against a car, in an African town as they waited to be sent home. Martins is rocking wide collars, with long hair and a mustache, while Ronaldo's dad stares into the camera in a camo shirt, looking hard and a little troubled. His friends don't want to spill family business — or in any way seem to make excuses for his abuse when he returned home — but they say there were issues in his marriage even while he was deployed, and those tortured him during his time in Africa. Mail arrived maybe once a month, and the guys would listen for the blades of a helicopter to let them know a letter might be on its way.
The only exciting thing to happen to Aveiro in Africa came when he and some other soldiers got a car stuck in a swamp, and three enlisted men spent the night in the vehicle while someone went to get help. Things howled in the savannah's darkness, and they'd never felt so alone. They huddled together and smoked cigarettes until the sun rose again.
On Oct. 8, 1975, after 13 months, a ship named Niassa approached the shores of Madeira with the whole battalion aboard. When someone spotted land, a few desperate men jumped ship and swam home.
AVEIRO CAME BACK to a country that had fallen apart. For a decade, the military dictatorship spent more and more on the wars in Africa, eventually a full 40 percent of the budget, and the whole thing smoldered. This is what damaged him, according to Martins, not his time in the army but trying to build a life when he got home.
In some ways, especially when talking to Martins later, Aveiro even longed for Africa. Everything seemed simpler there: Hunt when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired.
On Madeira, Aveiro looked for work.
"There were no jobs available," Coelho says. "We were abandoned. The war veterans didn't have any money and no work. Of course when I see Ronaldo, I remember his dad: He had problems and didn't have anything to eat, so he would turn to drinking. His friends would buy him drinks. He didn't have any money. He didn't eat properly."
A local soccer club became his home, where he'd do odd jobs and manage the uniforms and drink in the little bar there, a fixture but not the kind of a man a son swells with pride when he sees. Even as a boy, Cristiano must have sensed the way other men looked at his dad.
This club is where Ronaldo's career began, moving alone to Lisbon as a 12-year-old to try to make something of himself. He only had himself then. When Ronaldo talks about his dad now, he acknowledges the violence and alcoholism but blames his dad's war experience on his failings, when really it was just something inside Aveiro that did him in, just as it is something inside Ronaldo that made his fame and success possible, too.
Aveiro lost touch with many of his old army buddies.
"I didn't see him for a long time," says Antonio Luis from the 1st Company, "then I encountered him downtown when his son was already in England. We used to have coffee and talk about football. He was proud of his little boy."
Less than two years later, in September 2005, Aveiro was gone.
He died in London, 52 years old and his insides rotten, in the care of his famous son. Ronaldo did everything he could do to save his dad. It wasn't enough.
The death made the papers in England.
Fans and pundits wondered if Ronaldo would miss a match.
Martins didn't attend the funeral. Many people did attend, including government officials and representatives for Manchester United, but Martins couldn't bring himself to go. He felt like it wasn't a place for some old soldier. Most of the mourners came because of Ronaldo, not to say goodbye to a flawed, broken man who had long ago ceased to matter outside the shadow of his son.
People loved Ronaldo so much they cared about Dinis Aveiro for a day.
A WEEK AND a half ago, it was chicken day at the local Madeira chapter of Liga dos Combatentes. It's like a VFW hall or an American Legion. Guys gathered at tables for lunch, washed down with wine. The club is in an old armory building, built centuries ago, with a chapel and a memorial to the dead and a little bar. The view over the red-roofed houses, sloping down the green hills to the ocean, was unbelievable. They're very proud of the view.
Inside the main armory, retired Lt. Col. Bernardino Laureano became livid that the foreigners only want to ask about one soldier, whose son happened to become famous. All the soldiers from those wars, all the people who came back to a Portugal that took decades to recover economically, they all deserve help and recognition. For a moment, it looked like he wanted to fight. He wanted to deliver a message to Ronaldo; maybe the millionaire might be willing to help men like his father who still could be saved. "The door is open when he wants," Laureano says. "He can just contact us and we will be honored and proud to receive Cristiano here. He can be sure that he will find here inside the Liga people that knew his father and were personal friends because his name we've known for a long time and will never forget — as all the other names that have had a hard life we will never forget."
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.