Why I don’t care if Ronaldo’s the Real thing

The Portuguese winger may be brilliant, but to this United nut, he was always more of a holiday romance than a lifelong commitment.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

As entertaining as it is to watch Cristiano Ronaldo juggle the ball from left to right, that’s how boring it has been to follow the ‘will he/won’t he?’ head-tennis over his move to Real Madrid. This summer soap opera seems almost as long as Big Brother, and about as enlightening.

Amid all the rumours, two things have been certain from the start. First, no Manchester United fan in his right mind wants Ronaldo to play for anybody else. Second, every United fan with half a brain (most of us, despite the rumours) has always known that he will go to Madrid. It has only ever been a question of when, and for how much. If it is now, for the sort of sums talked about, it will not be the end of the world.

Ronaldo might be from Madeira rather than Madrid, but he has wanted to play for Real the way that London boy David Beckham dreamed of playing for United. No doubt the prospect of being paid a few million more, tax-free, has made the Portuguese boy’s heart grow even fonder. Last time there was serious talk of Ronaldo leaving for Spain, after the ‘winker’ affair with Wayne Rooney at the 2006 World Cup, he was still an emerging talent and Sir Alex Ferguson managed to keep hold of the boy’s collar. Now he is the most sought-after player in Europe. If Ronaldo wants out this summer – and his remarks hardly suggest otherwise – then Fergie’s powers of persuasion will be wasted this time. In which case, United should send him packing and move on.

Yes, the idea of the Glazers sitting Ronaldo in the stands at Old Trafford or the reserves rather than giving into Real’s machinations might be appealing. But locking up an expensive player who wants to leave would make neither footballing nor financial sense. And let’s face it, taking my red-white-and-black blinkers off for a moment, that sort of stunt should not really be politically acceptable either.

The status of the professional footballer has changed beyond recognition since the days of the legally imposed maximum wage and unbreakable contract. Jimmie Guthrie, famous Scottish firebrand who captained Portsmouth’s 1939 FA Cup winners before becoming leader of the Professional Footballers Union, addressed the 1955 Trades Union Congress about their plight. He told the TUC he was there ‘as the representative of the last bonded men in Britain – the professional footballers. We seek your help to smash a system under which, now in this year of 1955, human beings are being bought and sold like cattle. A system which, as in feudal times, binds a man to one master or, if he rebels, stops him getting another job. The conditions of the professional footballer’s employment are akin to slavery.’

The professional footballer’s employment is still a peculiar arrangement, under which players are bought and sold by clubs and their contracts are supposed to be binding. It is long way from Guthrie and the maximum wage of £20-a-week to Ronaldo’s riches. But the principle of the freedom of labour still ought to apply, I’m afraid – even when the ‘labour’ is kicking a football beautifully for a mere £5m-plus a year.

Of course, it was bloody cheeky of a Real official to claim that Ronaldo could leave because slavery had been abolished. Fergie’s suggestion to ‘ask General Franco about that’ struck a chord with those who recall that Real conquered Europe as the fascist dictator’s pet, with Franco fixing transfers and finances in a way that Chelsea owner and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich can only dream about. Even now, Real remains a semi-state institution in Spain, bailed out by Madrid council with a backdoor £100m-plus subsidy a few years ago, yet somehow escaping the ire that Uefa reserves for English clubs’ debts.

But let’s face it, the real reason we don’t like Real is that they are one club that tries to treat United the way that United treats others. Despite all that, however, if the time has come, sell. As many house owners now know, there is a danger of missing the top of the market. On the financial side, the real worry is that United will get ripped off, as they arguably did when offloading Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy to Real, and that more money will go to pay the Glazers’ interest bill than to invest in what Marx might have called ‘variable capital’ – ie, players.

On the football side, there will be life for United after Ronaldo. He is a great player who we would rather see at Old Trafford forever – or as long as Ryan Giggs, which amounts to the same thing. But he is not THAT great. The club that gave birth to brand Becks should know that it is possible to be both very good and over-rated at the same time.

I have championed Ronaldo as a player through the slings and arrows of his five years at Old Trafford. This was what I wrote in the Times Football Yearbook in 2004, naming Ronaldo United’s player of the year at the end of his first season, during which he had been widely hammered as a diving foreign fancy dan: ‘Like King Eric, Crown Prince Cristiano seems to have everything it takes to be a folk hero at Old Trafford – the skill, the arrogance, and the fact that fans of every other club already hate his guts.’ He has since proved even better than expected, showboating his way to glory. But I have little more time for blind Ronaldo worship than for Ronaldo-phobia. The past, fantastic 42-goal season notwithstanding, he has not the natural genius of Georgie Best, nor is he a Maradona (or maybe even a Lionel Messi) who can lead and lift the entire team.

Sure, losing Ronaldo would sorely test Ferguson’s boasts about this being his ‘strongest squad’ ever. One can just imagine him telling the fringe lumps and lummoxes: ‘Right, Fletcher and O’Shea, Ron’s gone so this is your big chance to shine!’ But there are others, such as the 20-year-old Anderson, waiting in the wings. And for my money (admittedly rather less than theirs), the most important player at Old Trafford remains Wayne Rooney. He is the one that can make things happen for the team, and could do much more if given a new lease of life to run things post-Ronaldo, with a new 20-goal striker to boot. Real may also discover that Ronaldo misses Rooney more than they know.

We fans are fickle creatures where players and managers are concerned, and the mood on the United message boards is understandably changing from ‘Viva Ronaldo!’ to ‘Seeya Ronaldo!’ and far worse. But there is no real need to be vindictive. Many of us always knew he was a holiday romance not a lifelong commitment. We have had him for five years, and ended up champions of England and Europe, which is not a bad way to say goodbye. After all, they are only players, not proper supporters.

As with Big Brother, enough is enough. If he wants out then, in the name of Georgie, go, Ronaldo. If that missed Moscow shoot-out penalty is to be your final kick in red, as King Eric might say, c’est la guerre. We’ll see you in the Champion’s League. And our Wayne still owes you one from the World Cup.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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