Nine words was all it took for Cristiano Ronaldo to ensure that his team’s Champions League success in Kiev would be all about him, despite a fairly anonymous performance in the Olympic Stadium. Nine words that he later attempted to clarify while only muddying the water further, stating cryptically that “these are situations which have been coming a long time.”
So what exactly was the Portuguese star attempting to achieve under the full glare of the world’s media?
The simplest explanation — and the most quintessentially Ronaldo — is that he wanted to ensure he was splashed over the front pages of the Spanish sports press the following morning while simultaneously stealing Gareth Bale’s thunder. He may have scored 15 en route to Kiev, but he won’t be overjoyed that Real’s 3-1 triumph will go down in history as the Welshman’s final.
If that was Ronaldo’s ruse, it was effective. Sunday reaped acres of column space and hand-wringing editorials dissecting his words. It also brought exactly what the Portuguese had been seeking, what he has always sought, in times of famine and feast: the adulation of Madrid fans, who thronged the capital’s Cibeles fountain and raised chants of “Cristiano, stay!”
Ronaldo does not enjoy playing second fiddle and Bale’s spectacular overhead kick was the high note of a Real Madrid career that may be drawing to a close. Signed as an eventual heir to the No. 7 shirt, he has been successfully sidelined by the Portuguese on the pitch and was again during Real’s celebrations, where Bale should rightfully have been the focus of attention.
When he was, on the grandest stage in Kiev, Ronaldo was lurking in the wings as Bale disappeared under a pile of white shirts. A pat on the head was about the extent of Ronaldo’s recognition; an innocuous gesture but at the same time a hierarchical one.
Ronaldo’s words could also be interpreted as a veiled double message to Florentino Perez, whose all-too-public courtship of Neymar has gone down like a flute of flat champagne in the Portuguese’s camp. A promised pay rise has failed to materialise, Perez claiming in January that the coffers are bare.
That hardly chimes of authenticity when the Madrid president is conducting an orchestral overture in the Brazilian’s direction. If Ronaldo bristles at the occasional limelight enjoyed by Bale, he is unlikely to be first in the queue for tickets if the Neymar circus rolls into town. Perez is canny enough to understand the inference: sign him and I’m off.
Ronaldo insisted that his comments were not fueled by money, but in reality he has rarely attempted to hide his displeasure at not coining a salary in line with those of Lionel Messi and the Paris Saint-Germain forward. Much as Madrid were obliged to hide the full cost of Bale’s signature lest the Portuguese’s feathers were ruffled, in the age of full wage disclosure Perez can only offer Ronaldo a disingenuous appraisal of the Bernabeu books for so long.
The third possibility is one that has been plotted under the corridors of the Bernabeu for years, waiting to explode as the fuse of the player’s relationship with his president burns ever closer to the packed cases of gunpowder: Ronaldo might genuinely want a new challenge.
There is little left to achieve at Real, other than matching Paco Gento’s record of six European Cups with the same club. Ever conscious of his place in the annals of the game, the Portuguese will be well aware that only Clarence Seedorf has won the Champions League with three different teams: Ronaldo’s medal from Kiev is his fifth overall with two different clubs. One or more elsewhere would install him as indisputably the greatest player in the history of Europe’s elite club competition.
While suggesting he could play until he is 40, Ronaldo probably has three or four years left at the highest level. He can remain there while earning more at PSG, and if Neymar is set on leaving the Parc des Princes this summer, the scenario could be in place for the most spectacular swap deal of all time.
He can also write whatever number he likes on a cheque with a Chinese or U.S. bank account number, but it is still too early for that. The Champions League and every record going is the music to which the competition’s top scorer dances.
Ronaldo is often caricatured as vacuous, concerned only with outward appearances, but that does him a disservice. His business acumen is as sharp as his shooting and his sense of timing worthy of a Shakespearean actor. He will not have spent the past six months looking through Perez’s cheap magician’s smoke simply to admire himself in the mirror concealed behind it.
At the age of 33, Ronaldo’s stock has never been higher. And with a few choice words in Kiev, one way or another he’ll get exactly what he wants this summer. What exactly that is, only Ronaldo can answer.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.