Cristiano Ronaldo never has a moment's peace. In June 2017, a few days after his latest UEFA Champions League triumph—in which he dragged Real Madrid to a third title in four seasons by rifling in 10 goals in the knockout stages—news broke that he was being charged with tax fraud.
The sum involved was hefty: €14.7 million accrued between 2011 and 2014 for image rights payments, which is almost four times the figure that landed Lionel Messi with a suspended jail sentence a year earlier, per El Pais (in Spanish). Ronaldo threatened to leave La Liga, cursing Real Madrid for failing to adequately support him, per A Bola (h/t Marca, in Spanish), even though he was mired in a personal tax issue.
"I don't think it is our responsibility," said Ramon Calderon, a lawyer and the former Real Madrid president who signed Ronaldo for the club in December 2008. "I remember the contract we signed. It's a contract in which it's clear he has to do things in the right way, which is normal for the citizen of any country, but let's see what happens. He hasn't been sentenced yet. The court will have to decide in the end. Maybe he's going to be acquitted."
The case rumbles on. In December, a representative for Spain's tax authority said in court that Ronaldo's tax fraud warranted a prison sentence, per El Mundo (in Spanish). After a year of unprecedented success with Real Madrid, including five trophies and a fifth Ballon d'Or, Ronaldo has been angling for a hike in his salary, which would also help to offset potential penalty payments that result from his tax case.
"The market last summer went crazy," Diario AS journalist Manu Sainz said. "Messi is earning €40 million net with his new contract. Neymar is on €30-35 million, and Cristiano, who has just won the Ballon d'Or, is far behind them on around €24 million net. There is a lot of difference between Messi, Neymar and Cristiano, so Cristiano considers it acceptable that his contract is renegotiated so it's around the same level as Messi and Neymar."
Calderon questions whether Ronaldo, who renegotiated his contract as recently as November 2016, merits an upgrade. "He's got still three more years to run on his contract. I don't think now is the moment to renew it. I don't see any reason now, really. He's happy here. He has said that he wants to stay, but there are always rumours about possible changes to the team.
"I don't have personal knowledge now about his [contract terms]. I'm sure he's paid what he asked for through his agent. I know Jorge Mendes well. He's very talented and very skilful in defending the rights of his players, so I'm sure Mendes has done a good job and Cristiano has got what he deserves. Of course, we always want more and more, but it must be matched with the club's [revenue] and balanced with the whole team."
The problem is that Ronaldo is the team's totem. Sainz said that in the summer—in theory—there was a first approach from the club to improve Ronaldo's contract, but negotiations stalled. "Nothing has happened yet," Sainz said, also mentioning statements from the Real Madrid hierarchy at the time that Ronaldo's contract won't be negotiated.
"In addition, [Real Madrid president] Florentino [Perez] said he wanted to sign Neymar and has wanted to sign Mbappe. Cristiano doesn't like all this talk very much. It has provoked a distancing between the president and the player, and now the relationship between Cristiano and Florentino is not OK."
The two parties are monitoring each other's moves carefully. Ronaldo has several strong bargaining chips to play with, including the nuclear option of pushing for a move from the club next summer. That has been aired on El Chiringuito, a football show on Spanish television, per Sainz. The goals Ronaldo guarantees and his unrivalled marketing profile—he has more social-media followers than any other person on the planet, according to an Apple Tree Communications study (h/t Diario Sport)—make him an alluring target.
His value to Real Madrid, too, has arguably never been higher on the pitch. His BBC partners are underperforming: Karim Benzema has been under pressure all season from media and fans because of a goal drought, and Gareth Bale continues to be racked by injury. This puts a premium on Ronaldo's worth.
"The relationship between Florentino and Cristiano Ronaldo is not good, but what happens is Florentino would assume a lot of risk selling Cristiano," said Juanma Trueba, a Spanish football writer. "If Cristiano goes to another club and he scores lots of goals there in the quantity he has scored at Real Madrid, it will be very hard for Florentino Perez. Real Madrid could get good money for Cristiano and use it to renovate the team, but Real Madrid believes that money is not a problem to obtain for the transfer of the biggest stars. It's never a worry.
"Florentino accumulates galacticos like [David] Beckham, Ronaldo, [Zinedine] Zidane. If he sells Cristiano and gets a player instead who isn't as good, it won't have been a good play by Florentino. It won't reflect well on him. In the end, Cristiano, in a good or bad season, ends up scoring lots of goals. It would be a very unpopular transfer, especially because there is not a substitute of the level of Cristiano or Messi available. The only player in the market who could possibly substitute for the transfer of Cristiano is Neymar.
"I think in the end, they are sentenced to understand each other because Cristiano is very important for Real Madrid. And to win more Ballon d'Or awards is very important for Cristiano. It's why he's at Real Madrid. It's not clear that he would be as well positioned to win it with another club, in another league. A club like Paris Saint-Germain, who could afford to buy him, is not fighting for the Champions League title every season. It would be very strange if there were a rupture that caused Cristiano to leave Real Madrid."
Ronaldo continues to push his agenda in the media. At the FIFA Club World Cup finals before Christmas, when asked about the chance of a contract renewal at a press conference, Ronaldo said: "Yes, it is possible. I would like to retire at Real Madrid, but it doesn't depend on me … because I'm not the one who's in charge at the club."
Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo's coach, supports his player. He's anxious that the issue is cleared up. "I would like it to be done as soon as possible," he said, per Diario AS. Perez, however, remains coy, also per Diario AS: "He has a contract until 2021. I ask for tranquillity."
"Florentino can't allow himself to upset Cristiano," Sainz said. "If Cristiano wanted to leave the club in the summer, it would be a problem for Real Madrid. Real Madrid would have to accept his request or renegotiate with him or accept a very low-priced sale.
"Real Madrid, like Barcelona, can't have conflicts with their big stars. If Messi says he wants to leave Barcelona, Barcelona can't confront him. They have to renegotiate with him. That is what could happen at Real Madrid. If in the summer Cristiano says, 'I want to leave Real Madrid,' the club will have to improve his contract or make it easy for him to leave. That is the situation now. The reality is that Cristiano won't accept in the summer the position he is in now.
"I believe there are enough clear, possible options at this moment that Cristiano could leave Real Madrid, but I trust that in the end Florentino will listen to Cristiano, and he will improve his contract. Only Florentino can decide. Only he knows. Florentino is intelligent. I believe he will accept and he will renegotiate Cristiano's contract. I firmly believe this.
"Of course, if he doesn't improve Cristiano's contract, Cristiano will go for sure. Or if Florentino takes too long to do it, Cristiano could decide not to renew his contract. He could say, 'I am OK. I don't want a new deal. I'm going,' and then there won't be any solution.
"The moment Cristiano says, 'I'm going,' it will happen, just like what happened when he decided to leave Manchester United. He said, 'I'm leaving. Everybody knows I want to go.' In the end, he left. Cristiano has a lot of personality. When he makes a decision, he doesn't change his mind."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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