How Ronaldo went from United legend to brink of shameful exile
The moment it became clear Cristiano Ronaldo was not going to leave Manchester United in August, there was a danger that the day would come when something finally snapped.
But for a player who has always taken pride in his professionalism – and set a standard many others strived to follow – the news he had refused to come on as a substitute against Tottenham on Wednesday night took a little digesting, even in a sport with a seemingly endless capacity for extraordinary storylines.
That warm September day last year when Ronaldo stepped back on the Old Trafford turf for the “homecoming” to end all homecomings – and scored twice in a 4-1 win over Newcastle – feels like a long time ago. A player who returned as a legend is in danger of leaving as an outcast, whenever that exit comes – and judging by the state of things, it cannot come soon enough.
It scarcely seemed feasible that Ronaldo could trash his United legacy, but that is what he is threatening to do, and manager Erik ten Hag must not let him trash United’s season in the process.
If Ronaldo thought his glorious first spell with United would buy him eternal gratitude from the Old Trafford faithful, regardless of what happened next, he has misread the room. United’s match-going fans are a loyal and patient bunch, and their love for Ronaldo runs deep. But they have been waiting for a manager to re-establish authority and respect at the club after one of the most apathetic seasons in its modern history, and they are definitely not going to side with a player who is taking a blowtorch to ten Hag’s attempt to forge a driven, united squad – regardless of his reputation.
Even less so when they detect the makings of something special under the deliberate, detailed Dutchman, who presided over one of United’s most complete team performances for several years in that resounding 2-0 victory over Spurs.
Cristiano Ronaldo warming up before the match against Spurs.Credit:AP
The good news for United is they have a manager who is showing he is unafraid to make big decisions and put noses out of joint, no matter what you have won or the size of your wage packet – and the club is prepared to back him. Ten Hag said post-Spurs he would “deal” with Ronaldo and he has done that swiftly – axing him from the squad to face Chelsea on Sunday and forcing him to train away from the rest of the first team.
Of course, disciplining a player, even one with as high a profile as Ronaldo, is easier when you do not depend on that individual on the pitch.
This is not like the situation Sir Alex Ferguson faced in 2010 with Wayne Rooney. Rooney was still United’s best player, key to their plans, had a lucrative offer to join rivals Manchester City a year after Carlos Tevez had joined the revolution down the road, and Ronaldo had left for Real Madrid.
Ferguson needed Rooney, but it was already quite apparent under ten Hag that United were moving on without their five-time World Player of the Year, and were better for his absence. But ten Hag has still had to act; much like Ferguson did when a then 34-year-old Roy Keane exploded at teammates and staff in 2005 and was duly jettisoned. Respect and authority is hard won but easily lost, and ten Hag could not allow an act of insubordination to go unpunished.
Whether Ronaldo is still at United in the final months of this season remains to be seen. Ronaldo wants out, and ten Hag is open to him going. But unless United reach a settlement with the player and terminate his contract by mutual consent, a January departure will hinge on someone providing an exit route. And as this northern hemisphere summer proved, when no club in Europe presented a meaningful offer to United, that is not certain.
Whether Ronaldo’s refusal to come on against Tottenham was premeditated or a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision he will live to regret, it is unlikely to do much for his World Cup prospects with Portugal. With his hopes of meaningful playing time with United already slim, his position with the national team was coming under scrutiny in his homeland.
This shameful episode may make ten Hag even less inclined to play him.
When Ronaldo rejoined United, it felt like a marriage of convenience. Now they are heading for a painful divorce.
The Telegraph, London
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