In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the Russian author wrote: “Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal – there’s the trick.” Bulgakov died long before the book was published, unable to see his masterpiece become widely regarded as one of the greatest 20th century novels, recognition he craved while he was alive.
Cristiano Ronaldo has had the privilege of overseeing his monumental imprint on football and popular culture, having hungrily consumed a mountain of team trophies and personal accolades throughout his two-decade career, a player preternaturally addicted to success. Now, it’s coming to an end and Ronaldo has to face up to the reality of his declining power, his unexpected mortality, something that he seems absolutely unwilling to do.
It’s been an embarrassing couple of months for the CR7 brand. Having hatched a plan with his long time agent Jorge Mendes to escape Manchester United on account of their non-qualification for the Champions League, he’s been offered around Europe on a platter to the continent’s super and not-so-super clubs, all of whom appear to have decided that they have no room for a wildly expensive, egomaniac striker who will be 38 in February. And – while it might be hard for Ronaldo to stomach – it’s easy to see why.
As a player, Ronaldo didn’t previously divide opinion. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers to have ever lived, a terminator unanimously regarded as elite by anybody who watches the sport. On his return to Manchester United last season he scored 24 goals in total, often in important moments. He was the third top scorer in the Premier League in the worst United side in decades. However, the season before, the team scored 121 goals. When Ronaldo arrived that went down to 70, a succubus operating at the top of the pitch eating the potential around him, a black hole of individual glory. He scored goals for fun at Juventus but it coincided with the team’s form nosediving.
He is entertainingly openly self-absorbed, rumoured to want to play in the Champions League so that he can claim the record for the most goals scored in the group stages of the competition, a statistic that will be forgotten about by everyone but him. He’s currently three behind his arch nemesis Lionel Messi, something that’s likely to be a driving factor. While philosophers could argue about the innate beauty of Messi’s genius, Ronaldo is determined to enshrine himself as the best to ever grace the sport through the power of raw data, hoovering up numbers like a deranged Pac-Man. This insatiable desire to bend people’s perceptions of him was evident in his first spell at Manchester United. He arrived a spindly, gap-toothed, inconsistent teenager with frosted tips and left a glistening muscle museum who wore weights on his ankles while he trained – morphing from Beano character to Batman in a relatively short space of time, almost as if concentrating really hard on becoming handsome, like really thinking about it, actually worked.
Now, his individualism feels anachronistic in the modern game, a sport that’s more than ever obsessed with team ethos, synchronised pressing triggers and “club DNA”. His return to training at Carrington after a frenzied summer flirting unsuccessfully with the game’s moneymakers was an awkward one, resulting in a customary training ground picture taken with some of the club’s next generation of youngsters. With the first team returning from a game abroad, Ronaldo stood just slightly too far away from them, not really part of the gang, his shorts deliberately pulled up to show off his bulbous, redwood legs.
Having been consigned to the subs bench by new boss Erik ten Hag, CR7 has been reduced to making strange beelines for on-field pundits such as Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville, greats he used to play with, back when the idea of him being a substitute was unheard of. Seeing a man whose MO is intensity, drive – basically Never Having A Laugh – reduced to class clown, squirting Rio Ferdinand mid-broadcast with water, or aggressively blanking Jamie Carragher in order to remind everyone that the artist is present, is weird.
During pre-season, speculation abounded that he would remain AWOL from United while he desperately searched for an exit from the club that helped make him. Evidently highly aware of the chatter surrounding his whereabouts, he posted on Instagram: “On Sunday, the king plays,” something that felt decidedly out of kilter with ten Hag’s vision that’s centred around teamwork and togetherness. It also felt like something the Ronaldo of even two years ago would not have had to do – be forced to go public triumphantly announcing his return to a club he doesn’t want to be at in a second string friendly against Rayo Vallecano, featuring youngsters who have now either been sold or gone out on loan. The king wouldn’t do that.
His return to Manchester United started almost too perfectly in the heady days of August 2021, before the team’s form spectacularly nosedived. A goalscoring return on his second debut at Old Trafford with the sunbeams touching the grass, Sir Alex Ferguson drinking in the adulation in the stands, ex-players crowing to their foes that he was back. But in retrospect, those moments can be read like the serene opening to a horror film – blissful unawareness of the impending doom, the tight smiles of a happy-go-lucky manager who ceded control to a force that’s bigger than a football club, and would ultimately be killed off. Did Solskjaer really want him there? Either way, he was always going to be the first one to die.
Subbed on against Southampton in the fourth league match of this season, there was a moment where he was through on goal and was comfortably caught by Mohammed Salisu, the ball easily shepherded out of play, a simple case of a body unable to do what it did a decade ago. This is of course completely natural – ageing is one of life’s only guarantees – but this is a player who is still insisting he should compete at the very highest level. It’s understandable that he’d want to leave United – last season they were abysmal, and might still be. We don’t know yet. He knows the curtain is coming down on his career and wants out. But with the transfer window now shut, Ronaldo finds himself in a checkmate of his own making, heading to Transnistria to play in remote locations in games of remote importance. There will be Fenerbahce rumours. More offers from Saudi Arabia. A season that looks like it’ll be trapped on the bench. One of the greatest players of all time stuck in purgatory, a powerless god raging against the dying of the light.