A transfer window isn’t a transfer window without rumors that Cristiano Ronaldo might be on the move, and despite playing the hero in Real Madrid’s historic back-to-back Champions League trophies and snatching away the league title from Barcelona and all but certainly locking up a fifth Ballon d’Or while playing in one of the best, deepest squads in the history of the sport, Ronaldo, true to form, reportedly wants to leave Madrid.
Not that this will actually happen, of course. Ronaldo probably doesn’t really want to leave, Real Madrid don’t really want to see him go, and even if they were serious about breaking up, there aren’t really any sensible landing spots for a player of Ronaldo’s cost and age anyway. What’s really at stake here are the terms of this relationship as it enters its final stage, and which party has the upper hand in what might be the last big contract negotiation of this long, fruitful, at times tumultuous partnership.
Portuguese sports paper A Bola broke the story today with their cover story, headlined “Ronaldo Wants To Leave Spain.” Their report states that “despite the player’s deep passion for Real,” Ronaldo is “deeply disillusioned with the whole situation” regarding the recent tax-fraud charges the Spanish government has hit him with. (If you missed that story, Ronaldo is accused of evading nearly €15 million in taxes by hiding part of his income using an off-shore shell company.) According to A Bola, Ronaldo feels the meanies in Spain’s tax office have made him a “victim of persecution” for going through all this trouble for a measly €15 million.
Soon after that Portuguese report, Spanish sports daily Marca came in to confirm the news of Ronaldo’s blues. Marca also confirmed that the primary reasoning for the superstar’s dissatisfaction stems from the tax case. In another article on the topic, Marca lays out Ronaldo’s litany of complaints: He is “hurt and annoyed” by the tax case’s entire existence, since he feels like he’s done nothing wrong; he does not feel like the club has adequately backed him, despite Real releasing a statement that they believe in his innocence; he thinks the whole tax ordeal is actually Real’s fault, because it was the club that advised him on how to partition his salary after a major change to Spain’s tax laws came into effect around the time he joined the team; and, again, he believes he’s being treated unfairly, made an example of by the tax authorities even though he’s tried to be cooperative and proactive about remedying any perceived discrepancies. Because of all this, we’re to believe, Ronaldo wants out.
What’s maybe most interesting about these reports is how Real have taken it all. A Bola, being a Portuguese paper, almost certainly got their information directly from Ronaldo’s camp, so their info is slanted in his direction. Marca, being a Spanish paper with deep ties to Real’s hierarchy, must be getting their scoops from someone inside the club pushing Real’s angle.
It’s intriguing, then, how sanguine the club sounds in Marca’s reporting. They are calm about the situation, not wanting to lose Ronaldo and confident of being able to talk him down from the ledge, but also make it clear that they “will not hold anyone against their will” and that if Ronaldo does leave, it will be the club that sets the terms of the transfer, not the player. The Marca article explaining Madrid’s thinking ends by saying that while the club isn’t actively out looking for replacements, “that’s not to say that there are no alternatives. With 200 million [Euros], you can do many things.”
With all that background laid out, here’s why this is almost certainly much ado about nothing. As always in these matters, what’s really going on here is a power struggle, and both of these powerful entities can best maximize their power by staying together.
Ronaldo must, understandably, be upset about the tax case. Because of the confusion regarding any country’s tax code at those highest of brackets, and Ronaldo’s believable claim that the club’s own advice guided his tax strategy after those big changes to the law in the recent past, he probably honestly doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong.
So, indignant at the Spanish government and Spain overall, and annoyed at Real because of their bad advice, it makes sense that his frustration would lead him to throw a tantrum soon after the charges came down. To the larger Spanish community, Ronaldo’s message seems to be, “I come out here and entertain you people, and this is how you repay me—with criminal charges for some money shit? Fuck off, you ungrateful shits, I’m out!” To Real, it’s, “You people fucked me over here, making me think I was doing something legal, and now I owe a ton of money and face potential jail time and have to see my name dragged in the mud. And now you’re just sitting by, watching me take all the heat, when it was your fault in the first place. Oh but I’ll teach you the folly of your ways. Fuck you, I’m out!” The situation isn’t too dissimilar to Lionel Messi’s recent forays in the transfer rumor pages, when the Barcelona star’s tax-evasion charges and ultimate conviction reportedly unsettled him and led to a raft of rumors that he might want to leave Spain primarily because of the tax case and how it was handled.
Ronaldo, being an all-time great and an international icon of the highest level, has usually been in a strong bargaining position in these annual power struggles with Real. The summer would come, Ronaldo would hint at his vague discontentment with the club and bat his eyelashes in Manchester’s direction, and Real would balk for a while and pretend like they were ready to play hardball before caving and giving Ronaldo the fat new contract he was after. This is still mostly the case, though the club’s calmness that seeps between the lines of the Marca report implies that Real actually wouldn’t be all that fussed if Ronaldo was serious and did end up leaving.
Though Real Madrid are coming off their best stretch of the Ronaldo era and one of the best stretches of any era—winning the domestic and Champions League double this year, becoming the first team to win consecutive European Cups in a couple decades, claiming three UCL titles in four seasons—with Ronaldo playing the starring role in their success, the end of Ronaldo as the Ronaldo we’ve known is for the first time visible on the horizon. He’s already nowhere near the dynamic player he was in his prime, and this past season was actually his worst individual one in his time in Spain.
Of course, an aging Ronaldo is still and will remain one of the very best players in the world, but he no longer seems as indispensable as he was just a couple years ago. Though they’d prefer it not to come to fruition just yet, some part of the club has to be salivating at the possibility of selling their declining, 32-year-old forward for a world-record fee and using that money to fund the purchase of a sure-thing teenaged phenom like Kylian Mbappé. Best-case scenario, Ronaldo stars for Real for another three years or so. Mbappé could be the team’s best player for a decade.
Despite all of these reasons why Ronaldo probably does want to leave right now and why Real might not shed too many tears if the player does make good on his threat, it would still be a colossal shock if the two did in fact part ways this summer. Ronaldo is in the perfect team for him already and the face of the most famous sports team in the world, where everything is set up for him to look good and to win the team and personal glory he craves for years and years to come. Other than to express his immediate anger, there is no good reason for him to leave.
The only two realistic suitors for him would be Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain. Either club would be crazy to shell out the record-shattering transfer fee it would cost for a player as old as he is, and he’d be going from a perennial Champions League favorite to either a United team still in the rebuilding phase or a PSG group that couldn’t even win its domestic league. Real are so far and away the best club for Ronaldo that it feels dumb even considering potential alternatives.
Real, too, have little realistic incentive to end the relationship. For one, it’s hard to imagine anyone paying the close to €200 million transfer fee Real would be after, plus the enormous wages Ronaldo would demand. Also, even if Ronaldo is getting worse, his decline has been slow and he is still a critical piece of the team; it would be hard to find a ready replacement for the goals, intensity, confidence, and allure he imbues the club and his teammates with. Plus, Ronaldo is extremely famous, and star wattage of that kind matters a great deal to Real’s bottom line and to their perception of themselves. More than the €200 million a hypothetical Ronaldo sale might net them, Real need what Ronaldo already offers the club which in real and intangible ways cannot be replicated by anyone else in the game.
Ultimately, this will almost certainly will come down to money. While a split doesn’t seem likely, the particulars of this power struggle will probably influence what exactly the continued Real-Ronaldo relationship looks like. There are two broad scenarios for how this gets remedied: the pro-Ronaldo version would see Real shelling out more money to him, either by pledging to pay some part of his tax penalties or in the form of a new contract; the other, pro-Real version would see Real make some public showing of support for the player, while not actually footing the bill or renegotiating his contract.
These seem the more likely terms of negotiation at play here, much more so than whether Ronaldo leaves or not. And as is usually the case, it’s a good bet that Ronaldo will come out on top here, too. This standoff probably ends in a new contract that pleases both the club and the player. Ronaldo would get more money, probably the final big payday of his career, which would serve as another affirmation of his importance to the club. The club would get another few years with one of the greatest players in history, and all the goals and trophies and glamour that comes along with it. By the time the new deal is signed and everyone is happy again, it will have been an expensive negotiation process, and all parties involved will probably believe it was worth it.