It’s a close-run thing when it comes to deciding on the most surprising element of this summer’s World Cup in Russia; was it Germany’s stunning group stage exit? England’s unexpected run to the semi-finals? Or the sight of the hosts and lowest-ranked nation in the competition knocking out Spain on penalties in the last 16? No, it wasn’t any of these, apparently. The most astonishing moment to take place during the tournament was that, after nine hugely profitable years in Spain, several of which have been spent angling for a move away in order to earn a swelled paycheck, Cristiano Ronaldo actually left Real Madrid.
Given how frequently the Portuguese captain has been caught whinging about life at Los Blancos, be it due to a lack of respect from his club, the fickleness of its fans or the absence of support when Ronaldo was charged with tax evasion, Ronaldo certainly had reasons to be dissatisfied with life in Spain. It’s more that these issues were often always smoothed over by the club’s president, Florentino Perez dangling a new deal in front of his face, which would allow the drama to settle down for another six months or so. Manchester United were frequently brought into the equation when Ronaldo was unhappy, too, sometimes because they were genuinely interested in bringing their former no.7 back to Old Trafford, sometimes because Ronaldo and his advisors knew that encouraging stories of United-based interest was a sure-fire way to get Real to grant their wishes, whatever they were.
Regardless of the intention, it often worked. But over the last few years, the murmurs coming out of the club from the country’s most trusted football writers appear to be that there is much less of an appetite to entangle themselves in romantic notions of bringing Ronaldo ‘home’. Those numerous mutterings about how life was seemingly much better at United won’t have escaped the club’s attention, but the antics of 2013, where the player had told United that he would return during David Moyes’ only summer transfer window in charge only to sign a bumper new deal at Real stick out. The popular version of events from this summer is that after Ronaldo made his intention to leave clear to Real, his agent Pedro Mendes asked United to get involved; United flatly refused, and so the player moved to Juventus. It’s unclear if Mendes wanted United to register their interest in order to spark a bidding war, or because Ronaldo genuinely wanted to return to Old Trafford. Still, it’s academic now, and it’s nice to see that the club haven’t allowed themselves to be taken for a ride by one of football’s most talented egotists.
Not that there wouldn’t have been any fascination in seeing United swoop in for Ronaldo’s services once again had a deal materialised this summer; it’s simply that over the course of several needlessly dramatic sagas, it became clear that the player was seemingly more concerned about improving his lot than coming back ‘home’. To put it bluntly, if he really wanted to come back, why didn’t he?
For balance, Ronaldo’s last three years at Old Trafford were excellent, and his remarkable 42-goal haul in the 2007/08 season will remain as one of the best individual campaigns that this club will ever see. His transformation from promising youngster to world-class talent coincided with one of the most successful teams that Sir Alex Ferguson put together, and he was a gigantic part of the side that won three Premier League titles in a row.
But let’s not forget that this is still a man who was flirting with the idea of a move away from Old Trafford long before it transpired. The infamous description of being treated as a“modern-day slave” when United were unwilling to sell him to Real barely two weeks after that famous Champions League final in Moscow still raises eyebrows, and this report from The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor of an incredibly unsavoury incident surrounding the anniversary of the Munich air disaster is enough to make anyone wince.
At this stage in United’s tenuous redevelopment, having an ego the size of Ronaldo’s around the place seems somewhat counterproductive. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return of 28 goals in 2016/17 should be a warning to anyone willing to write an aging player off, and Ronaldo remains one of the best goalscorers currently still plying their trade in world football, but this United team isn’t a high-functioning side that creates chances at will. It’s not filled with world-class talent from front to back, and, bar its goalkeepers, it still has ‘work in progress’ written over every department on the pitch. Sure, Ronaldo would bring goals, but as United found out during the Swede’s debut campaign, they need more than just goals. Jose Mourinho requires movement, not a forward to craft his team around. Romelu Lukaku excelled last season as a goalgetter, but also a provider, someone who was willing to work hard for the team from front-to-back, and arguably outperformed any of his colleagues when it came to swinging in a useful cross. Ronaldo remains an excellent footballer, but that isn’t his game anymore.
In the aftermath of May’s Champions League final with Liverpool, both Gareth Bale and Ronaldo intimated that they were unhappy at Real, and were considering their futures. Both could be criticised for making the occasion, the club’s third successive European Cup victory, about them, but the former’s words were a surprise, and out of character; the latter’s barely raised an eyebrow, and are as good an indication as any that Ronaldo will happily make anything and everything about him, if he can.
There’s a reason that Ronaldo’s name is still sung at home and away by United supporters; the man gave us some incredible moments and turned into the globe’s best player while at Old Trafford, for a time. He was frequently a joy to watch, and the club’s trophy cabinet would certainly be emptier without his contributions. But after nine successful-yet-tumultuous years in the Spanish capital filled with rumours, leaked stories and strops, Ronaldo’s next destination won’t be United. Maybe, for both club and player, that’s for the best.