Cristiano Ronaldo’s decision to leave Real Madrid last summer was a bet on himself. It was a bet that for as unstoppable a force of nature he’d become, as perfectly complementary a supporting cast he’d found, and as much fame and adulation and trophies and awards he’d won at the most famous and successful club in sports, there was still something else out there, some part of himself he’d yet to unlock, some frontier he hadn’t yet conquered, some elusive achievement that, should he attain it somewhere other than at Madrid, would forge himself and his legacy into something even greater than it already was.
Ronaldo went searching for this indefinable thing in Italy, with Juventus, a club that in the most critical ways is both Real Madrid’s peer and inferior. Today, after Ronaldo ripped Atlético Madrid to shreds with a one-man performance that stands amongst the finest in his already iconic collection of star turns, it looks like Ronaldo has not only found it, but is well on his way to having it, too.
Though on paper the voyage from one superteam in Madrid to another superteam in Turin isn’t the furthest or most treacherous one, Ronaldo’s choice to make it posed real risks. For the better part of the past decade, both Real Madrid and Juventus—along with Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Atlético Madrid—have been the only consistent challengers for the title of Europe’s best team. Juve and Real are, historically and presently, similar in many ways. Both are their respective home countries’ hegemonic powers; both are regal clubs with so much history that no one star figure ever overshadows the club itself; both are very well managed by deeply involved owners who have assembled deep, coherent, cohesive rosters that are strong in every position of the pitch; both hold themselves to a trophies-or-bust standard; and, especially in recent times, both clubs covet victory in the Champions League above everything else.
For as many commonalities as Madrid and Juve share, though, the glaring difference is Real have won four of the past five European Cups while Juventus haven’t won any. They haven’t done shit. The Italians have gotten close, making it to two finals in that span, but if anything those narrow misses make their efforts to overcome all the more difficult. Madrid have the determined and serene mentality of a serial Champions League winner; Juventus has the nervous and doubting mindset of a Champions League loser. That, as much as anything else, is what Ronaldo was charged with bringing with him from Madrid to Turin this season, and the opposing fates of the two clubs in this round of Champions League action shows just how successful he’s been in doing just that.
It had to have been completely unintentional, but Juventus’s shocking 2-0 loss to Atlético Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 matchup couldn’t have been better for Ronaldo, though it didn’t look it at the time. By joining Juventus—the club that is currently in a streak of seven consecutive Serie A titles and were locks to make that eight come the end of the present season—Ronaldo ensured that his season would be judged solely on whether his Juve won the Champions League. By letting Atlético push them right to the precipice of an early UCL exit, and doing so by evincing the precise kind of fear and nerviness Ronaldo was meant to eradicate, Ronaldo and his teammates faced the ridicule of the world. And yet by playing like he did yesterday, not only scoring the three goals that carried Juve to the quarterfinals but also doing so with his trademark calm and assuredness that the goals and the victory were inevitable, he in a single match demonstrated the enormous impact his presence confers, and allowed his new teammates to see and to believe that things really are different with Ronaldo on your side. It’s no coincidence that this Champions League round’s other big comeback involved the club Ronaldo no longer plays for failing in the exact way Ronaldo never would’ve let happen.
Had Juventus fallen to Atlético in this round, Ronaldo’s entire Italian experiment would’ve immediately become suspect. His season would’ve been a failure, his decision to leave the comforts of Real Madrid would have been re-analyzed and criticized, his legacy would have been pre-written to include a curious and unsuccessful stint in Italy in his prime’s latter stages as he tried and failed to bring Juventus the one thing they were after when they signed him.
Instead, Ronaldo got exactly what he wanted: a platform to display his at this point filed down and unstoppably sharpened skills, and a collection of teammates and a playing style focused entirely around facilitating him. (Remember that Juventus’s most talented player, Paulo Dybala, didn’t even start the match against Atleti, and has been marginalized this season because he isn’t the best fit with his new Portuguese teammate.) If it worked for him to have a massive hole involuntarily dug by unsteady hands for him to leap out of in heroic fashion with the entire team on his back; the prospect of realizing the dream of lifting the European Cup for a sixth time for a third club and in doing so making the quite reasonable case as being the greatest winner the game has ever known; and watching his team see itself ousted from the competition in one of the next couple rounds, in the knowledge that in the biggest moment of need he was equal to the challenge and thus had accomplished what he’d been brought in to do by changing Juventus’s idea of themselves in the tournament he has and still does dominate like no one else, all the better.
The cost to Ronaldo for all this was a change of scenery, an increased risk of failure, and the potential wasting of the last few great years in his career. The cost to Juventus was €100 million in transfer fees, millions and millions more in Ronaldo’s new contract, and the club’s dignity. (Of all the things Juventus and Italy offered Ronaldo that Madrid and Spain might not have, the debasement of the club’s president by his going out and making embarrassing statements on the topic of the credible rape accusation Ronaldo faces, and the national media environment that ensures he’s not asked about it much, would hopefully top the list.) Today, both parties must be beyond delighted with the transaction.