Wednesday, February 1 2023

Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave Manchester United. He wanted to leave before manager Erik ten Hag benched him for Monday’s massive game against Liverpool; and before the two humiliating defeats that preceded it. He wants to leave because, according to widespreadreports, he wants to play in the Champions League, at a club that can match his ambition.

There is, though, a particularly inhibitive problem for soccer’s biggest celebrity: No such club seems to want him.

Ronaldo informed Man United of his wish on or before July 2. Seven-and-a-half weeks later, the most legitimate interest in his services has apparently come from his teenage team, Sporting Clube de Portugal. There was also reportedly a lucrative offer from an unnamed club in Saudi Arabia, which Ronaldo, of course, turned down. There have been none from anything remotely resembling a Champions League contender.

Because Ronaldo, at 37, is no longer the serial winner he once was. He remains a ruthless goalscorer, but has been either unwilling or unable to spearhead the type of defensive press that increasingly defines modern soccer. He is a depreciating asset on an astronomical salary whose stature and corresponding ego now outweigh his abilities, to the detriment of his club.

United now seems to understand all of this. It was better without Ronaldo on Monday, and might be going forward. Ten Hag has publicly backed him, but privately, according to reports, the club is willing to let him leave.

United, though, has merely realized what most of its superclub peers did long ago.

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When reports of Ronaldo’s transfer request emerged in early July, they came accompanied by lists of potential suitors. Chelsea and Bayern Munich were initially mentioned. PSG, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan have since appeared in headlines. Borussia Dortmund supposedly joined the fray last week.

But almost invariably, and uncharacteristically, those clubs have actively distanced themselves from Ronaldo — in some cases publicly. Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn told German outlet Kicker that, “as highly as I rate Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the greatest, a transfer wouldn’t be a fit with our philosophy.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford on August 22, 2022 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford on August 22, 2022 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo played just five minutes off the bench in Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool on Monday. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke called a move for Ronaldo “a charming idea,” but said there’d been “no contact whatsoever between the parties involved.”

At Atletico Madrid, fans unveiled a blunt banner — “CR7 NOT WELCOME” — as club president Enrique Cerezo confirmed that they had nothing to worry about. “I don’t know who invented the Cristiano story,” Cerezo said, “but I’ll tell you that it’s practically impossible that he comes to Atletico de Madrid.”

Reports out of other countries, meanwhile, hinted at who the inventor might be. PSG and the two Milan giants “rejected” Ronaldo after he was offered to them — not by Manchester United, but by his agent.

That agent, Jorge Mendes, is the most powerful in global soccer, and a master generator of interest via media. Over the years, countless agents have leaked fabricated or embellished news to instigate or accelerate bidding wars for their players. It’s unclear whether that is happening here, or where the noise around Ronaldo has originated, but the dots are connectable.

The noise, though, cannot drown out several immutable truths. Ronaldo is 37, going on 38 by season’s end. He is reportedly the highest-paid player in England. In his past two seasons, he has scored goals but hasn’t done much else without the ball, and therefore hasn’t contributed to winning. In 2021, he was part of the first Juventus team to surrender the Serie A title in 10 years. In 2022, United slumped to a sixth-place finish.

At his age and on his eight-figure salary, he is almost surely not worth a transfer fee. According to Transfermarkt data, no team has paid one for a player over 35 this summer, and no team had ever paid more than $2.5 million for a non-goalkeeper of that age until United shelled out $16.5 million for Ronaldo last summer — a move the Red Devils are surely now regretting.

He is also not worth his salary, and so, unless he is willing to take a massive pay cut, or United is willing to eat a chunk of that salary to push him away, or Mendes can wield his power, Ronaldo and the club are stuck in a strained marriage devoid of its old magic.

Which is not to say that Ronaldo can’t or won’t help United over the remaining lifetime of his contract — it expires next summer, though there’s an option for a further year. Ten Hag made this point after a stirring 2-1 win over Liverpool, to which Ronaldo hardly contributed. “We have a squad and we have a way of playing, a style and a game plan,” the Dutch coach said, and on Monday Ronaldo didn’t fit either. But, Ten Hag continued, “Saturday [at Southampton] it could be different.”

There will be games, in other words, in which United needs a goal, or perhaps a savior, and Ronaldo answers the call.

But of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, of all people, does not see himself as a role player.

He wants something more, something and someone better.

Nobody better than United, however, wants him — nor should they.

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