If one were interested in fairness when it comes to Cristiano Ronaldo — and I’m not for a host of reasons, including the big glaring one (actually two) — one would have to concede that being a professional athlete requires an absurd amount of defiance. At some point in our childhood, we’re all told the odds and percentages that scream, “You’ll never make it.” Even getting through that first layer takes some unique bloody-mindedness. And from there, every level, every academy or youth team is just more and more you have to work through, all the time believing not just that you can make it, but it’s your right.
To achieve what Ronaldo has, whether it was dragging some pretty unimpressive Manchester United teams to league titles on his own or scoring 40-50 goals per season in La Liga, or collecting European Cup after European Cup, clearly takes determination and self-belief that’s unmatched. So why should he so easily acquiesce to the challenge of age and time? Fuck, LeBron James is making a whole ad campaign about not doing so. Though one look at the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday told us what a waste that’s going to be.
However, the time has come for Ronaldo, but nothing about Ronaldo has ever been graceful when it comes to his personality. So he’s being a complete bitch about it.
Ronaldo walked off the field last night before the final whistle in United’s 2-0 win over Spurs, and apparently left the stadium altogether, which was a rather big result for them in pursuit of a top-four league finish, and a return to the Champions League. And 2-0 doesn’t really do it justice, as they mauled Spurs for all 90 minutes, racking up 28 shots to Tottenham’s nine and nearly tripling them up in expected goals. Tottenham never got to grips with United’s frontline of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, and Antony, even if Rashford’s shooting boots were left in the car trunk. Bruno Fernandes pulled every string behind them. It was probably as electric as they’ve looked all season, though a portion of that is due to Spurs’ and Antonio Conte’s inclination to be pretty goddamn passive this season.
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And there wasn’t room for Ronaldo in it. So he left in a huff, making sure everyone knew he was leaving. This isn’t even the first time he’s pulled this act, as he left the stadium entirely during the second half of a preseason game when his shift was over.
You can at least say it’s very transparent. Ronaldo has made it clear that playing for a team that’s only in the Europa League is beneath him, and even more, so is being a player who is basically rotational — used as a super-sub in most matches and starting only the matches against the lesser lights of the league and Europe so that those in the first 11 can get a breather. Ronaldo and his crew tried to bellyache and bat their eyelashes at any club that would take him in August so he could play on a Champions League club, and there was a parade of clubs to laugh off the idea and then go about their day. Except for Chelsea, which eventually got Thomas Tuchel fired for being right.
It was also transparent that during one of United’s biggest moments of the season, a thrashing of a fellow top-four competitor, Ronaldo made sure that he was still the story. Because that’s just how he is. If the victory and thrill came without him, then it doesn’t really count, does it?
It may be hard to accept for any athlete, especially one as great and incredibly up his own ass as Ronaldo is and has been, but he doesn’t fit into this team. Erik ten Hag wants a mobile, fluid, highly interested at all-times forward corps that can interchange, get behind defenses, press, and simply be a mystery. He wants defenses to not know what angles they’re coming from, and he wants them to not be a deserted tollbooth when the other team has the ball right into United’s midfield.
Ronaldo does none of these things. He can’t move anymore, which means he can’t stretch a defense with a threat in behind that provides more space for Fernandes or Christian Eriksen. It’s why Fernandes is so less effective when Ronaldo plays (pay attention, Portugal). He does not press. He does not take up other positions, simply waiting for the ball to get near or in the box to poach goals, when he’s not taking the ball from the spot he can’t move from so he can launch long-distance shots.
Does he score regularly doing that? Sure does! And occasionally he’ll score multiple times, as he did against this very same Spurs side last season. He scored more than enough last year. And United were shit. Just like Juventus were the past two seasons with all of his goals. He’s become a hood ornament. Because of the lack of any defense, and how a team’s attack has to be structured around him, it doesn’t make teams better. You can argue it makes teams worse.
You would think after the last transfer window, when Ronaldo essentially put himself on the street corner and watched every car pass by, it would become clear what he is. He does have a role to play at United, and coming off the bench when they need a goal or there’s more space for him when protecting a lead would still lead to goals and moments. At 37, this is what happens to players, no matter their past.
Ronaldo is trying to become such a story and problem where United might just let him go in January. But who’s coming to get him? If he’s going to restrict himself to only the last 16 of the Champions League, it’s impossible to think of a team that would want any part of this, especially after he pulled his toys-out-of-the-crib act last night. Who needs the headache? A return to Sporting Lisbon? They’re not going to pay him what he’ll demand. Same story for a team like Marseille. Either of the Milan sides? They already have aging strikers.
But then, there’s never been dignity to any of Ronaldo’s career, has there? You always got the sense, as historically great as he was, that he was playing his own game and just happened to be on the field with 10 guys wearing the same shirt. We saw enough tantrums after teammates scored goals he thought should have gone to him to know that. He always saw team triumphs as his own, even when he wasn’t engineering them himself (which again, he did a fair amount). So why should the end be any more dignified? If it was always about making himself the show when it was good, then it should be when it goes bad too.