I’ve long been a believer that the media can make any story it likes true if it repeats it enough. When Martin Jol was sacked by Tottenham Hotspur, it was against the wishes of a majority of Spurs supporters, and in line with a concerted media campaign that began well before the club’s form slumped at the start of the season. When Jose Mourinho left Chelsea not long afterwards, it was again a story that started in the press, and whipped itself up into a whirlwind to such a point that his position at the club became untenable. This phenomenon will appear to have reached its natural conclusion if Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Manchester United for Real Madrid – a scenario that is looking more and more like a self fulfilling prophecy with each passing day.
In the beginning, it looked like nothing more than it was – an under the counter, illegal approach by Madrid in cahoots with the Spanish media, who are desperate to to gain ground on the all-star Premier League. No-one in the tabloid press in this country seems to have stopped and asked the question of why Ronaldo would want to leave the best team in Europe for a team that have struggled and stumbled on the European stage over the last few seasons and have only ended up as the champions of Spain for the last two seasons on account of the relatively transitional current nature of Barcelona. On any level, it would be surprising if he thought that he was doing it to better himself as a footballer. Considerably more likely is the possibility that he is doing it for the money. The amounts being thrown about in the media are insane – £75m before tax over five years is the figure being thrown about by The Sun this morning, which equates to almost £300,000 per week – but it is not impossible that Real are prepared to throw this amount of money down the well. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is reported to have recently signed a new contract worth £183,000 per week, and Real have proved themselves before to be unafraid to break the bank in order to bring in whoever the hell they want.
Also, the truth of the matter is that, for all the bluster and outrage coming from Old Trafford over the last week or so, United are a selling club when the levels of money are this high. Those interest payments for the mortgage hanging over the club have got to be serviced. This might just be the first evidence of the new, financially straitened reality of life at Manchester United. Alex Ferguson may well be furious about it, but one can hardly imagine the Glazer family sobbing as they cash the cheque. With Malcolm having recently celebrated his eightieth birthday, there’s a chance that it might even pay off a little more of the capital owed by the clubs to the myriad of banks of hedge funds that Manchester United is in debt to. It is possible that this is an example of the first of the chickens of the Glazer buy out coming home to roost. One wouldn’t expect the biggest (and currently best) football club in Europe to be a selling club but the fact of the matter is that when you’re £600m in debt, everyone has their price. What happens next will be very interesting in terms of giving out an indication of which way United will go now. If they rate Ronaldo that highly, they may consider matching Real’s ridiculous contract terms. One suspects, however, that for all the bluster about their global “brand”, and even with a new television deal kicking in at the start of the season which will bring even more money into the club, that the accountants will shake their head at any attempt by the playing staff at the club to offer one of their players £15m per year before tax.
There is, in a sense so fine that it is almost completely transparent that one can see straight through it, a logic to the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo. He was the best player in Europe last season, with very little doubt. He scored forty-two goals last season – a number so high that it almost defies belief. The suspicion has to be that there is no way possible that he will be able to repeat the form of last season again. An interesting parallel would be Ronaldinho, who looked similarly unstoppable for Barcelona a couple of years ago. His fall from grace would never have been predicted at the World Cup in 2006, but he has simply failed to hit those targets for the last two years now, to the extent that he is now a transfer target for Manchester City rather than Manchester United, and there are plenty of City fans voicing misgivings about the wisdom of bringing him in. There is nothing concrete to suggest that Ronaldo will go the same way, but the flip side to that argument is that there is never anything guaranteed when a footballer signs for a new club. Ronaldo could fail for Real Madrid. It’s hardly as if there haven’t been high profile players that haven’t done this in the past. Ronaldo is known to enjoy the high life. Without the iron glove of Alex Ferguson to keep him in line, he might just fall off the rails. No-one can say for certain that he won’t.
The one thing that is for certain is that the media circus that follows him around will not die down during the forthcoming European Championships, and that this uncertainty cannot have a positive effect on the atmosphere in the Portuguese camp ahead of their opening match tomorrow night against Turkey in Geneva. Cristiano Ronaldo’s form in this tournament might prove to be the deciding factor in whether this most ludicrous of transfers comes off. Young Cristiano might yet he see his, cough, “dream” come true. For the unpopular Real president, Ramon Calderon, the unsubtle overtones might finally earn him something approaching a place in the hearts of the notoriously difficult to please Madridistas. Manchester United might lose one of their greatest ever players, and everyone at Old Trafford will have to do a little soul searching over their belief that their club is The Biggest In The World. And The Premier League, which, with the departure of the likes of Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb from Arsenal and further rumours linking Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho and Frank Lampard with moves to Italy, might just be a little more competitive next season.