Does Cristiano Ronaldo Really Want to Quit Real Madrid This Time?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJune 19, 2017

Is this the face of a man who wants to leave Madrid for pastures new over the summer?
Is this the face of a man who wants to leave Madrid for pastures new over the summer?Associated Press

You don't have to believe a magician is sawing his assistant in half to enjoy the spectacle. When the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term "suspension of disbelief" in 1817, it is unlikely he envisaged 200 years on we would still be guided by its principles.

Yet here we are, again, for a third time, scouring the social media accounts of the world's most famous athlete for clues as to whether Cristiano Ronaldo really could this time quit Real Madrid.

In all likelihood, he's almost certainly laughing at us trying to solve a crime that has never been committed, yet at the same time it's impossible not to become complicit in a world where we are all but disciples to the cult of Cristiano.

History suggests this latest agenda-shifting power play will culminate in Ronaldo relieving Madrid's coffers of just enough to repay what he allegedly owes the taxman. In 2012, when he refused to celebrate his 150th goal for Los Merengues, citing "a professional issue," it was one ultimately resolved with a bumper new contract.

If David Blaine could conjure a similar outcome from every trick he pulled, he'd be able to afford to spend less time in that perspex box.

Timing, with Ronaldo, is everything. He chose the occasion of his 100th UEFA Champions League goal in April to scold the Santiago Bernabeu faithful for whistling at his inactivity when not in possession. In fairness he had just scored a hat-trick against Bayern Munich. He may be impetuous, but he's smart with it.

And now, on the back 12 months in which he has won the European Championship, the Champions League twice (including two goals a fortnight ago in the 4-1 defeat of Juventus in the final), La Liga and the Club World Cup, while being nailed on to become the Ballon d'Or recipient for a fifth time, he says he wants out.

According to The Telegraph's Jason Burt, Ronaldo's advisers are reaching out to interested clubs to reassure them their client wants to leave Madrid for a "fresh challenge," and not because of the accusations of tax fraud he is facing. A fee of €150 million (£131 million) is being suggested, despite his €1 billion (£874.88 million) buyout clause.

Yet given he signed a new five-year contract in November, purported suitors Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Inter Milan, along with clubs in the Chinese Super League and MLS, will need convincing they would not by bidding simply become a leveraging tool for Ronaldo in any subsequent talks with his paymasters.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus and maybe even a newly minted AC Milan are perhaps the only other European clubs who could fashion a package that would work within the financial fair play rules. Given the timing, scepticism will be rife across the board regardless.

Presumably in response to Madrid's state prosecutor alleging Ronaldo had used an off-shore company between 2011 and 2014 to hide a portion of his income from the tax office, amounting to €14.7 million (£12.9 million) in unpaid taxes relating to the sale and licensing of his image rights, the player on Thursday posted an image of himself on Instagram holding a finger to his lips with the caption: "Sometimes the best answer it's to be quiet."

Three-and-a-half million (and counting) followers liked his silence. A day later considerably more liked him breaking it.

Portuguese daily A Bola was anointed as his unofficial mouthpiece, with its front page dedicated to the mother of all scoops. Ronaldo had arrived at the "irreversible" decision to leave Real Madrid, being of the opinion he had become "a victim of persecution" in Spain (via The Independent).

Reuters' sports correspondent over there, Richard Martin, told the BBC that Ronaldo's team had "called the offices of all Spanish newspapers last night (Thursday) to inform them of the impending front cover story." It seems the only thing missing from A Bola's copy was super agent Jorge Mendes' byline.

There's no question the tax issue has shook Ronaldo up, as well it might. Although, even if convicted, it is unlikely he would serve any jail time. Last year, Lionel Messi received a 21-month sentence after being convicted of tax fraud, but under Spanish law, anything less than two years for first-time offenders is usually suspended.

Barcelona set up an official social media campaign in support of their player, encouraging supporters to use the hashtag #PayYourTaxes #WeAreAllLeoMessi, and "express their sympathy for the greatest footballer in the world". If it ever goes to court, expect Ronaldo to cite Madrid's failure to do likewise for him as being reasonable grounds for divorce.

Ronaldo will always crave what Messi has at Barcelona. It's not hard to imagine him doing a little fist-pump when he was told the tax he owes dwarfs what his rival was accused of withholding.

Former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon, who served in the role between 2006 and 2009, told the BBC's Radio 5 Live (via the Daily Mirror) that it is his view Manchester United would be the player's preferred choice. His thoughts on Ronaldo's relationship with Jose Mourinho during their time together at the Bernabeu are also worthy of note. 

"The relationship in Madrid wasn't the best, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to go back to Manchester, where he is very grateful of what happened.

"He delayed his move to Madrid for a year because Ferguson was like a father to him. He loved the club, the fans, the city and I don't rule out a move back."

There has always been a sense with Ronaldo that if Sporting CP were his first love, and Manchester United his true love, Madrid has been more a marriage of convenience. The perfect power couple who behind closed doors live quite separate lives. Hollywood marriages with bedrooms that house two single beds have not been unheard of over the years. Madrid for their part certainly turned a blind eye to Ronaldo's jaunts to Paris the season before last, when it seems unlikely sightseeing was at the top of his agenda.

Still, if Manchester really is where his heart is, perhaps he'd have ended up back there in 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson was convinced he had done enough to bequeath a perfect parting gift to both United and his successor David Moyes. He took a pay bump instead and Moyes had to make do with Marouane Fellaini.

Given United are thought to be well down the line in their pursuit of Madrid striker Alvaro Morata, and eager to keep at arm's length Real's perennial interest in David De Gea, it seems likely they will tread carefully with Ronaldo. If Mourinho makes noises about his compatriot that irk his former club, Ed Woodward may find landing Morata considerably more difficult and expensive than he first envisaged.

There is an argument that having chiseled his name into the most illustrious annal in world club football, winning the European Cup in three of the past four seasons and scoring the best part of 50 goals in each of his nine campaigns, there is nothing left for Ronaldo to achieve at Real Madrid.

But still, now 32, at a time when even he would have to concede the club has more than played its part in his almost pathological pursuit of multiple Ballon d'Ors (in terms of both who they have signed and who they haven't) would he risk starting afresh? If Ronaldo is still addicted to winning, which he almost certainly is, there is no better home for him than at the Spanish and European champions.

Whatever Mendes is telling Ronaldo's admirers, it seems more likely a desire to distance himself from the tax furore is currently behind his dissatisfaction with life in Spain than any real yearning to try another league.

Although Calderon claims if Ronaldo's mind is made up it won't be easy to change it, current incumbent Florentino Perez is hardly green when it comes to star names playing hardball. It may even be that he is thinking if Ronaldo goes now, of his own accord, it will smooth the way, and pay for, the acquisition of 18-year-old Monaco wonder kid Kylian Mbappe. In the wings, Marco Asensio doesn't look too shabby, either.

In winning the Champions League this past season, Zinedine Zidane's Madrid became only the second side since Arrigo Sacchi's majestic AC Milan outfit in 1990 to retain Europe's premier club trophy. They are an exceptional side with world-class players from front to back yet face accusations of lacking an identity.

In truth, their identity is Ronaldo. Watching coverage of the final, it was as though Brian Lara had turned up to a village cricket match and asked if anyone minded if he had a knock. Twenty-two great players, and the camera loved just one of them.

Both Zidane and his bosses will know that despite Ronaldo's claims to the contrary, he will not go on forever. In terms of ruthlessness, there will be nothing to pick between player and club, despite the common held assumption Ronaldo holds all the cards.

If Ronaldo is bluffing, he'd better hope Madrid don't call him on it. One only has to recall the dumbfounded looks etched on the malodorous mugs of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the morning of the Brexit result to realise if you say you want something, you'd better actually bloody want it. 

Even if Ronaldo's next side is unlikely to be a Scrubs XI (shame, it would make a great sequel to either Escape to Victory or Mean Machine), there's no dispute any besmirch on his character over tax issues would be catastrophic for a man who keeps a Warhol-like grip on the image he presents of himself to the outside world.

The American photographer Diane Arbus once said: "Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner. Even if you are behind, a sustained look of control and confidence can give you a mental edge that results in victory." She could have been describing Ronaldo's Instagram account, the fifth-most followed in the world.

Shots of him hitting the gym are interspersed with action images that might as well have been taken off Getty. It's all a bit Zoolander with weights, yet bland enough a corporation could sign if off as an official account without amends—which perhaps shouldn't be too much of a surprise given Brand Ronaldo is bigger than most of them.

A sportsman who on the surface supersedes almost all others in his desire to tell the world who he is (the Ronaldo movie was only Bubbles away from being Michael Jackson-like), somehow, in terms of the important stuff, the private bits, maintains a vacuum-sealed existence that even J.D. Salinger might find a touch disconnected. He's clearly a slave to fame, but he never quite seems to know what to do with it.

What he chooses to say these days reveals less than nothing about who he really is. It's quite the feat, harder than it looks in an age when being in possession of a phone makes paparazzi of one and all of us. The writer Saul Bellow was on the money when he said: "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."

He has become the avatar for a generation infinitely more interested in a player's FIFA rating than personality. With his Kryten-shaped head and eyes that swivel as though they may be controlled by a little lever protruding out of the back, he has a robotic presence that somehow seems perfect for his rhythmic athleticism. He's Kraftwerk in shorts.

That's just my version. Ronaldo is a blank canvas to which we can all project our own versions of him on to. That canvas will start to look a bit different if it is covered with the taxman's doodles.

To talk of numbers when discussing the very best players the game has ever produced all feels a little uncouth, as though trying to gauge a great work of art on its size or the type of paint used. Yet with Ronaldo, the numbers somehow take on a beauty of their own.

A club record 406 goals in his 394 appearances for Real Madrid is confirmation of genius without the need for a show reel. Then there's the 111 assists, the 42 hat-tricks, the three Champions Leagues and as many Ballon d'Ors over the same period. Roll such statistics around your tongue enough times and it starts to feel like forbidden fruit, ungodly in its otherworldliness.

As is always the case in football, eye-catching numbers on the field lead to eye-watering ones off it. Ronaldo currently earns around £400,000 a week post-tax, with Forbes having estimated he made £72.05 million last year from his salary, bonuses and endorsements.

If Ronaldo feels persecuted taking home that lot, then just maybe we won't have to suspend our disbelief for too much longer.


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