Ronaldo: The prodigal son’s return to Manchester United
After flirting with joining Manchester City, Cristiano Ronaldo will instead head back to the team where he became a star. The reality is, almost no other club could afford him.
Massimiliano Allegri, given the circumstances, was surprisingly phlegmatic. His team’s first home game of the season was just a couple of days away, and the Juventus coach had just been told that the player around whom his club had painstakingly constructed its modern identity was no longer available for selection.
There was no debate, no back and forth, no discussion. It had been decided. Allegri was nothing more than an observer. Juventus did not have a say in the matter. Cristiano Ronaldo had no intention of playing for the club again. He would be leaving, effective immediately. And that was that.
Admittedly, the news probably did not come as a shock to Allegri. It was not yet a week since Ronaldo had declared it might be best for him not to start Juventus’ opening fixture of the campaign. An injury might jeopardize his chances of a move in the final throes of the summer transfer window. He would be a substitute, and nothing more.
There had been no fury then, and there would be no fury now. Allegri did not rail against the 36-year-old Ronaldo’s presumption, his willingness to dictate his terms to a club as venerable, as grand as Juventus. He did not chide Ronaldo for his lack of loyalty. He did not denounce him as a mercenary. Nobody from Juventus did. Coach, and club, simply acquiesced.
“Things change,” Allegri said in a news conference on Friday morning. “It’s a law of life.” A few hours later, Ronaldo was photographed boarding a private jet at the airport in Turin, Italy, where Juventus is based.
By that stage, he already knew what was only just starting to become apparent to the rest of the world: His ultimate destination would be Manchester United, the place he once called home, the club where he first established himself as one of the best players of this — or any — generation.
How that came to pass, from the account that has emerged from United, is a story centered not on anything so crude as money but altogether more heartwarming themes: romance, and love, and memory, and friendship.
On Thursday, it had become clear to United’s staff, its players and many of its former employees that there was a genuine prospect that Ronaldo might sign for Manchester City, its crosstown rival, a team that the player himself had not once, but twice declared he would “never” represent. “If you speak about the money, I will go to Qatar,” he had said in 2015.
His agent, Jorge Mendes, was speaking to Manchester City about the money, though — while what it would pay his client was not an issue, what it would pay Juventus was proving rather thorny — and that was enough to spook Manchester United into action. A raft of erstwhile teammates, including Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, got in touch with him to urge him not to move to City; Wayne Rooney sent the same message publicly.
There were private entreaties, too, from Bruno Fernandes, his colleague with the Portuguese national team, from United’s current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and perhaps most importantly from a former occupant of that post. Ronaldo has always maintained that he owes Alex Ferguson “everything.” This week, Ferguson’s intervention helped to pay back a little of that debt.Messi, Mbappé and Running Out the ClockAug. 27, 2021
By Friday morning, Ronaldo was convinced. He sent Evra a message confirming that he would play, once more, for “our team.” United found the rest of the negotiation easy. Ed Woodward, the club’s executive vice president, has always treasured his relationship with Mendes, making a point of informing anyone within earshot that the Portuguese agent was on the phone whenever he happened to call.
The club’s owners, the Glazer family, gave the green light to offer Juventus the fee — somewhere between $31 million and $38 million, depending on whom you believe — that had caused City to balk. Manchester United’s fans have spent more than a decade dreaming of seeing Ronaldo in red once more. In the end, the deal that made it happen only took a few hours.Sign up for the Sports Newsletter Get our most ambitious projects, stories and analysis delivered to your inbox every week. Get it sent to your inbox.
All of this, of course, is a compelling story, and it is a true story. It is not, though, the whole story. None of it — the smooth negotiation or the heartfelt pleas or Rio Ferdinand’s midnight appeal — would have mattered a jot if it was not for the plain and simple fact that Juventus needed Ronaldo to go.
Three years ago, when the Italian club spent $120 million or so — as well as a contract worth around $80 million a season over four years — to prise Ronaldo from Real Madrid, it was in the belief that he not only effectively guaranteed success in the Champions League, but that his salary would be more than covered by the commercial benefits accrued from his signature.
If that calculation had seemed fragile, at best, in the first two years of his contract, the coronavirus pandemic shattered it completely. Like most clubs across Europe, Juventus has spent much of the last year trying to establish how, precisely, it can absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Ronaldo has performed on the field — he has scored 101 goals for the club in 134 games domestically, though Juventus has drifted further out of contention for the Champions League, and in May surrendered the Serie A title for the first time in a decade — and he has, without question, helped the club expand its brand off it.
Giorgio Ricci, Juventus’ chief revenue officer, told the Times earlier this year that association with his brand was so potent that it was hard to discern how much of Juventus’ soaring prepandemic revenue was down to its domination of Serie A and how much was down, simply, to having Ronaldo on the team.
In an era of austerity, though, his salary could not be justified. Juventus does not find itself in straits quite as dire as Barcelona, for example, but its attempts to rebuild its squad were hamstrung by its commitment to Ronaldo. It did not, in a sporting sense, want to lose him. In an economic one, though, it had little choice.
For much of the summer, that looked unlikely. Europe’s transfer market, usually so bustling, was unsettlingly quiet. Only three or four teams could even hope to get close to his salary, and none of them seemed especially interested. Ronaldo reported, as expected, for preseason training. He posted a message on Instagram dismissing, moderately unconvincingly, transfer gossip.
When Paris St.-Germain signed Lionel Messi, though, everything changed. Real Madrid spotted an opportunity, and moved for Kylian Mbappé. Manchester City missed out on Harry Kane, and found itself short. Even then, though, Mendes had his work cut out. P.S.G. declined the chance to bring Ronaldo on board. City, with an essentially bottomless well of resources, demurred on the idea of paying a fee for one of the greatest players of all time.
It was then, of course, that United stepped in: this is as much a story about the pull of Ronaldo, the yearning for the boy who left, as it is about a player’s nostalgia for a former home.
Ronaldo — other than by virtue of being Ronaldo — does not solve any particularly pressing sporting need. He does not offer Solskjaer’s team balance. United was not crying out desperately for a forward who will score 20 goals in a season, perhaps more, while giving the impression of barely moving for much of the game.
He is, instead, part commercial and financial and marketing juggernaut — United had added more than a million followers on Instagram in the hours after his signing — and part restoration of prestige. He is a happy memory and an embodiment of hope, a chance to believe that it can be again as it used to be. It is not to say that he will not be a resounding success to suggest that Manchester United signed him with its heart, rather than its head.
That was always going to be what it took, though, because the simple fact is that Ronaldo is now, in some senses, too big for the game, or for the vast majority of it, at least.
The same economic currents that swept Lionel Messi out of Barcelona and into the waiting embrace of P.S.G. have carried Ronaldo out of Turin and back to Manchester: Only a handful of teams can afford these players now, and even then it is with a very generous definition of afford; they can countenance them, they can make the figures work.
Only at the two Manchester clubs, P.S.G. and, at a push, Chelsea and Real Madrid are they even remotely feasible. They earn too much for and ask too much of everyone else. They are the clubs collecting jewels while the majority seek to sell off the family silver.
“What matters,” Allegri said, as he plainly laid out the fait accompli that the richest, most famous, most successful team in Italy could no longer afford its best player, “is that Juventus goes on.” That is what matters, of course. But it goes on in a world that has changed, in a game that has changed, one that has produced two stars, perhaps more, that shine so bright that they leave almost everyone blind.