As Cristiano Ronaldo faces up to an uncertain future for pretty much the first time in his career, it’s all the more pointed how history can repeat itself.
Look at what happened to the last Real Madrid player who was as globally celebrated, but so much more influential in the club’s history.
Really, there wouldn’t be a Real Madrid – at least in their modern form – without Alfredo Di Stefano. The Argentine completely transformed the club, turning them from also-rans who hadn’t won anything in seven years to the sport’s most triumphant power, as symbolised by those five successive European Cup. To symbolise Di Stefano’s role in this, he had scored in every one of those finals, but there was obviously so much more substance to it. It was the talent of “the first total footballer” that drove that transformation, and that also drove a ferocious force of personality that in turn maximised that talent.
Ronaldo’s Champions League century
Still, none of that was enough to spare Di Stefano from football’s natural order. His last European Cup final was also his last match for Real Madrid, as it became apparent during that 2-1 defeat to Internazionale in 1964 that he was on his last legs. Following a touchline row that brought furious exchanges of “f*** offs”, manager and former teammate Miguel Munoz wrote in a technical report that Di Stefano could no longer play the system.
Legendary president Santiago Bernabeu backed the coach and, after a decade when Di Stefano’s contracts went up in wages with every renewal, he was amazingly offered a non-specific non-playing deal. That wouldn’t do for a figure like this, so Di Stefano wouldn’t be a Real Madrid player any more. He went to Espanyol, and his relationship with Bernabeu never recovered. The man that the childless president had referred to as “a son” became estranged.
Florentino Perez and Ronaldo have never been that close, and the Portuguese’s situation isn’t that serious, but the point is that even the most legendary long service can be so quickly discarded.
It is alone a highly significant moment that, for the first time since he arrived in Madrid, Ronaldo is not deemed “unsellable”.
Whereas Bernabeu saw that legend’s move to another club as “a betrayal” – with Di Stefano thinking the same about the whole situation – that wouldn’t quite be the case now either. It’s hard not to get the impression that in an ideal world, Perez would merely swap Ronaldo for Neymar, to start a new era with a new focal point.
That would still just be an old theme, though.
It’s not quite history that repeats itself, after all, but the same core issues. This is really the story of what happens when that force of personality remains so hugely influential, but the effect of their game diminishes. It is almost the dilemma when you have a figure this legendary, who won’t slip into the more limited role that someone like Ryan Giggs was so willing to.
Ronaldo hasn’t been reduced to so tiredly grabbing jerseys in the way a 37-year-old Di Stefano was, and he has repeatedly proven it is foolish to write him off, but it would be equally foolish to deny his entire game has become reduced.
He has gradually gone from being a force of natural goalscoring powerfully coming in off the wings, to a more static striker, who operates in smaller and smaller areas of the pitch. That kind of role requires a team to play a certain way, but also requires a lot of compromises if you’re trying to build a new way, as Real have pretty much accepted.
This is the real potential dilemma. If Real do pull off the sensational signing of Neymar, or even some other high-profile attacker, can they really force a new way if such a force is there? It does bring complications, not least for Ronaldo himself. How would he accept such diminished influence?
There is potential for this to end amicably, if still abruptly. Some sources say Ronaldo himself now actively wants to leave Madrid, and that is not this time just a play for a new contract. It has been suggested in Spain that Perez sees this as “a maravilla” – “a wonder” – as he had anticipated a much more difficult situation.
It still might not be easy. There had been notions of offloading Ronaldo to Manchester United, and he would idealise a return there, but not even executive vice chairman Ed Woodward sees that as the ideal signing any more. Jose Mourinho certainly doesn’t. He wouldn’t want Ronaldo, and United have already given their newest star – Alexis Sanchez – that number-seven jersey. It similarly symbolises that there isn’t quite the same role to fill.
That might create a problem for Ronaldo, something that is amazing to think for someone that has just won a second successive Ballon d’Or and whose goals just won a second successive Champions League. It might now be the case that his demands are so big that few clubs can afford it, or are willing to put the investment in to someone about to turn 33. Would it be time to look at a super-contract in somewhere like MLS rather than a super-club?
This, after all, is by far Ronaldo’s least prolific return in a domestic league since 2005-06. Then again, this is a player who has become as celebrated for big moments – like last season’s Champions League-winning run – as big scoring returns.
His next big match? Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Amid so much talk of Neymar, so much talk of the end, who could actually rule out Ronaldo routing the French side with goals to turn this entire discussion on its head?
It still wouldn’t turn the effects of time, and something we’ve seen time and again in football.