It’s that time of year. The transfer window is open which means top teams are looking to land the big name that will toughen their title challenge, give them hope in Europe, and chase domestic cup glory. And when it comes to Manchester United, the transfer window means one thing – Cristiano Ronaldo’s rumoured return.
But if – and it is a big if – this deal were to go ahead either now or in the summer, who would be the real winners?
There is no doubt that if Ronaldo re-signs for Manchester United, the club will be getting a superstar. Since leaving Old Trafford, he has grappled with Lionel Messi year after year to be global football’s top dog, scoring at a rate of more than a goal a game in his spell at the Bernabeu. It’s a record that can’t be argued with, but it is also a record that has been accumulated in a less demanding league than England’s top tier. The question for Manchester United would be whether it is worth shelling out £60-£80m on a player who is now 30 years old, and is unlikely to exceed his current level of performance over the next 4 or 5 years. Financially, United would have to make a huge outlay to bring Ronaldo back; the initial transfer fee might be offset by the huge number of shirt sales that would inevitably follow across the globe, but his wages (currently rumoured to be £280k per week) would swallow up a significant slice of the huge windfall that United will receive next season as part of the new Premier League television deal. Goals would be more or less guaranteed for United if Ronaldo were to make the trip back to where his stardom began, but value for money for the Red Devils? Less certain…
Let’s be clear: if Real Madrid were to sell Ronaldo, there would be uproar. Los Blancos have never been a club to sell their best players unless they are well past their prime; Luis Figo left Real when he was 33, David Beckham when he was 32, and Zinedine Zidane resisted the lure of leaving until he retired when he was 34. Ronaldo is still yet to reach the twilight of his career, and the message it would send to their rivals – not to mention the entire footballing universe – were they to sell their biggest icon would damage the Real Madrid brand. They would, of course, be receiving a huge transfer fee for their biggest superstar, which could potentially recoup the entire £80m that they paid Manchester United in 2009, but no amount of money that Real Madrid demand would offset the adverse affect that the sale would have on their status as global footballing royalty. And let’s not forget, as long as Barcelona boast the holy trinity of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, Real Madrid can’t afford to lose Ronaldo’s goal contribution…
Amongst the back-and-forth between the United and Madrid hierarchies, the interests of Ronaldo himself can often be forgotten. There can be no doubting the affection he has for United (he reminds us often enough), but whether he would actually want to return to the club is a different question entirely. The making of Ronaldo was partly due to his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, who helped him to learn his craft and hone his sensational ability into arguably the world’s greatest player. Would Ronaldo enjoy working under Louis Van Gaal in a system that is designed to stop the opposition as much as it is geared towards scoring goals? No doubt Van Gaal would be willing to make allowances for a talent like Ronaldo’s, but the track record of the superstars Van Gaal has recruited (Di Maria and Falcao to name two) might not fill Ronaldo with encouragement.
And what of his legacy? Ronaldo left Manchester United just as he was about to hit the top. His return – if it were to happen – would come just as he is about to start his inevitable decline; even a specimen like Ronaldo cannot continue forever. Would he want this to coincide with a return to a more demanding league, where tough away fixtures to lower league sides are not the opportunity to boost the goal tally that they are in Spain (Ronaldo scored 5 goals at Espanyol in September 2015)?
Ronaldo will score 400 goals for Real Madrid. He could break the 500 barrier if he stays another few years, and imprint his name in the club’s (and football’s) record books for decades to come. When it comes to a return to Manchester, perhaps Ronaldo is better off leaving the United fans thinking about what might have been…