To provide some perspective, this author was nearing his teens when Ronaldo signed for United, and about to join college when he left for a then world-record transfer fee.
Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Manchester United: For a good hour late on Thursday evening, as Twitter went into meltdown over speculation that Cristiano Ronaldo might be about to swap the black-and-white of Juventus for Manchester City blue, this author — a Manchester United fan since the days of Eric Cantona — was crestfallen.
This was no ordinary transfer involving an ordinary player.
Ronaldo is not just a former United player, he is a bona fide club legend, Old Trafford’s prodigal son. He was no mercenary who came to the club for a year and transferred out when the going got too tough (looking at you, Angel di Maria).
United signed Ronaldo when he was a scrawny 18-year-old with bags of talent, but lacking the end product. The British press criticised him as a “show pony” and bayed for his blood following the World Cup 2006 “wink controversy” with club-mate Wayne Rooney. But United, and Sir Alex Ferguson, persevered and turned the promising talent into a world beater. It was while at Old Trafford that Ronaldo became a household name, earned his first call-up to the national team, got named as the captain of Portugal’s national team, and won his first Ballon d’Or.
Ronaldo has himself called the legendary former United manager his “football father” and credited him for helping scale the heights. He also appreciated Ferguson for not standing in the way of his boyhood dream of playing for Real Madrid when the Spanish giants came calling in the summer of 2009.
He has repeatedly spoken of his love for Ferguson and Manchester United, even refusing to celebrate his goals against them in 2013. He had outright ruled out ever playing for City in a 2013 interview because of his Old Trafford connection.
How can that man now be linked with a move to United’s fierce city rivals? Is there nothing sacred in football?
To provide some perspective, this author was nearing his teens when Ronaldo signed for United, and about to join college when he left for a then world-record transfer fee. Friends and family can attest to receiving the customary hopeful messages every transfer window about Ronaldo returning to the club. In between, there has also been the stray skirmish with schoolmates, who claimed Arjen Robben and Wayne Rooney to be better than him.
But this author quickly realised that football is a business — a big money-spinning one. And the players themselves are professionals, making the most of what is a very short career at the top. For a footballer to decline what would be his last big transfer for an emotional return to the club where he spent six formative years would be foolish — things one says to mend a broken heart.
It slowly dawned that this was a player United didn’t need — the squad is stacked with attacking talent. And, at 36, Ronaldo would not be the same player that fans first saw in Manchester United red. He is no longer the lightning-quick winger who dazzled the opposition with the fancy flicks and party tricks, but a converted striker. And to pay nearly €15 million (plus another €8 million in add-ons) as transfer fee and his huge wages when the squad is crying out for a holding midfielder would defy belief.
Even if Ronaldo did sign for City, would that take away anything that he achieved at United or tarnish his legacy? The answer was a resounding ‘No’. After all, several United legends — Peter Schmeichel, Denis Law, Andy Cole had played for City after successful careers at United. Mark Hughes had managed City in the early days of City’s rise as genuine contenders.
But, even though football is a big business now, there is also a football God! And he was not about to disappoint legions of Manchester United fans, who were quietly hoping that Real Madrid would sign Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain so that the French club could fill that gap with Ronaldo. This author is certain that neutrals would also have enjoyed seeing Ronaldo finally playing alongside his long-time rival Lionel Messi.
The football God, however, had something better in store.
Slowly reports started to emerge that many of Ronaldo’s ex-United colleagues had urged him to decline the move to City and rejoin his former side. By this time, United had indeed entered the race to sign the player. And it was very clear what lay in store once it was revealed that Sir Alex had also reached out to him.
And the outcome was for all to see — 18 years after then United players convinced Sir Alex to stump up £12.24 million to sign Ronaldo after playing against them in a friendly and 12 years since his departure, the prodigal son was returning to Old Trafford for one last dance. United’s website soon crashed after the club announced that a deal with Juventus had been agreed for Ronaldo’s transfer.
What followed was delirium in this author’s tiny, rented, Delhi apartment. So what if United didn’t need him? Everyone wants Cristiano Ronaldo! What if he’s now 36? He is still Cristiano Ronaldo! And Cristiano Ronaldo is once again a Manchester United player.
Welcome back, Cristiano. You will find Old Trafford has changed a lot, but it’s still home. Now let’s go win some trophies!