Mostly, there are few tasks in the field of human endeavor as fruitless as chasing one’s own ghost, so there should be some trepidation over Manchester United’s decision to repatriate Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s got 12 more years of mileage on him, his game is not nearly what it was (duh), and his departure from Juventus included a trade request and a refusal by Manchester City, currently the team most highly regarded by people in charge of regard distribution. It all just seems more like a farewell tour for a player now believed to be more expensive than valuable.
On the other hand, why the hell not? Kylian Mbappe looks to be on the move because Lionel Messi has moved, and big club soccer does meth-powered player movement far more grandly than any American sport; Kevin Durant to Golden State and then to Brooklyn piled atop each other doesn’t begin to match any of the three transfers we just listed, because soccer is bigger and bolder and there is no such thing as massive crippling debt when all the money is just a building site thermometer.
Besides, this has all the earmarks of a great distraction for United fans who still hate the Glazers for their role in the Super League and City on general principle. While it isn’t known for obvious reasons how closely Ronaldo will resemble his most idealized self (when analysts lead with your resume rather than your recent form, that’s not generally considered a good sign), the fact remains that the United Twitter page swiftly collapsed under all the attention, and nobody brought up the Glazers at all.
Is it an overpay? Of course. Is it an exercise in chasing the past? Naturally. Is it throwing a biography at a problem? Mais oui. Is it the international version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signing Tom Brady? Could be, since the Glazers also own the Bucs and may have decided that shopping in the old guys’ aisle has some lucrative bargains. Is it a finger in Pep Guardiola’s eye that could revert upon the eye of its owner? That’s a pretty good way to bet. Does it matter? Not really. This could work as an on-field boost, but it will definitely work as a mollifier for a fan base that has been living under City’s various thumbs for damned near a decade now.
And that’s the one thing we do know. The Glazers feel pain just like most other mammals, and they are spending today feeling a lot better abut their lot in the public eye than, say, Stan Kroenke at Arsenal. If sports are about providing the thrill of winning for the fans as a secondary goal to making money for the owner (Heresy! Blasphemy! Bolshevism!), Ronaldo is a reasonable get. If sports are about putting together a team that fans can root for without feeling like they need a shower afterwards, well, he doesn’t tick that box. Either way, when you draw at Southampton in Week 2, repairs must be undertaken, damn it. Alex Ferguson’s not walking through that owner’s suite, except to get a free pint.
But if it doesn’t work and Ronaldo turns out to be 36 after all … well, what if it doesn’t? United will be no worse off except for that 23 million euros they pulled out of that fourth travel dressing gown and the respect of people they hate anyway. The Glazers won the second most important trophy that sport can offer—the free agent market. They got their own overseas Brady and the grudging acquiescence of a fan base that only today bumped them ahead of COVID-19, global warming, and Boris Johnson in public estimation. Now all they have to do is figure out a way to make their brand new team win a league that doesn’t have playoffs but does have Manchester City and Chelsea and Liverpool and Southampton and, if there is a god, Brentford.