This time, it’s real. This time, he’s gone!
Gone after nine seasons, 450 goals, four Champions League titles and four Ballon d’Or awards.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s move from Real Madrid to Juventus isn’t just the second-biggest transfer in history, the deal, once you factor in wages, transfer fee and commissions, will be comfortably worth US$350 million, surpassed only by Neymar—it’s also an enormous gamble for everyone involved.
Real Madrid lose their talisman, their alpha and omega, capable of scoring a goal per game last season. Juventus stretch their resources in an attempt to make a giant leap forward, abandoning the blueprint of organic growth that had guided them in the past seven seasons and, in a financial fair play world, rolling the dice that they won’t have to dismantle the squad.
As for Ronaldo, his may be the biggest leap into the unknown. He is leaving arguably the biggest club in the world, a city where he is settled and a league where he is comfortable and dominant to go to Serie A, which as of right now is a step beneath La Liga. And before people call him greedy and wave Euro bills in his face, remember that based on the figures released, he will be earning no more (and possibly less when you consider endorsements, given that Real Madrid offer greater visibility) than he would have if he had signed the extension Madrid offered him last month.
At 33, Ronaldo is the age at which most professionals either squeeze another season or two at the highest possible level from their bodies or, if they can’t do it anymore, downshift and make a “lifestyle” choice. Not here. He is coming off his umpteenth stellar campaign, and whatever else you may think of Serie A and Juventus, it is anything but a semi-retirement.
What prompted the move? Ronaldo’s people have trotted out the old line about “not feeling loved” at the Bernabeu. His past two seasons has been met with cynicism and ridicule. No more, as he showed by walking away from three guaranteed years and $100 million.
Whatever Ronaldo feels rightly or wrongly is genuine. The impression is that the issue isn’t so much with supporters or teammates but specifically with Real’s President, Florentino Perez. The trust isn’t there, and to Ronaldo, it has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the fact that the club didn’t do more to appeal his five-match ban earlier this year to the fact that some at the highest level have drawn up post-Zinedine Zidane rebuilding plans that do not involve Ronaldo.
Truth be told, Ronaldo’s probably right – and so is Perez. When you can get $100 million for a player and shed $55 million from your wage bill for a 33-year-old player (he’ll turn 34 in February), you do it. In situations like these, you can’t think in terms of what someone has given your club, but rather you need to calculate what he will give you in the coming years. While Ronaldo is a physical freak who works harder on his body than pretty much anyone, he can’t beat Father Time.
And that’s the heart of the issue here and part of the reason why Real Madrid had been open to a sale since at least the spring of 2016. At that stage, he had a little over two years left on his contract and the club figured they were at a crossroads. He had turned 31 that February and his production was down. If the right offer came in, they thought, Ronaldo could be sold just before his inevitable decline and before they found themselves on the hook for a mega-extension.
Ronaldo ended the season with 21 goals in his final 19 matches in all competitions, while leading Real Madrid to their 11th European Cup and a month later, was key in propelling Portugal to their first ever major trophy, Euro 2016.
In some ways, his success was a double-edged sword for the club. Perez, a man who cares about image – his and the club’s – could not sell him at that stage, bar for the sort of money no club could afford to splash. While the club continued to believe that Ronaldo would inevitably decline to the point that a massive contract extension would be ill-advised, they ended up biting the bullet and on November 6, 2016 extended his deal through 2021.
Ronaldo was happy with the new deal, of course, but equally disappointed that the club lacked faith in his ability to continue to perform. Naturally, he disagreed in the way just about every top athlete will disagree when he feels he’s been written off. He helped Real Madrid to another European cup at the end of that campaign and yet another in May.
But the standoff continued. The virtual “for sale” tag was there all along, and it rankled him.
Since extending his contract, he delivered industrial quantities of goals, European cups and won Ballons’ D’Or every year. Yet, ironically, but not surprisingly, every season he also got a year older. He was now Sisyphus. No matter what he did, the passage of time only gave his critics more ammunition.
Now, to prove the naysayers wrong, he’s willing to decamp to another country.
As we said, from a Moneyball perspective, this is a no-brainer for Real Madrid. It’s not just about the balance sheet; it’s also the fact that without Ronaldo you have far more flexibility in rebuilding a squad where the average age of the starting XI is in the late 20s.
Of course, this is Real Madrid and this is Florentino. Given his history of signing the biggest stars, you can’t help but feel that this is a first, painful step towards clearing the way to bring in another Galactico, something they haven’t done in a while. It won’t be easy and it’s hugely ambitious, but then if Real Madrid limited themselves to things, which were easy, they wouldn’t be Real Madrid. They’d be just another club.
Juventus don’t need Ronaldo to win Serie A, as their seven straight titles prove. The Champions League is another matter. Juventus have reached the final in two of the past four seasons. Ronaldo may be somebody who puts them over the top, but that’s not really Juve’s goal here. The objective is to take that final leap forward in terms of commercial revenue and join the four clubs, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern; that dwarf the rest in terms of sponsorship and brand value. Ronaldo, whose global status is unassailable, is the key to that.
Juve are taking a gamble on a 33-year-old, simply put. Whether it will be worth it is a different matter. After years of earning profits, they will almost certainly be in the red for the 2017-18 season, and with Ronaldo who adds another $80 million-plus to the costs in amortisation and wages — another loss is pretty much guaranteed for the 2018-19 season. Media and stadium revenue will likely register only modest growth: the rights have been sold and the stadium is maxed out.
They can claw some of it back by the departures of highly paid veterans (Gigi Buffon, Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner are all gone) and sacrificing a few current stars (Gonzalo Higuain is likely on the chopping block, but you hope they won’t have sold the supporting cast, particularly Paulo Dybala or Miralem Pjanic.) Adding Ronaldo but not giving him a quality framework, especially relative to what he was accustomed to at the Bernabeu, won’t do Juventus much good.
Sponsorship income can and will rise, but inevitably there is a lag in between inking a new deal and bringing in fresh revenue. There’s reason to be skeptical and wonder whether the gamble will blow up in their face. Then again, given how carefully the club, and especially Chief Executive, Beppe Marotta, has managed its revenues and growth over the past seven years, if you’re a Juve fan you have faith that they know what they’re doing.
For Serie A, undoubtedly, it’s a boon. You arguably need to go back 20 years to the original Ronaldo to find the last time the league added one of the game’s best players. The question is how long it can last.
Ronaldo, of course, reckons he can play on for a long time and, based on the evidence thus far, you wouldn’t argue with him.
This, ultimately, is the heart of the matter. You’ll hear talk about how he watched Juventus on TV winning the Champions League as a kid in Madeira and how he nearly joined them as a teenager from Sporting Lisbon.
Take it with a grain of salt because it’s hard to picture many others taking on a new challenge of this magnitude after the sort of stellar season he had. Almost as hard to imagine someone walking away from three seasons and a hundred million dollars on the world’s biggest stage simply because his club president rubs him the wrong way.
Florentino was keen not to be remembered as the President who sold Ronaldo. On paper, he has an alibi: Ronaldo asked to leave; he did what he could to keep him – witness the improved contract – but to no avail. Whether you believe Florentino isn’t that important. What matters is how he handles the rebuild and, lest we forget, Real Madrid still have Gareth Bale, Isco, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and, for now, Karim Benzema.
Will Real Madrid land another Galactico? Not to replace Ronaldo, because he can’t be replaced. But simply to reinforce that age-old Bernabeu axiom: no player is bigger than the club.
The king is dead (or, more accurately, has taken his court elsewhere). Long live the (new) king!