The last dance: In the twilight of his career, how will Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United play out

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August 29, 2021 6:00 AM

It's a huge opportunity for the likes of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Elanga, Daniel James and every young player to watch and learn from the master. All of them idolise Ronaldo.

The news of Ronaldo's impending arrival in Manchester, in the blue half of the city, spread like wildfire.The news of Ronaldo's impending arrival in Manchester, in the blue half of the city, spread like wildfire.

In 2003, Sir Alex Ferguson gazumped Gerard Houllier to sign Cristiano Ronaldo for Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon. In 2021, eight years after his retirement from football management, Sir Alex’s phone call to Ronaldo completely tilted the balance in United’s favour in a two-way transfer race. The club made it official through a three-word tweet: “Welcome home, @Cristiano”. The deal was hijacked from right under the noses of Manchester City.

Almost two decades ago, Houllier, then Liverpool manager, was revelling in his success of securing the world’s most promising teenager, only to see Ferguson steal a march on him. To be fair, City’s pursuit of Ronaldo this time was a little tepid. They were reluctant to pay Juventus any transfer fee. But Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes had offered the player to them and their interest was genuine.

United waited for a year to land Jadon Sancho. They secured Ronaldo’s transfer in 24 hours. From Thursday evening to Friday afternoon, it played out like a pulsating thriller. The news of Ronaldo’s impending arrival in Manchester, in the blue half of the city, spread like wildfire. It would have tarnished the player’s legacy all right, but giving their cross-town rivals a free run would have been bad for the club’s present and the future. They would have surrendered their bragging rights to the nouveau riche. Fans were infuriated and United had to act.

First team manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dialled the club’s outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who readily agreed to launch a bid. Approval came from the club owners, the Glazers. Bruno Fernandes swung himself into action, directly contacting his national team colleague. Ronaldo’s ex-United teammates, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, bombarded him with phone calls and messages until 1 am in the morning. Later, Evra shared the screenshot of his WhatsApp chat with Ronaldo on social media.

Around lunch time (BST) on Friday, it felt like something was happening. “We have always had a good communication. I know Bruno has been talking to him. He knows what we feel about him. If he was ever going to move away from Juventus, he knows we are here,” Solskjaer could hardly contain his excitement during a press conference. Ferdinand’s cryptic tweet with a GIF of Leonardo Di Caprio looking smug came before that. By then, City had pulled out of the race. Once United came calling, Ronaldo’s homecoming was a matter of formality.

Even after 20 years in top-flight football and comfortably securing the status of one of the greatest-ever, Ronaldo’s relationship with Ferguson hasn’t changed. He was never going to say ‘no’ to his football father. English broadcaster Piers Morgan captured this well through a tweet: “Not surprised that @Cristiano is returning to United after speaking to Sir Alex Ferguson. When I interviewed him, his respect & admiration for ‘The Boss’ was off the charts. He’s been like a second father to him, especially since the sad early death of Cristiano’s dad.”

At 36, is he too old for the Premier League? For lesser mortals, it is the age to call time on playing football. For Ronaldo, age is just a number. He is still one of the fittest players around. He still works his socks off on the pitch. He still outscored Romelu Lukaku — Chelsea have re-signed the Belgian striker this term for £98 million — in Serie A last season. He won the Golden Boot at the Euros this year, scoring five goals in four matches. During Portugal’s game against Germany, his incredible ‘no-look’ skill floored Antonio Rudiger. Ronaldo guarantees goals and his longevity is down to hard work and the way he looks after himself.

Evra still rues his decision to join Ronaldo for lunch after a training session during their time together at Old Trafford. Grilled chicken and salad were the dining room menu and the intake frugal. According to the former United left-back, Ronaldo instead was eager to have a one-touch game at the garden after lunch. Ronaldo has challenged himself in all top leagues and proved his superiority. How will this deal pan out for United? The club hasn’t disclosed the transfer fee, but it is believed to be in the region of £20 million. Ronaldo is reportedly getting £480,000-a-week. But his signing has sent the club’s stock soaring with the market cap over $200 million at the moment. The great man is paying for himself.

On the football side, this is certainly not an Alexis Sanchez-like disaster. Sanchez’s arrival from Arsenal and his staggering salary had rocked the boat. It created serious unrest in the dressing-room.

The Chilean epitomised everything that was going wrong at the club under Jose Mourinho. Ronaldo is returning home to a grand welcome from his United teammates. Almost every player in this team looks up to the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, the way the Class of 92 looked up to Eric Cantona. In his podcast, Ferdinand revealed that Edinson Cavani readily offered his No. 7 shirt to Ronaldo, although the Premier League rules might prevent the latter to wear it this season. And going beyond the goals and assists, it’s a huge opportunity for the likes of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Elanga, Daniel James and every young player to watch and learn from the master. All of them idolise Ronaldo.

How have United progressed since Ronaldo’s departure in 2009 for £80 million? Actually, they were in freefall since 2014 before Solskjaer came, arrested the slide, reset the culture and steadied the ship. In the 12 years between Ronaldo’s two spells at Old Trafford, he scored 392 league goals and United’s different No. 7 shirt holders got 24. In the twilight of his career, this is his last dance. United fans love for Ronaldo and their role in the club having a great transfer window have earned them a fairy tale ending.

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