Be careful what you wish for.
Both the Premier League club and the Portuguese have been a crucial part of many football fanatics’ diet. Ronaldo has been hailed as the prodigal son of Old Trafford, with the Red Devils’ fans worldwide wanting him back ‘home’ ever since he left the club twelve years ago.
No United fan could have fathomed in their wildest of dreams what almost transpired. Leo Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain was a wild ride in and of itself, but then, as if to one-up his arch-rival, Cristiano not only announced he wished to leave Juventus at almost the eleventh hour, but he looked almost certain to join Manchester City.
It sounded ridiculous at first. Couldn’t happen, could it? Then the reports became more and more detailed, and Fabrizio Romano entered with his seal of credence to make it real. It was happening. The beloved United legend was going to cross the Manchester divide.
What followed was an outcry. Shirts with Ronaldo’s name started burning around the world as fans took to social media proclaiming their love OVER for the Portuguese if he went ahead with the move.
As it turned out, the fans weren’t the only ones alarmed by the prospect of it happening. As soon as it became clear that Cristiano’s party were actually trying to get the City move done, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Rio Ferdinand, Sir Alex Ferguson – the United stalwarts – and many more, I’m sure, conspired to stop it from happening. Before anyone could realise what was actually going on, the rocket taking Ronaldo to the Blue Moon was defuelled and the 36-year-old was on his way back to Old Trafford.
Twelve years, but it was happening. Finally, it was happening. Out of absolutely nowhere, Manchester United had swooped in and plucked Ronaldo out of City’s clasping hands.
The club announced it on social media. It was done. Celebrations began across the world. Every United fan who grew up fantasising of this happening had their lifelong wish fulfilled. Cristiano Ronaldo was ‘home’.
I grew up as a Manchester United fan. I am a Manchester United fan. As a kid, I wished for something like this happening. The rumours came and went every year but to no avail. But it was finally happening. I should have been, like millions of others, jumping up and down with delight, as if Cristiano was coming to my actual home.
But I wasn’t celebrating. Not one bit. I was sad. Conflicted. Wishing it didn’t happen. The years that grew on me since the time I started supporting Manchester United had brought with them enough experiences that left me not enjoying the move, but lamenting it.
Let’s get the footballing argument out of the way, because that’s not the prime reason for my frustration.
After Sir Alex Ferguson, each managerial appointment at the club sustained a lack of administrative and financial support, leading to little consistency when it came to squad building year in, year out. That’s the reason why the team still have veritable holes in the squad that prevent them from long-term success despite over a billion spent in pounds since 2013.
That had seemed to change under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The players brought in fit into the team, deadwood was gradually sent out of the club, and the team seemed to go from strength to strength. Directorial appointments above the manager indicated the long-term plans were finally being given their due diligence.
This season, the arrivals of Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane bolster the squad in the positions that had needed bolstering for quite some time. Yet, there are shortcomings, especially in the midfield. The recent draw against Southampton was a sharp reminder of one of the major issues United had last season. A defensive midfielder (a number six) has long been touted as a potential solution. Essentially, United need better on-the-ball players for their midfield when playing against the teams that invite them to do something with the ball. Without a competitive midfield, the defence and the attack, albeit bolstered, will prove to be disjointed, lacking the crucial connective tissue to bind them.
For all intents and purposes, getting such a midfielder in looked unlikely unless United sold some of their players first to raise some money. Getting two players in Varane and Sancho without selling anyone was considered coup enough. United barely seemed able to offer €30m for a midfield acquisition.
Negotiations over Harry Maguire took well over 12 months. Getting Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho took 18 months each. United aren’t exactly the type to wrap up their deals quickly and cleanly.
And yet, the moment it became apparent that Cristiano Ronaldo was available, nothing seemed to be the problem. €23m were committed towards this transfer fee with his wages reported to be £500k a week, all in the name of the apparent reputational loss United would have suffered had they allowed one of their biggest legends to move to City.
Years-long hard work flushed down the toilet. Just like that.
Cristiano’s arrival at the club not only skews the wage bill way out of proportion, it also effectively kills any chance of proper team-building for the considerable future. Much to contrary belief, United do not possess the ability or the ownership’s intent for year-after-year investment the likes of Man City and Chelsea do, so this short-term nostalgia shot is exactly what it is – a shot, to the foot.
Do not even get me started on the prospect of Ronaldo taking our free-kicks.
As far as our beloved owners, the Glazers, are concerned, this is as big a PR boost as they could have hoped for. Relations with the club’s fanbase had been sour even before day one, and they got further worse earlier this year with the Super League debacle. They needed a win, and they got one. What’s more, floating on the New York Stock Exchange, Manchester United Plc saw its share prices soar by 8% in a matter of hours after the club announced Ronaldo’s return. The Glazers would hope to use this wave of nostalgia to ride high for quite a while.
Sometimes, guys, the reality is not worth the whimsical narrative you weave for it.
But all of that is a very little part of why this move doesn’t sit right with me. There’s the other angle; a darker, much horrifying one that leaves me contorted on the inside as I try to process the conflict it has brewed in me over the past 48 hours.
For anyone completely oblivious to what I’m referring to, here’s the matter: in 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo was accused of sexually assaulting a woman while on holiday in Las Vegas. The matter was ‘put to bed’ in an out-of-court settlement worth $375,000 in 2010.
Years later, empowered by the Me Too movement, the woman in question, Kathryn Mayorga, decided to return to the matter and take on Cristiano once again. The case remains unresolved to this day, but hopefully shall reach a conclusion somewhere down the line.
In 2018, after joining Juventus, Cristiano skipped their US pre-season tour. Next year, Juventus avoided the States altogether. Cristiano Ronaldo cannot travel to the United States, for with near certainty he would be taken into police custody for questioning over the case.
This is an insultingly short summary of everything that transpired, and for anyone even remotely interested in learning more I implore you to read Der Spiegel’s report on the matter.
This is not the only time the Portuguese star found himself amid a controversy of such nature.
The information on the aforementioned case is not esoteric, nor is it poorly documented. And yet, over the past 48 hours, the reaction to Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United has been so overwhelmingly euphoric that one would think that there could be absolutely nothing negative about this turn of events that could leave some fans thinking twice, pondering on the gravity of what it actually represents.
It’s a funny thing, football, and how it works. No one makes you choose a football club and/or players as your favourites. There’s something about them that resonates with us, that makes us conflate our identity with theirs. That is a bond that does not break easily, if ever. It becomes a strong pillar of everything that defines you.
That’s what Cristiano Ronaldo is for over half a billion people. He has been a senior professional footballer for nearly two decades. Not just fans, there are big-name footballers who have grown idolising, worshipping him. He’s branded as the epitome of perfection in football. The perfect man. The greatest footballer. Unquestionably, he can do no wrong.
When your beliefs into someone are so ardent, raising their celebrity to god-like proportions, it’s not hard to understand why people are actively choosing to not even look at this side of the story. Not saying it’s the right thing or that it should continue, but it is understandable. Alarming, saddening, yet understandable. How do you get yourself to take a look at this side of his past and walk away still thinking he’s the greatest ever human being without a part of you belching?
And yet, from the little interaction I chose to have with people across social media on the matter, the overwhelming response came back with some of the good-old familiar tropes:
“Innocent until proven guilty”
“Well, putting the off-field stuff aside…”
“Why are you bringing this up now?”
“Doesn’t matter. He’s still my idol.”
And there, just like that, football reminded me once again how it, as much I’d want it to be otherwise, does not exist in a vacuum. It’s a part of the society we inhabit and hence, bears reflection of the same. And like any other industry, football has a male-dominant construct that prevents men from any semblance of accountability.
Once again, here we have a man at the top of his craft insulated not just by his power but by the ones adulating him, the very ones who could make a difference by just acknowledging the dark spots rendering the society rotten from the inside.
If you think the “innocent until proven guilty” trope has a leg to stand on outside a courtroom, ask at your discretion (if you can) the women around you – friends, colleagues, family members – and you might just get a glimpse into how horrifyingly similar this story is to something that has happened to them in the past, that leaves them silent while the other party walks away without even realising the gravity of what has been done.
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest footballers of all time. But that does not, must not, cannot make him unaccountable for his actions. The documents Der Spiegel proclaims are conversations between him and his lawyers show Ronaldo clearly ignoring Mayorga’s pleas to “stop”. This must not go unheard.
“Why are you bringing this up now?” Because the moment calls for it. I wish I could remain in my own world of football not worrying about real-life matters. Trust me, I do. Escapism is what brought me to football in the first place, as I’m sure would be the case for many of you reading this. But there are times in life when even the greatest of escapists have a choice to make.
‘Choice’ is a wonderful word. No one lives out their entire life without having to make tough calls. This is one such moment. Contrary to what you might think, there is a life beyond football, or any sport for that matter. There is more to you than the idols you think define you, and acknowledging their wrongdoings does not make you smaller.
Do you feel conflicted at all? Good. That’s a start. You won’t get a pat on the back for that, but it’s a step in the right direction. Keeping silent is what has made issues like these a systemic, societal epidemic. At the very least, let’s change that.
My only hope with this piece is that while there are people in literal hundreds of millions celebrating Ronaldo’s return to Man United as a homecoming of biblical proportions, there may also be some others who choose to look into what has deliberately been ignored for too, too long and that it gets people talking, asking themselves and the ones around them hard, uncomfortable yet important, questions.
Sometimes, for a change, it’s okay to put aside the on-field stuff.