Ronaldo effigy
Cristiano Ronaldo [l] and an effigy of Barack Obama being burned in Palestine [Reuters].

No-one, bar the man himself, knows for sure whether Cristiano Ronaldo's refusal to swap shirts with Israeli players last Friday was a gesture of support for their Palestinian enemies. In the aftermath of the match, it was widely claimed that Ronaldo refused to hand over his shirt in solidarity with the Palestinians. However it might equally be claimed, given that Portugal had just laboured to a 3-3 draw with a team they were expected to thrash, that Ronaldo was frustrated and simply wanted to get off the field.

What cannot be argued, however, is that Ronaldo has previously been happy to champion the Palestine cause. In the past he has been pictured in a Palestinian scarf, and donated proceeds from the auction of the Golden Boot, his award for being Europe's highest goalscorer, to Palestinian children in Gaza. The boot is worth €1.5m. Some claim he even sported a keffiyeh, or Palestinian headgear, during his time at Manchester United.

Ronaldo's support for this highly emotive and relevant cause is hugely commendable, and gives the lie to any suggestions that he is nothing more than a pampered, vacuous narcissist. Such suggestions have always been grossly unfair; Ronaldo, after all, dragged himself up from parochial poverty on a Portuguese island to become one of the best footballers of all time. He speaks three languages (English, Spanish and Portuguese). That's two more than most footballers and, in the case of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, three more.

It would be easy for Ronaldo to wallow in his millionaire lifestyle and eschew any concerns about the wider world. That he refuses to do so is entirely to his credit; yet his insistence on wading into such a complex and brutal subject is surely unwise.

The danger implicit in Ronaldo's stance is demonstrated by the reaction to his "gesture" against Israel. Footage of the Portugal captain walking off the pitch has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube, attracting a flood of mindless bigotry from both sides of the divide. Pro-Palestine posters wrote "F**k Israel" and "I want kill Israel hahaha". One pro-Israeli respondent promised to drop an atomic bomb on Palestine if he ever got the chance.

That such morons choose to take an interest in Ronaldo is hardly his fault; unfortunately, however, he has to take such idiots into account when he speaks out in public. When a global celebrity icon such as Ronaldo speaks out, he will have a far wider impact than any politician could hope to manage, and his message will inflame the prejudices of idiots who would take no interest in a speech by, say, David Cameron or Barack Obama on the same subject.

Moral tinderbox

Ronaldo is an intelligent man, but the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most complex political subjects anywhere on the planet today. The conflict has been raging ever since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago, and has claimed over 100,000 lives, according to the most conservative estimates.

The feud is a moral tinderbox, with the rights of Palestinians to self-governance pitted against Israelis' rights to a peaceful existence, free of the persecution which has scarred their history. Both sides claim the land as their historic birthright, and neither claim, it seems, can be categorically proved. Some of the world's foremost political thinkers have tried, and failed, to resolve this conflict. It is so toxic that Barack Obama refused to visit Israel during his first term as president.

What does Ronaldo think about Hamas's pledge to wipe out the entire Jewish race? What does he think about the allegations that Palestinians were slaughtered in Beirut refugee camps in 1982? How does he view the enduring popularity of Israel's pro-settler movement, which is devoted to pushing back the frontiers of the Jewish state without negotiation? And what is his take on suggestions that the internecine stand-off between Hamas and Fatah means Palestine is incapable of governing itself?

It is unlikely that Ronaldo has the right answer to these questions. After all, no-one does - if they did, we would have found a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem years ago. That Ronaldo has chosen to lend his immense public profile to the discussion without fully understanding the underlying issues would be no shame on him; but please, Cristiano, leave it alone. Your contribution will only serve to celebritise a hugely serious debate, and ratchet up the tension in the Middle East to an even more tragic pitch.

Christian Ronaldo Versus Israel: Eric Cantona, Eden Hazard and the Football Stars Backing Palestine