Can it be just less than a year?
September 11th 2021, Manchester United 4-1 Newcastle United. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first game back. Four months after an angry mob stormed Old Trafford in protest about the aborted Super League, the owners, the demoralising effects of globalisation, the privations of lockdown…whatever it was about, the day Ronaldo came back, the stadium shook and reverberated with pure, ecstatic, cleansing joy.
The great American sportswriter Wright Thompson was there. He wrote an epic story about what it all meant, the joyful homecoming in the midst of deepening fury about the hollowing out of the club’s soul since the takeover by the Glazer family in 2005.
“The crowd kept singing, and chanting, and cheering,” Thompson wrote about the reaction to the first of Ronaldo’s two goals that day. “The noise was a catharsis as much as anything, part celebration of the rebirth offered by a newly signed star, part prayer that this rebirth might be one that lasts…The past 16 years slipped from their shoulders. Alienation and decline were held at bay.”
11 months on and alienation and decline are back, baby, and the prodigal son is more like a cantankerous maiden aunt you are desperate to stick in a home.
The romance of Ronaldo’s return started to sour as last season progressed and curdled fully this summer. His desire to leave in search of Champions League football came across as the cold sneer of a rake casting aside a besotted young lover. You can’t expect me to stick around here, he seemed to be saying, look at the state of you!
Opinions differ as to Ronaldo’s responsibility for the state United are in. Did the centrifugal force of his personality blow apart the fragile chemistry concocted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? Did his top jock energy render Ralf Rangnick the bespectacled supply teacher sitting on a whoopee cushion in front of a sniggering class? Or did his goals – 24 of them – spare United a fate even worse?
Studious football minds pointed to Ronaldo’s inability through age and disposition to play the energetic pressing game demanded of modern, elite attacking players. More pragmatic souls held to the ineluctable primacy of the great goalscorer, the sacred totem around whom a team should be built and should unquestioningly serve.
Even now, through the wreckage of Eric ten Hag’s calamitous start and all the other problems at the club – embarrassing transfer targets, butter-fingered goalies, tiny centre-halves! – questions of Ronaldo preoccupy. Reports tell us that prior resolve to keep hold of him has weakened. We hear of stroppy behaviour on the training ground, objections voiced to Ten Hag’s methods, lonely yoghurts in the Carrington canteen.
A confident camp, so the story goes, returned after a productive pre-season tour to be reunited with brooding superstar and subsequently went to pieces. And yet Gary Neville, United’s most lucid public advocate, said that were United to usher Ronaldo’s goals out the door, what remains is “a bottom half of the table team.”
The man himself has weathered the twin humiliations of the team’s performances and his own failure to attract a worthy suitor with that familiar shield of impenetrable narcissism. He bunked out of the stadium at half-time in the pre-season friendly with Rayo Vallecano. He cut a contemptuous figure when starting the opening defeat to Brighton on the bench. After Saturday’s debacle at Brentford, Ronaldo swerved the traditional sad grovel of his beaten teammates in front of the disgruntled away support with a gesture that suggested he did not need this shit.
And yet, it is hard not to look at the whole palaver and feel it slightly tragic, with all he has done, to see him reduced to this carry on: the subject of unceasing scuttlebutt about strops and slights and the mysterious Champions League heavyweight that will soon come to his rescue, he’s sure of it, any day now. On Instagram this week, he took the media to task, saying he had a “notebook” full of 100 lies which he will put the record straight about when all this is sorted out.
Maintaining a “notebook of lies” is rarely a sure sign of a person in a healthy frame of mind. Indeed, it feels like Ronaldo is in the full throes of late-stage delusional superstar paranoia: Liberace in his Vegas dressing room, holding onto the disappearing threads of youthful beauty; defiant Gloria Swanson on Sunset Boulevard, maintaining it’s just the pictures that got small.
What could be driving him, this fading legend sulking in a corner of the Manchester United canteen, after everything he’s done? They say he wants to play in the Champions League to overtake Lionel Messi for the record of most goals in the group stage. Would that be enough, Cristiano? Would you be happy then? Would you be done?
“This fella Ronaldo is a cod,” Eamon Dunphy infamously said in 2008, in one of history’s great misjudgements. Ronaldo is the man who went from cod to god, who swept away those concerns about his character and temperament with a fearsome, rippling forearm, whose career became an irrefutable accumulation of answers to questions about who was the greatest, the biggest, the GOATiest.
A few years before he went to Old Trafford, Wright Thompson visited Ronaldo’s home island of Madeira to talk to people who knew his dad, an alcoholic who died in 2005 at the age of 52. Thompson saw in Ronaldo’s high sheen swagger the hidden insecurity of a boy whose father was lost in drink, a broken nobody.
“These stories about superstars always end up being about fathers and sons, don't they?” Thompson wrote. “The invisible things driving someone to greatness are often created by trying to live up to someone, or trying to live someone down.”
Whatever is driving Ronaldo now, at 37, with all he has achieved, all the worlds he has conquered, all the goals and trophies and medals and adulation, whatever it could be, he probably won’t find the answer at Old Trafford or at some other shiny stadium either, Champions League or not. As the United fans who were there that joyful, cathartic day last September know only too well, it is never that straightforward.