By Rory Smith
Manchester United’s starting team appeared first, walking out at Old Trafford shoulder-to-shoulder with its opponent for the evening, Tottenham Hotspur. Then came the substitutes, clutching fluorescent training bibs and bottles of water, followed by two small armies of coaches, assistant coaches and assistants to the coaches.
Only then, once the players had lined up, the replacements had taken their seats and the respective coaching staffs had claimed their territory, did Cristiano Ronaldo emerge, strolling a couple of yards behind midfielder Scott McTominay. It may have been by instinct or it may have been by design, but for that moment the camera was drawn inexorably to him.
Not that it needs much excuse. Four minutes later, as the game was settling into its pattern, there was Ronaldo again, in situ on the substitutes’ bench in the center of the screen. It has become a familiar role for him for much of this season: one of the finest players in the game’s history, reduced to the most important spectator in the stadium.
Strictly speaking, this should not be worthy of note. For much of last season, the first of his second spell at Old Trafford, Ronaldo was the inspiration for and subject of what was — initially, anyway — a moderately compelling debate about the balance between individual attainment and collective success.
He scored goals, and plenty of them — 18 in 30 games in the Premier League alone, the most prolific at the club by some distance — but his presence at times seemed to inhibit the attempts of first Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick to imbue the team with a more modern, dynamic sensibility. How then should his contribution be assessed? Were the goals justification for Ronaldo’s inclusion, or was the cause being confused with the cure?
It has been abundantly clear for months where Erik ten Hag, United’s current manager, stands on that particular conundrum. He has been unstinting in his praise for Ronaldo in public — both in terms of his lasting legacy on the game and his ongoing usefulness — but his words have been rather drowned out by his actions.
Ronaldo has started only two Premier League games this season. The first involved being 4-0 down at halftime against Brentford. The second ended in a stalemate against Newcastle. He has instead spent most of his time facing Omonia Nicosia, Sheriff Tiraspol and Real Sociedad in the Europa League. Few have questioned the wisdom of it.
United’s win against Spurs last Wednesday night in Manchester, England, the product of probably the finest performance yet in ten Hag’s nascent reign, provided a compelling illustration as to why. Without Ronaldo, United is stirring. There is an energy, a zest in its performance, a sense of disparate parts gradually binding into a distinct unit, the early emergent signs of a genuine style of play.
And yet such is Ronaldo’s fame, his draw, his magnetism that even now his absence defines things as surely as his presence. His exclusion from the field is a talking point. The camera pans to him, seeking to discern his mood, his state of mind, as soon as the opportunity arises. The fans, mindful of what he was, unconcerned by what he might be, sing his name as he trots down the touchline to stretch his muscles, to shake off the gathering rust.
It is not, of course, quite the coda to his glittering career Ronaldo might have anticipated. It is not, in truth, the coda his achievements warrant. There is scant reason to offer sympathy for that: His predicament, after all, comes with the not-irrelevant consolation of being the best-paid player at one of the world’s richest clubs.
But it is true too that Ronaldo is trapped by a function of modern soccer’s economics. Few players, if any, have done as much as Ronaldo, 37, to turn the game into the financial monster it has become; he has for years been one of the twin spearheads (and prime beneficiaries) of its relentless drive for global growth.
Now, though, he finds himself at the mercy of his own creation. All players, even the very best, reach an end. Their legs weary or their bodies creaking, they look for a slightly more comfortable place to spend their twilight years, somewhere the scrutiny is less glaring or the demands not quite as exacting or the task a touch less mountainous than at the game’s absolute peaks.
It is easy — and not wholly inaccurate — to accuse Cristiano Ronaldo of not only greed but hubris too, to point out that he would find countless willing suitors if only he would accept a substantial pay cut and a demotion in status. He would be adored at Valencia, or Lazio, or Galatasaray. After all, his forebears as the world’s best players were prepared to accept the ticking of the clock.
The problem, of course, is that he does not need to do so. That he was slowly displaying signs of his own mortality was clear when he left Juventus a little more than a year ago, and yet Manchester United — a club that regards itself as the biggest in the world — was still willing to sign him, not just for the romance of it but for the brand impact, the exposure, the Instagram followers. There is no reason to believe, when he leaves United, it would be different for his next club.
Ronaldo is, put simply, too valuable, too famous, too much of a draw to be allowed to drift into the sunset. (It goes without saying, of course, that Lionel Messi — the impending recipient of contract offers from both Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona — is exactly the same.) Someone, somewhere, will offer him a colossal sum of money to score the occasional goal in the Champions League, or to aid their pursuit of it.
And so this is his lot, as one of the most glorious careers ever does not draw gracefully to a close but is drained of every last drop of glamour, every last ounce of energy, every last lingering camera shot, forced to watch on as the game he once dominated and the stages he once owned move on without him.
A minute or so before the final whistle on Wednesday night, with United’s victory secure, Ronaldo lifted himself from his seat, strolled along the side of the field and disappeared into the Old Trafford tunnel. There were still four minutes to play.
By the time they had elapsed, he had left the stadium, and disappeared off into the night, leaving in his wake only rancor and resentment. The next day, ten Hag decreed that Ronaldo would be banished from training with his teammates for the rest of the week as punishment. He may have played his final game for Manchester United.
That will not be the end of it, though. There will be another club, another team, one with ambitions of gracing the Champions League or perhaps even designs on winning it, that cannot quite resist his draw, his power, that will not be able to look away from a star grown too big to fall.