It would be too easy, not to mention cheap and pointless, to snigger and sneer and laugh at Cristiano Ronaldo right now.
And yet I think we should still snigger and sneer and laugh at Cristiano Ronaldo, if only because laughter is probably as good a response as any to a week when Ronaldo has confirmed beyond all doubt he is definitely in it for the kids – and not, not for the money – by signing for Al Nassr of Riyadh in a mindboggling £173m-a-year sport-entertainment deal.
On one level you just have to laugh at the weirdness of this. Here is a move that is irrelevant to the conduct of elite professional sport but which also points with absolute clarity to the place where that world is heading.
But mainly it’s just very funny, in the way everything that late, aggrieved Ronaldo does is funny when viewed as a real-time study in extreme, unfettered human egotism. Here is a footballer who celebrity-interviewed his way out of Manchester United while preaching about the disrespectful behavior of others (source: that appalling TV “interview”, an experience comparable to being stabbed repeatedly through the eyeballs with a heated kebab skewer forged out of pure human inanity).
How is this going to work on the ground? How long before Ronaldo is dropped for not pressing enough to meet the basic standards of Saudi PR-ball? How long before pictures emerge of him looking furious and sad in the King Saud University Stadium stands, statements leaked to the media about how the Al Nassr he loved is being betrayed, how terrible the cafe is, how un-fancy the gym equipment?
And yet there is plenty of sadness here too, and indeed an important cautionary tale. Reality is simple. Ronaldo was a miraculously good footballer. Then he stopped being that. The noise, the acrimony, the vast tides of wasted money have all sprung from the gap between this hard sporting truth and the unspent power of the Ronaldo-industrial complex, its refusal to die, to stop earning, to accept that reality.
It has been uncomfortable to watch this happen, to see Ronaldo the footballer – still from the outside the same plasticised space-beefcake, the same snake-hipped wedding cake figurine come to life – depleted by age and mortality. There is a sadness too in seeing such an influential figure transformed into an avatar of human greed. It is easy to misunderstand Ronaldo’s popularity, to dismiss it as marketing pap, incel-worship, celebrity fetishism.
But Ronaldo is also an uplifting tale. Here is a poor kid from a tough background who conquered the world through nothing but talent and hard work, who embodies sport as the dream factory. Ronaldo fixed his own destiny, fixed his body, fixed his teeth, fixed his broken start in life. If you’re on the outside, if the world looks closed to you, here is an inspiring story.
And now Ronaldo is telling us something just as important. One of biggest battles in Big Sport sport currently is the divide between the real and the fake. From the staging of the Qatar World Cup to Super League projects, to the cult of player celebrity, it is a key question: is this thing actually real? Can we trust the show in front of us?
Ronaldo has become a very handy divining tool for this strain of unreality. In this light his ejection from the Premier League should be seen as a triumph, a good news story, confirmation that this thing is at bottom still sport, that it still has hard edges.
By the same token there was no more heartwarming moment at Qatar 2022 than Fernando Santos, a 68-year-old with the manner and the dress sense of a rumpled 1970s New York detective with a bed that folds up into the wall, having the courage to drop Ronaldo and replace him with a 21-year-old. That dropping said the same thing: no matter what you chuck at this thing it remains, for now, essentially honest.
What else have we got? Obviously the move back to United wasn’t real, but was instead a celebrity waxwork installation, designed to give the illusion of life. Erik ten Hag has already done English football, and indeed the wider public discourse, a huge favour by forcing Ronaldo to leave, by insisting that there is still a line between the real and the fake.
The move to Al Nassr is obviously not real either. This week L’Équipe called Ronaldo’s contract “an economic aberration”, but this only stands if we accept it is related to football. To call Ronaldo the highest-paid footballer in the world is like calling Tom Cruise the highest-paid fighter pilot. There is a reality issue here. Ronaldo is no longer engaged in sports. He is an actor, a publicity megaphone, a tool of power.
And again there is a kind of sadness in this, questions about what exactly Ronaldo’s own sporting legacy is going to look like. The best Ronaldo was in my opinion the 2008 version, accumulator of a record Ballon d’Or points tally back when he was still an expressive, highly entertaining team player.
His progress from that point has been a paring back into the most literal-minded version of what winning means, a mobile goal-hammer, a provider of moments, elite football as TikTok reel.
Six hundred goals. Five hundred hat tricks. A million goals. The first man to score against every single team in every league all at the same time. Ronaldo’s career can start to look like a kind of footballing masturbation, sport as endless self-glorification. What does it actually mean for him to win? That Ronaldo is great and famous and has defined muscles? Does it tell us anything about theory or collectivism or team-play or shared virtues?
No single figure has embodied sporting individualism to this degree, or reduced football so profoundly to an atomised celebrity obsession. Saudi is the final step in this direction, towards a product that is rootless and timeless, based instead in the consumption of images, brands, styling.
Ronaldo is at least telling us this, positioning himself entirely on one side of that battle. In this sense he has come to embody the age perfectly, and to point most clearly towards its fantastical, textureless future. This much, at least, feels real.