Ronaldo’s return to Man United has shocked the soccer world. Here’s why

And so, he’s back. Maybe just as interesting as the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to Manchester United is how it happened. Back in May, plenty of us speculated about how it could make sense.

Juventus weren’t exactly offering him around, but with projected losses in excess of €300 million over two years, they’d made it pretty clear that if he wanted to leave and if they received a fee equal to his residual amortised value (€28 million … the game now belongs to the accountants as much as anyone), they wouldn’t stand in his way. He had a year left on his contract, extending it was going to be very difficult and the club were looking to rebuild through youth.

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Meanwhile, Manchester United had the funds to sign him — and pay his hefty wages — and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer liked the idea of a veteran goal scorer who could add oomph to the attack as well as serve as a role model to younger players. So much so that the club had signed Edinson Cavani to a one-year deal that was about to expire.

If Ronaldo wanted to leave Juventus, Man United was a logical destination, and Cavani’s departure would help offset some of his wages (at least a third).

Except it didn’t happen. On May 10, United exercised their option to give Cavani another year, effectively shutting the door on an early move for Ronaldo … or so we thought. Because, out of the blue, we discovered Ronaldo wanted a move.

There were hints, though they didn’t start rolling in until less than two weeks ago. Edu Aguirre, a journalist very close to Ronaldo (so much so that his Instagram feed has pictures of them on holiday together) said Real Madrid wanted to bring him back. This prompted a rare public denial via Twitter from their manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and a long post from Ronaldo himself, in which he talked about how focused he was and how he can’t “allow people to keep playing around with [his] name.” (Speaking of names, he mentioned that of his then-team, Juventus, a grand total of zero times.)

Then, earlier this week, Real Madrid made a €160m bid for Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe and, immediately thereafter, stories began circulating that linked Ronaldo to a move to Manchester City or, potentially, to PSG if Mbappe were to move. (At PSG he would have, of course, teamed up with Lionel Messi, football’s equivalent of a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal doubles team or Magic Johnson joining Larry Bird.)

By Thursday morning, stuff got very real. Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, went to Turin to tell Juventus that Ronaldo wanted to leave, adding that he was close to finalising a deal with Manchester City. Juventus accepted this and spun the line that maybe the rebuild would come one year early. They reminded Mendes that they would need a €28m bid from City, and he told them to expect a bid in the next 24 hours. Mendes then hopped in a Cessna and flew to Paris, where he spent the afternoon.

We don’t know whether he met with PSG once he landed to see whether that was an option, should they decide to let Mbappe leave. They politely said Ronaldo wasn’t in their plans, but then they’d also said that Mbappe wasn’t available and that they had no plans to negotiate with Real Madrid even though, by that point, they were talking to the Spanish club.

When facts change, plans change, and Mendes, who has been one of the world’s top agents for two decades, understands this better than most. He traveled to Paris to cover his bases, and, by Thursday, when he reached out to Manchester United, he was covering another base. This was even as he was still in touch with Manchester City and waiting for them to send Juventus an official bid.

By lunchtime in Europe on Friday, the mood had shifted. In his news conference before facing Arsenal, Man City manager Pep Guardiola said: “Cristiano will decide where wants to play, not Manchester City or myself… Right now it seems far away.” It felt like a “take it or leave it” statement. Maybe the hitch was over the fee Juventus were asking to be paid: according to reports, City weren’t prepared to bid more than €15m. Maybe it was over Ronaldo’s contract: at Juventus he earned €31m after-tax, which works out to £48.36m gross ($66.5m) or more than £900,000 a week, nearly two and a half times as much as anybody else in the Premier League.

Minutes later and a few miles away, Solskjaer opened the door in his own prematch media duties: “I didn’t think Cristiano would leave Juventus. If he ever wants to move away from Juventus, he knows we are here… Let’s see what happens with Cristiano.”

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Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested Cristiano Ronaldo would return when talking to children in April 2019.

When a manager speaks this openly — especially a circumspect guy like Solskjaer — you know something is imminent. Within minutes, City were briefing the media that they were out of the Ronaldo sweepstakes, and sure enough, a few hours later, United’s official account tweeted this.

There will be time to analyse and assess whether it’s the right move, for Cristiano and for United, but right now, you’re left stunned by the mechanics of how it came to be.

First and foremost is the timing itself. Why did Cristiano wait this long? It’s not as if something happened in the past week that suddenly made Ronaldo want to leave Juventus. The club’s financial situation didn’t suddenly deteriorate in mid-August. Ronaldo didn’t suddenly run into Max Allegri after two years and think “Nah, I don’t really want to play for this guy.” It’s not as if Juve had promised him they’d acquire a star-studded supporting cast for him and, as a result, he wanted to jump ship: he knew full well that, other than Manuel Locatelli, there would no significant newcomers.

In fact, it feels as if this had as much to do with opportunities elsewhere as it did with a desire to leave.

There were only four viable destinations in terms of who could afford him: Real Madrid, PSG, Man City and Man United. Madrid wants Mbappe, and PSG wants to keep Mbappe. Mendes knew that although Mbappe is very good, he can’t play for two teams at once and that whoever didn’t land Mbappe might have an interest in Ronaldo. Equally, Man City, having missed out on Harry Kane, were an option.

Man United? They were there all along, and the mere fact that they hadn’t moved for him earlier when it might have made more sense, sporting-wise, didn’t mean much. Ego is a part of football and, perhaps, being able to pip a target linked to City played a part. And that’s the other remarkable part of this tale because Ronaldo isn’t the sort of player you expect to get shopped around; you expect him to be courted and seduced by clubs, you expect bidding wars for his attention. Instead, we got Mendes going door to door.

This is one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He is 36 year old, but he scored more league goals last season (29) than all but two players (Robert Lewandowski, with 41 for Bayern Munich, and Lionel Messi, with 30 for Barcelona) in Europe’s Big Five leagues. And he won the Golden Boot at the European Championship not six years ago but six weeks ago. Anybody he has ever worked with — even those who don’t like him — raves about his fitness and professionalism.

Yet here we are. He ends up moving almost as an afterthought, in the last week of the transfer window, with his agent working 24/7.

It’s not a criticism of Ronaldo. It’s a sign that, for many clubs, reality (of the post-COVID variety) bites. That agents who could once manipulate clubs and players as if they were little toy soldiers on a map can’t do it as easily as they once did.

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My colleague Paolo Condo floated the idea that maybe the age of “player power” and superstars always getting their way might be over, or at least on hold. Messi wanted to stay at Barcelona (and, supposedly, they wanted to keep him): he didn’t get his way. Kane wanted to move from Tottenham to Man City: he didn’t get his way. Gianluigi Donnarumma wanted a massive raise from Milan or a move to Juventus: he didn’t get his way and now backs up Keylor Navas at PSG, earning little more than what he was offered by Milan.

And now Ronaldo. He got his move, yes, but only at the very end of the summer and after some herculean effort from his agent.

Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest that we’ve moved away from the era of the omnipotent individual megastar. That said, Man City have tons of great players but no domineering superstar (unless you count Guardiola), and they nearly won the quadruple last season. You can make a similar argument for Chelsea, winning the Champions League with their rotating set of front men, or Liverpool, where it’s hard to pin down an individual standout. Atletico Madrid, of course, won LaLiga without an A-lister carrying them, and if Antonio Conte were here, he’d tell you Inter won Serie A through the strength of the collective (and his brilliant coaching, of course).

What about PSG? Yes, they did have two A-list megastars in Neymar and Mbappe, and no, they didn’t win the league. Whatever the case and no matter the effort it took, Ronaldo can now, after 12 years, write more chapters of Manchester United’s history.