Every couple years, the European media works itself into a bubbly froth about Cristiano Ronaldo’s future. We’re now in the thick of yet another foamy period, and perhaps because his departure might actually be imminent this time, the papers are going to absurd lengths to search for clues.
It was just two short years ago last time we found ourselves in this situation. With only two seasons left on his contract, Ronaldo engaged in a months-long will-he-or-won’t-he campaign, spurred on by his public pining for the England and Manchester United of his younger days. Being as this was the Red Devils’ first year under the disastrous stewardship of David Moyes, no one outside of Manchester and the British and Spanish papers peddling nonsensical rumors for profit really bought into it. The more intriguing, though decidedly dark-horse, candidate for his signature were PSG. Nevertheless, what everyone expected to happen happened, and Ronaldo re-upped with Real.
Our present situation is a little different. While still an unquestionably dominant, evolving player, Ronaldo is on the wrong side of 30 and beginning to show little cracks that will eventually lead to the crumbling of his game in the not-too-distant future. It makes sense for him to keep an eye out for his next contract since, whether it’s signed by Florento Pérez or someone else, it will likely be his final one as the sport’s highest played player.
For the team’s part, Real have a number of great players capable of filling his position waiting in the wings, all of whom are considerably younger. The “Will Ronaldo Stay In Madrid?” narrative has traditionally been used as leverage for the player to secure a better contract; now, the club itself has legitimate interest in steering toward the post-CR7 era.
Back in the Ronaldo sweepstakes, and this time front and center, are the Parisians. PSG are now firmly ensconced among the super rich clubs who can and will pay any price for the best players in the world; but while the sheer depth of their pockets makes them competitors with Real and Barcelona and Bayern, they still lack the international prestige and notoriety of those historically established clubs.
That reality makes them particularly interesting suitors for Ronaldo. Even if the Portuguese forward isn’t quite what he once was, or at least won’t be for much longer, he’s still one of the two biggest names in all of sports. And barring a series of unlikely physical breakdowns, he’ll remain better than just about everyone outside the Barcelona city limits for at least a handful more years. Aligning PSG with a brand—and yes, his brandbot-ness is a large chunk of the appeal for them—like Ronaldo’s would push them closer to that most rarified of tiers in the game, just as the additions of an aging Zlatan Ibrahimović and the straight-up washed David Beckham boosted their Q Score in years prior.
For the sharks in the media, all of this is akin to blood in the water. Every move Ronaldo makes can be seen with an eye to what it says about his future with the club; every word the club’s higher-ups utter can be parsed for meaning about their interest in retaining or getting rid of the star; every article on the topic is fodder for the ravenous public to tear into and obsess about, selling papers and gaining viewers. No gesture is too small to study, no sentence too plain to analyze. It’s like Christmas, only it never has to end.
Naturally, the Real Madrid-PSG Champions League match this week offered oodles of opportunities for this kind of speculation. Just days before Tuesday’s match against PSG, Ronaldo had some calculatedly vague answers for questions about his future in an interview with Kicker, a German soccer mag. From the Guardian, on if Ronaldo sees himself playing elsewhere eventually:
“Why not? I’m a Real Madrid player at the moment, but you can never know. You’ve got to do what makes you happy. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. All I can say is that I will always give my best for my club and for Portugal.”
Now, this is basically exactly what every single in-demand player says. However, these players also know that by saying this, they are opening the door for speculation while maintaining a hint of plausible deniability so as to not piss off their current club’s fans too much. Ronaldo didn’t say much, but he knew what he was doing.
That quip led to this one between Ronaldo and Pérez before the PSG game:
Thanks to Marca’s efforts, we know what was going on:
The ‘Los Blancos’ president made the most of the opportunity to rib the Portuguese star about his interview with German magazine, in which he seemed open to the idea of leaving the club.
“What did I say? I didn’t say that! I said something different,” Ronaldo replied as he made his way towards the dressing rooms.
Ah, but that wasn’t the only portentous moment of the day. The key interactions were after the game, as Ronaldo shared some words and smiles with PSG manager Laurent Blanc and later, a handshake and wink with the Paris club’s president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, both captured here:
A couple harmless interactions between three people who run in the same circles? A suspect level of friendliness between what might very well be Ronaldo’s two bosses next year? Two showy and very public attempts by Ronaldo to stir the pot a little more? How can anyone decide?
Thankfully, Le Parisien knows just the person to help: body language expert Stephen Bunard. Here’s Bunard on the “Whisper Heard ‘Round The World”:
“In one of the images we see Ronaldo’s elbow resting Blanc’s shoulder, whispering a few words. The latter holds [Ronaldo’s] side. This is a rapport not usually seen in football, between a coach and his own players. Even less between opponents. These behavioral clues show an intense relationship.
But at the same time, when Ronaldo approached Blanc, he did not look at him. It’s strange. There is a kind of distancing, context monitoring. His face is not expressive, it is under control. He knows what he’s doing. There is nothing spontaneous. This gesture is premeditated. He has long known that he will go to him. He also blinks little when spoken to, proving that he is under control.”
See, it was some funny business! Ronaldo planned this little thing all along!
Bunard has more insight into the brief handshake with PSG’s president, too:
“The gestures are knowing. The wink shows complicity. Each protagonist knows what he is doing.”
Hmmmm, interesting. And what about Ronaldo’s pregame chat with Pérez, his current boss?
“This is not really friendly pat. It reminds me of that of Valls with the socialist activist. Rather, it is a familiar slap, a way of reframing. I find that a little violent elsewhere. In the end, it was Pérez who looks away, it was he who put an end to the discussion. When face to face Ronaldo shows a little tongue. This is the sign of a tension, as if saying “I will not let this go” but in a teasing way. At the end, when he leaves and turns saying a few words, he raises his right eyebrow showing rejection and that he is not willing to let it go.”
Well damn. This practically confirms it. Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s president can barely conceal their mutual disdain, Ronaldo is more or less best buds with Blanc and wants the world to know it, and that shared wink between Ronaldo and Al-Khelaïfi all but inked their signatures on his soon-to-come PSG contract. Thank you, Le Parisien, for helping us decode it all.
Photo via AP