Cristiano Ronaldo is back at Manchester United.
In a vacuum, a faded star returning to the place that made him a worldwide icon is a riveting plot twist. It’s a hell of a lot better than Lionel Messi having to leave Barcelona because of financial mismanagement, at least. Nothing about Cristiano Ronaldo functions in a vacuum, though, thanks to a campaign of myth-making that the now-36-year-old has always willingly participated in. The Ronaldo that is returning to, ahem, lovely Manchester after 12 years away is not the same one that left. He won everything you could possibly win at the club level, many times over, and he scored more goals than anyone could have ever imagined. He’s a legend of soccer history, one of the greatest attackers of all time, and a serial winner, even when he’s knocked out of an international final through injury.
Ronaldo also was accused of rape in his time away, in a civil lawsuit that is still ongoing, and that’s a part of his story that he’d surely like to see done away with, a task that all of the excited press-release journalism has been more than willing to help him with in recent years. But it’s a part that should sour any good and fuzzy feelings one might have about the megastar coming back home. Given Ronaldo’s actual talent as a soccer player in 2021, his return to United is, as Ray Ratto summarized on Friday, a PR move, one that likely does more to make the club’s beleaguered owners feel high and mighty than it does improve the side on the field. That a man who acknowledged, on the record, that Kathryn Mayorga said “no” multiple times during sex can be seen as a PR coup at all is the proof needed to show that there’s something rotten here.
It’s often said that success in a chosen sport is able to drown out anything else, and on paper, Ronaldo is still a great striker. He’s not elite any longer; even someone as psychotically dedicated to soccer as he is can’t fight off the ravages of age and a long career at the top. He’s more of a traditional poacher now, someone who lurks in the penalty box rather than someone who creates chances from nothing, as he so often did in his earlier days. Does Manchester United need an aging striker whose main value is scoring goals and not much else? Well, it has Edinson Cavani on the payroll, so probably not, even if present-day Ronaldo is still significantly better than present-day Cavani.
The club also has a glut of promising attacking talent: Marcus Rashford, new signing Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood, and the few good days that it gets from Anthony Martial. United isn’t a perfect club by any means—it still needs, for example, a defensive midfielder to solidify the center of the park—but attack was not a necessity. Ronaldo isn’t coming in to fix a problem, the way he would have at Manchester City, the other club he was linked to after requesting leave from Juventus. City ended up passing on spending any sort of transfer fee on Ronaldo, but City also did not have nostalgia driving its decisions, the way United does.
It’s that nostalgia that is the problem here. After all, who could look at Ronaldo’s last goal in his first stint with the Red Devils—a deflected free kick against that same City side in 2009—and not want him back? United’s cachet has fallen somewhat in the post-Alex Ferguson days, as City became ascendant through sheer force of economic will. Though I would assume that the club has tried, it has not been able to coax Ferguson back from his retirement, and so the next best thing was to bring back the biggest star the club has had this millennium, maybe ever. That same nostalgia is as all nostalgias often are, though; it’s rose-colored and it ignores any problems in favor of a reference to a more successful time.
That nostalgia is also how Ronaldo has been praised and lauded for his successes on the field, even as those successes have begun to dry up. After all, the goals were still coming in at Juventus, so who cares, really, that the team accomplished very little in Ronaldo’s time there? Sure, it won two Serie A titles in his first two years, continuing the club’s domestic dominance, but it didn’t need Ronaldo to win seven straight league titles before he joined. He moved to Turin, whether by design or just inference, to help the club win its first Champions League title since 1996. Instead, the Champions League magic that Ronaldo seemed to have at Real Madrid went nowhere; in his three full seasons at The Old Lady, the club never went further than the quarterfinal round.
And so it comes back to who Ronaldo is now, and not who he has been. He is an aging talent, still capable of dominating a game but not really a season. He’s also an unwanted cast-off; that one of the greatest players of all time was essentially begging to be purchased for less money than Leicester City spent on Boubakary Soumaré is shocking, even at his age. And he’s still being sued in court by a woman who says he raped her, despite whatever subterfuge the soccer PR machine deploys. His is the perfect transfer for this age, in other words. The narrative has overpowered the true story, and no amount of lost revenue from canceled United States tours—he is still staying away from the country, lest he put himself in the position of possibly having to appear in court—will change that.
Manchester United is still the cream of the crop when it comes to soccer clubs, up there in the elite atmosphere reserved for those teams whose names echo throughout history and in every corner of the world. It didn’t need Ronaldo, it simply wanted him. The Glazers wanted the feeling back from when their club was dominating the world, and Ronaldo was a relatively cheap way to chase that high again. The idea of Ronaldo has always been intoxicating, a poor kid turned into the most famous person in the world by devoting himself wholly to his craft. The reality is uglier than that, but there’s no fighting the power of three simple words: “Welcome home, Cristiano.” Ronaldo is back in Manchester, and the reunion has too much money and messaging behind it to be soured by something as basic as the truth.