In 2010, football manager Ian Holloway said of Cristiano Ronaldo, “He’s six-foot something, fit as a flea, good-looking — he’s got to have something wrong with him.” Though casual at best, Holloway’s quote is indicative of something — the way footballers have come to be seen in the last two decades or so. Highlight reels from Europe’s top leagues from the ’90s and before are filled with rugged, unkempt men, the outline of their bodies hidden within the sloppiness of their shirts, the boots always an unflattering shade of black. The modern footballer’s shirt hugs the body, the hair rarely looks out of place, and the boots are as colourful as the player’s presumed life off the field. Because the modern footballer isn’t just that any more — a player, an athlete — but also the most refined version of the male form. And of this form Ronaldo has perhaps been the most symbolic endorsement: an exhilarating yet unlikely mix of male accomplishment and impenetrable self-esteem. All of which has made the rape allegations against him that much harder to address. The footballer was recently accused of raping a woman he had met at a Las Vegas hotel in 2009.

To understand what Ronaldo stands for, one needs to read into what the football WhatsApp groups say about him. Other than the odd clip of him scoring a goal and debates about his rank in the pantheon of greats, a number of posts are a tip-off to his lifestyle. A couple of years ago, a graphic listing at least 20 supermodels he had dated within a period of three years was doing the rounds. More than anything else, it was an apathetic celebration of Ronaldo’s extended life beyond the field.

Ronaldo, of course, isn’t the first footballer accused of rape. Only last year, Brazilian Robinho was sentenced to prison, and so was Englishman Adam Johnson. Greats such as Maradona and the Brazilian Ronaldo have been accused of sexual misconduct, but the Portuguese Ronaldo’s case is unique for a number of reasons. He is perhaps the biggest brand in football since England’s David Beckham. But unlike Beckham, Ronaldo has reached the pinnacle of his sport. Having won five Ballon d’Or and scoring almost 700 career goals, he has also done the one thing that has eluded Lionel Messi, the man he is always compared to — win a major tournament with his country.

His professionalism, therefore, is unquestionable, his commitment to a modest Portuguese team undoubted. But so has been his dedication to creating a masculine tone to everything he does — including his goal celebration, the swivel and bounce, and the open-chested stance.

Sports, unlike the arts, isn’t vague in the way it is received. An artist’s stature can be debated. In sport, however, numbers are as assertive or as conclusive as anything available. To Ronaldo’s credit, that is one department that makes this discussion all the more difficult. He cannot be denied the footballing greatness, nor the sexuality that has only given him agency to be consumed as more than just the sum of his two legs. At what point then, does a man, so sexualised across contexts by both men and women, become entitled? To know the answer to that question we’ll have to learn a lot more about the accusations than we already know. But the silence on the part of the fans, not just his but of football in general, is damning. Largely because Ronaldo is a carefully cultivated idea of the modern male professional, whose confidence flows from the envy he inspires in other men.

Expectedly, the stakes go beyond Ronaldo himself — the sheer money riding on the CR7 brand, the things football as a product stands to lose should he be convicted at this last stage of his career. That he is said to be a teetotaller is a detail regularly mentioned by men as an instrument of shock, not too dissimilar from the way the rape allegations have been received.

This silence, this shock, though, is an opportunity as well. Football is largely played, run, celebrated and disciplined by men, which makes the trial of its Adonis all the more pivotal to its social relevance.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture