Thursday 21 September 2017

Comment - Ronaldo’s taxing issues another chance for him to prove nobody is better at setting their own destiny

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: PA
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

It is eight years since Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United on his way to becoming a one-man football universe, but it might have been yesterday in one tantalising respect.

At 32, and despite an aura unprecedented in the history of the game, he retains an extraordinary habit of masking his deepest instincts and intentions.

There was certainly an echo of his Old Trafford departure this week as speculation over his future became frenzied and obsessive, in the wake of the £13m tax bill delivered by the Spanish government.

As he left the Moscow stadium after an impressive contribution to United's 2008 Champions League final win over Chelsea, he lowered his head when asked if he was indeed bound for Real Madrid.

Then he declared: "I know what I want to do… and I will do it. It will be done, but I will not speak about it. I will not even speak to my mother."

He signed for Real in the summer of 2009 and it was a move as inevitable as the changing of the seasons.

It was a remarkable statement about one young man's belief in his own extraordinary destiny and, if ever there was a flicker of doubt about the weight of it, it was swept away long before Jose Mourinho, his coach at Real, announced three years ago that he had the world's best player - who was born not in Madeira, but on Mars.

Now, no conjecture is fiercer than that surrounding the possibility of a reunion of the Special and the Unearthly Ones.

It is fuelled by the suggestion that Ronaldo, while determinedly avoiding the subject on Confederations Cup duty with Portugal, has instructed his agent Jorge Mendes to set up a triumphant return to Manchester.

However, if the idea has carried credence enough to reportedly provoke pleading phone calls from his coach Zinedine Zidane and team-mate Sergio Ramos, it is hard not to believe it has more to do with Ronaldo's power to titillate the market however he chooses, rather than any possibility of a concrete outcome.

The reach of his ego - so recently given an ultimate massage by Pele's declaration that he is indeed football's best and most potent player - is such that serious doubt must be cast on the sentimental notion that he has unfinished business at Old Trafford.

Unfinished business? The Bernabeu might have been a temple built entirely to his homage when he celebrated Real becoming the first team to successfully defend the Champions League title earlier this month. It was not a salute to returning conquerors, but the indulgence of football's unique superstar. At 32, he simply doesn't have the years to recreate that kind of reverence with a Manchester United still deeply in the throes of re-making themselves as a serious force in European football.

Nor can it be easily forgotten that for all his admiration for the player's talent, Mourinho's devotion to Ronaldo was often seriously strained in their years together at Real.

Mourinho did say: "Ronaldo is the best. The best in the world, yes. Probably he is the best ever. I saw Maradona a couple of times. I never saw Pele, but Cristiano is amazing. The man is the best."

However, Mourinho also said that he had strained relations with the prodigy and, witheringly, that this might have something to do with his poor education.

Real, we are told from Spain, would expect £175m if the Mourinho-Ronaldo relationship spilling with potential volatility is to be resumed. For Ronaldo, so secure in his own mind and image, and Mourinho, working so hard to re-establish his old authority, the fit would seem to be less than perfect.

Certainly it would be less congenial than a possible reunion with another former Real boss, Carlo Ancelotti.

The Bayern Munich hierarchy were quick to deny reports that they are potential bidders, but a negative word is not likely to come from Ancelotti. After they worked together on Real's 2014 Champions League win, Ancelotti offered a glowing character reference.

He declared: "The boy is an ultimate professional. He cares absolutely about the team. He wants to talk about how every game went, what went well, what went badly. He may have a different kind of image, but I know performance means everything to him. His fitness is remarkable. He is a player who is naturally great and everything he brings to the game marks him as also a great professional."

Such testament may not be central to current calculations by United, Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain and maybe Chelsea - and certainly not the plutocrats of the buy-it-if-moves Chinese league - but it is maybe a reminder that Ronaldo's place in the game is about something more than the gifts of talent.

It might also provide a significant clue to the likely upshot of the most compelling issue in a summer of unprecedented buying and selling. If Ronaldo is half as thoughtful as his admirer Ancelotti suggests, and retains enough savvy on the fundamentals of the greatest success in football, he may get over the pique provoked by an impertinent Spanish tax inspector soon enough.

Thirteen million is, after all, roughly the value of a mildly promising utility defender.

That it might be enough to disrupt the sensational alliance between the world's best player and Europe's most successful club is something bound to test the credibility of a game so relentlessly shaped by the power of money.

Perhaps the world's richest sportsman is tempted by the idea of a sentimental journey. At least he might tell himself that he, above all other footballers, can afford the folly.

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