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Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United: Hype over logic?

In the midst of all the celebratory talk about Ronaldo’s arrival lies a deeper, uncomfortable question: Did the red half of Manchester make a wise decision in signing a player—albeit a certified champion—who turns 37 this season? 

August 29, 2021 / 05:27 PM IST
June 2021 photo of Cristiano Ronaldo (Photo: Bernadett Szabo/Pool via AP)

June 2021 photo of Cristiano Ronaldo (Photo: Bernadett Szabo/Pool via AP)

2009: “Of course I miss playing for Manchester United. I still watch them play and, you never know, maybe in the future I could return to play there.”

2010: “I had the pleasure to play in the Premier League for many years, but you never know in the future, maybe I’m gonna be back to England again.”

2011: “I don’t close the door (on Premier League), so maybe in the future I hope so because I know the league, I know the players, I know the atmosphere.”

2013: “Everyone knows that it is a club that is still in my heart and I really, really miss it.”

2014: “I won everything there, the people treat me like a god so I appreciate it, and in the future nobody knows.”

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2015: "Manchester is in my heart. I left many good friends there, the supporters are amazing and I wish I can come back one day.”

2017: “Nothing is impossible”, on being asked about a possible return to Manchester United.

Revisiting these statements today, one can’t be faulted for believing that for all these years, Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t just speculating about his future, he was predicting it. And yet, despite his unconcealed love towards his former club, his return has left his legions of fans pleasantly surprised and the footballing world in general, startled.

When Ronaldo left Manchester United in 2009 for Real Madrid—after six glorious years, during which he scored 118 goals in 291 appearances—it left the Old Trafford faithfuls bruised; but it was a move that wasn’t entirely unexpected. To quote a well-established, old footballing truism, ‘No-one says NO to Real Madrid.’ But the hope that their favourite son would return one day served as a string that kept Ronaldo tied to the Red Devils for years.

And then, ahead of the 2012-13, it all seemed to be coming together when it emerged that Ronaldo was '99% certain’ of making a return to his former club to help Sir Alex Fergusson lift the Champions League trophy one final time. Eventually, though, the deal fell through; instead, that became Fergusson’s last season as manager, and with that any chances of Ronaldo’s comeback diminished considerably.

United’s policy, under chief executive Ed Woodward, of seeking younger talents instead of punting on players past their prime further added to doubts of Ronaldo ever making a return. It’s no surprise then that Ronaldo’s comeback has happened—along with a host of other, already well-documented reasons—within four months of the club's investment banker-turned-chief executive relinquishing his position, paving the way for a first ever technical director and football director in a major revamp of the Premier League side’s football operations.

But in the midst of all the celebratory talks about Ronaldo’s arrival, lies a deeper, uncomfortable question: Did the red half of Manchester make a wise decision in signing a player—albeit a certified champion—who turns 37 this season?

It’s not hard to see why the owners of the club, the Glazers, decided to bite the bullet. For the Americans, bringing Ronaldo home is a sure-shot way of mending their equation with the fans—a relationship that was on shaky grounds to begin with, but made worse after the European Super League fiasco. Add to that Ronaldo’s star value, the effects of which can already be seen with the club’s stock market value sky rocketing by £212 million moments after him signing on the dotted lines. And the management wouldn’t be wrong in expecting the cash registers to keep ringing via shirts sales and renewed sponsorship interest in the coming days.

But does the Ronaldo signing make footballing sense? After all, the primary aim of a football club—not least a club like Manchester United that’s ruled the roost for so long and is desperate to get back to the top—is to win trophies. So, how has Ronaldo fared in this regard the last few years?

CR7 joined Juventus in 2018 and notched up an impressive tally of 36 goals in 44 games, winning two Serie A titles along the way. And though his stint in Turin wasn’t a failure, it wasn’t a success either. The Italian giants had hoped the Portuguese star would end their 25-year wait to be champions of Europe; instead the ‘Old Lady’ of Turin failed to go past the quarter-finals of Champions League during Ronaldo’s three-year tenure. Worse still, they lost the Italian title to fierce rivals Inter Milan last season. Eventually, Juventus saw great value in letting Ronaldo go and cash in on the €23 million pay cheque. The break-up was mutual.

An Instagram post from a few days ago summed up Ronaldo’s predicament. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner put out a long post asking for people to respect his situation. The statement was in response to stories that claimed Real Madrid wasn’t keen on re-signing their greatest goalscorer.

But that Ronaldo will score goals, wherever he plays, was never in doubt. How he will go about doing that seems like the more pertinent question at the moment.

Man United’s favourite son is a starkly different player from that fast dribbling, counter-attacking torpedo that first played in the English Premier League more than a decade ago. The last few years have seen him move away from his favourite left-flank to a more central role. Unsurprisingly, Juventus used him as a pure no.9 during his spell there. United fans, too, would do well to prepare themselves to watch a penalty box poacher rather than the speedy forward they had gotten accustomed to seeing all those years ago.

There will also be a section of the fan-base that are bound to be aggrieved at the signing of Ronaldo: a) He comes into an already well-equipped group of attacking options that includes Sancho, Fernandes, Cavani, Rashford, Martial, Greenwood and Pogba; b) MUFC finished second on the PL goal-scoring charts last season, and have now added more firepower in the form of Sancho. Wouldn’t Manchester United be better off spending all this money to address the glaring hole in defensive midfield instead?

And then there’s the question about the future of this great club. Kylian Mbappe—if not signed by Madrid this season—will be a free agent next year. Another prodigy in Erling Holland is tipped to leave Borussia Dortmund next season. By diverting a considerable amount of their funds in acquiring Ronaldo, the Red Devils may have lost out on the opportunity to sign a rising star and build their club’s future legacy around him.

The more one analyses the situation, the more evident it becomes that Ronaldo’s arrival in Manchester may have had more to do with his fan-base and the possible ignominy of watching him play for their bitter city rivals than footballing common-sense.  But leaving the many intricacies of the sport aside, what’s playing out at the ‘theatre of dreams’ currently is nothing short of a fairytale, with what many hope is the arrival of the Cinderella Man.
Nikhil Naz is an independent sports journalist.
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