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Cristiano Ronaldo Is Being A Butt Again

Cristiano Ronaldo, with mostly empty stands in the background
Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo has not been on a great run over the past year.

He lost his place in Erik ten Hag's Manchester United squad, and got in trouble twice for acting like a big baby about it during matches. His attempt at arranging a transfer to a Champions League-qualified European side failed when, reportedly, no European club even submitted a bid. When he couldn't negotiate a smooth exit from Manchester, he staged a powerfully noxious and embarrassing interview with great big English turd-man Piers Morgan to make the situation untenable, and United banished him on the eve of the World Cup—where he got benched, as a punishment for a temper tantrum, and his replacement immediately notched a hat-trick. He made what's likely the last World Cup appearance of his life as a 51st-minute substitute in Portugal's quarterfinal match against Morocco, couldn't change the 0-1 scoreline, and walked off the pitch in tears. And then his lifelong rival, Lionel Messi, personally carried Argentina to perhaps the most thrilling World Cup triumph in history.

When, a few weeks after his United banishment (and 12 days after Messi conquered the world), Ronaldo inked a contract to go join the Saudi Pro League's Al Nassr club in exchange for a cartoonishly gargantuan salary, the general consensus received this as the definitive end of his time at or near the sport's pinnacle—and an ignominious and vaguely bad-smelling one at that: a faded legend having made himself so radioactive that he could only continue his career as the trophy hood-ornament on a sportswashing project in a hinterland of the game. That Al Nassr performed somewhat worse after Ronaldo's arrival, or that the club's manager got fired shortly after Ronaldo threw a temper tantrum on the pitch in April, following a 0-0 draw in which he did not get as much service as he wanted, scarcely warrants mentioning. But I'm mentioning it anyway, because it's funny.

The subsequent migration to Saudi Arabia by several of soccer's other faded eminences—Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kanté, Roberto Firmino, Marcelo Brozovic, a few others—perhaps did a bit to transform Ronaldo's transit, retrospectively, from an exile to something a little less sad and more like the pioneering of a trend. It's sort of tartly ironic that the single thing that could have done the absolute most to validate Ronaldo's Europe-to-Saudi career track as something cooler than a shameless post-relevance cash grab would have been for Messi himself to make the trip, as abundant rumors predicted he'd do this summer (and for a salary figure far exceeding Ronaldo's, at that).

If that coming to pass might have been a somewhat bitter consolation for Ronaldo himself—borrowing legitimacy from the guy he's spent much of his professional life trying to surpass—then what actually happened could only have tasted even worse. Messi spurned a downright surreal salary offer—something on the order of €400 million per season—from Al Hilal, in favor of joining Major League Soccer's last-place Inter Miami for something like one-eighth as much. The verdict, explicit or not: The SPL is a bush league, and Messi sees no appeal in joining it at any price.

Notably, in the catalog of profitable semi-retirements for declining soccer superstars, Ronaldo probably could not (or anyway would not ever) seriously consider the MLS option. In 2017 he came under investigation for rape in Las Vegas, and reportedly avoided entering the United States for years to elude possible detainment. Prosecutors later declined to press charges, and a civil suit by the accuser collapsed due to improper conduct by her attorney—but, as a career matter, this likely ruled MLS out forever. Even now, Ronaldo certainly would face questions and public scrutiny over the accusation here that he does not have to deal with in Saudi Arabia.

So, to sum up: Ronaldo is effectively professionally exiled from both Europe and the United States; his time in Saudi Arabia has not gone particularly well from a sporting perspective; his reputation is unmistakably dimmed at a point in his career likely too late for him ever to fully recover it—and at a point when Messi is as close to universally beloved as seems possible. All in all (and, ah, leaving aside his worldwide celebrity, inconceivable riches, and famous good looks): not great!

This brings us to Monday, when Al Nassr faced La Liga mediocrity Celta Vigo in a friendly in Portugal, and got pounded, 5-0.

Ronaldo, greeted like a saint by the Portuguese crowed and subbed off at halftime, faced media questions afterward. Was he gracious and circumspect about his place in world soccer and the various leagues for which he for various reasons cannot play? Reader, he was not.

MLS came up, as you might expect: Messi, after all, rejected the Saudi Pro League to go there. What does Ronaldo think of that? "The Saudi league is better than MLS," he said. "I opened the way to the Saudi league, and now all the players are coming here ... In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league."

What about Europe? Would Ronaldo like to return to Europe?

"Returning to Europe, for me, is a closed possibility. I'm already 38 and a half years old," he said, and here you might think he's being humble about his diminishment and the reality that nobody in Europe wants him. But! "And it's not worth it. Europe lost a lot of quality. The only one that is one of the best is the [English] Premier League. The Spanish League lost its level, the Portuguese one is not top, the German one also lost a lot of quality."

Notably, none of this is quite wrong—just like how much of what Ronaldo said to Piers Morgan had at least some truth (or at least believability) to it. If the Saudi Pro League hasn't yet definitively surpassed MLS as the Vegas-casino-residency destination of choice for aging soccer greats, it's at least up for debate, and the trend-lines and migratory patterns at the moment seem generally to point to Riyadh. (Personally I do not think the SPL is likely to surpass the Dutch Eredivisie anytime soon except in the sense that it already has: as a gaudy, profligate cruise liner for expensive mercenaries. But maybe it will!)

And the continental European leagues truly have fallen way off, due to, in varying combinations, shitty management, the lingering economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ownership/revenue models that render everybody but Paris Saint-Germain incapable of matching even mid-table English clubs' transfer-market power. There are infinitely worse and more disqualifying opinions for anybody discussing world soccer to have than "The Saudi league is better than MLS" and "Europe has lost a lot of quality [apart from the Premier League]."

It's just ... Cristiano, buddy. Your team just got flattened 5-0 by frickin' Celta Vigo, man! Shut it!

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