Imagining the Football Landscape Had Ronaldo Never Left United

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Imagining the Football Landscape Had Ronaldo Never Left United
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo holds the European Cup after Manchester United's win over Chelsea in the 2008 final.

“It’s a special day for everyone—for the players, the fans and everyone associated with the football club—but it’s particularly special for Cristiano,” said Sir Alex Ferguson following Manchester United’s title-clinching win in the derby at Old Trafford. “To score twice in a match like that, with so much at stake and against our biggest rivals, you couldn’t ask more of a player, really. And now he’s got seven titles—same as the number on his back. It’s a magnificent achievement.”

Ferguson never spoke these words, and United lost last week’s Manchester derby on a Sergio Aguero winner. Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, had scored his 46th goal of the season in Real Madrid’s 5-1 win over Levante just two days prior, and the next day he’d bag a brace as the Meringues sealed their progression to the semifinals of the Champions League.

But what if Ferguson and Ronaldo had never parted ways? What if, instead of banking £80 million for his signature in 2009, United had dug in their heels and kept their best player at Old Trafford (at massively enhanced wages, of course)?

It’s safe to say the Red Devils would never have conceded the title on goal-difference last May, and they would have likely finished a few points ahead of Chelsea rather than one adrift in 2010. As is facetiously suggested in the opening paragraph, they’d be on their way to a seventh consecutive title this spring—and that’s only if they hadn’t sewn it up already, perhaps in the derby.

 

Continued goodwill

That Ronaldo agitated for his Old Trafford exit is well-documented, and Ferguson has previously admitted he had to convince Ronaldo to stay on a year longer than he seemed to prefer. Even so, the transfer—when it came—was done quickly and in the right spirit, and you never got the sense either side harboured any bad feelings against the other.

Ronaldo and Ferguson have continued to speak highly of one another.

In fact, you could go as far to say it was an amicable break-up, and in the nearly four years since, both Ronaldo and Ferguson have never missed an opportunity to sing the other’s praises.

Ronaldo, for example, often refers to his former manager as a sort of “father figure,” while Ferguson, who reserves his true affection for only a handful of his players, has previously lumped the Portugal international in with some of his other favourites, including Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

That sort of goodwill, combined with Ronaldo’s resistance to extending his current contract beyond its 2015 expiration, has given wings to the idea that he could return to Old Trafford, possibly as soon as this summer.

There have also been reports that United representatives have met with new shirt sponsors Chevrolet (Mirror) and kit manufacturers Nike (Daily Mail) in an effort to drum up some outside funding for what would surely be an expensive transaction.

Obviously, all of it is speculation, but there exists some very real momentum behind a possible return. It has been fed by an eager media corps and, as Ferguson has suggested, possibly the player’s agent as well (Mirror).

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Ronaldo says he considers Ferguson to be a father figure.

The Scot, himself, has hardly backed away from the questions when put to him, and in a press conference ahead of United’s Round of 16 second leg against Madrid last month he spoke at length about the player, although he conceded the rumours of Ronaldo’s return were likely “false hope (Telegraph).”

Even United legend Sir Bobby Charlton has entertained the notion (Goal):

Any great player would be welcomed back, but Cristiano went beyond being just a great player. He scores phenomenal goals, loves the club and was just the right sort of player at Manchester United. I’m a fan of him like anyone else, and on a personal level I would like to see him back.

 

If he had stayed

If Ronaldo were to make a United comeback, he would instantly become the best footballer in Britain upon disembarking on those shores.

But what if he had never left? Surely Ferguson’s squad would have a rather different look to it these days, and there might well have been some additional European success to go along with the hypothetical seven titles.

Ronaldo sent his well-wishes to Ferguson upon the unveiling of the United manager's statue at Old Trafford.

Antonio Valencia, for starters, would never have been acquired, and Aston Villa would likely have had to find another destination for Ashley Young as well. That’s more than £30 million in transfer money that would have been spent elsewhere. With Ronaldo dominating the attack, it might have been used to bolster the centre of midfield.

If so, it’s likely Wayne Rooney would have continued to function as a classic centre-forward rather than a playmaking No. 10, or, as we saw at the weekend, a deep-lying central midfielder. The 27-year-old always combined so well with Ronaldo, and while he has developed into a much more versatile player since his teammate’s exit, it’s because he’s had to.

The Ronaldo-Lionel Messi rivalry—much of it contrived by the press—would certainly have had a rather different tone to it. It took the former’s arrival in Spain for the comparisons to kick off, anyway, and now so much of how Ronaldo is measured has to do with how his tally sheet lines up opposite Messi’s.

Which is absurd.

Messi is the best player in the world beyond the shadow of a doubt, but that reality should not be enough to downplay Ronaldo’s accomplishments simply because the Argentinian’s are more numerous. Had he remained at United, the 28-year-old would have avoided the unhelpful, manufactured competition with Messi while his own football flourished in its unique way.

And since there wouldn’t have been the Primera Division goalscoring chart or consistent second-place finishes to Barcelona, there might have been another Ballon d’Or or two in store for Ronaldo. That, and those seven titles.

But we’ll never know for sure.

Still, a good many United fans will be hoping Ronaldo returns sooner rather than later. Their team hasn’t been the same since he left, and you just know he’d elevate the standard the moment he walked back onto that Old Trafford pitch.

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