Cristiano Ronaldo yesterday sparked what is likely to be a summer of feverish speculation over his future when he left the door open to a potential move to Spain, and Real Madrid in particular. Manchester United's 41-goal star of the season announced that he would be considering his future after his club's European Cup final against Chelsea on Wednesday.
Sir Alex Ferguson will take no pleasure in the fallout that will accompany these latest remarks but there was no mistaking the ambiguity in the 23-year-old's words when he spoke to foreign journalists at the club's training ground ahead of the final. Though he said more than once that he was "happy" at United, Ronaldo did not rule out the possibility that he may seek a fresh challenge. "I am happy here but let's see what happens after the Champions League final," he said. "I am feeling calm here. I'm happy here but in the future I don't know."
The Portuguese winger found himself buttonholed by one interviewer in particular from the Spanish broadcasters Antena 3. He pushed the interest of Real who have made little secret of their hopes of signing Ronaldo. "I have said millions of times that I would love to play in Spain but it's one thing to dream and another thing for it to be reality," the player said. "I don't know the club so I can't lie. I know Real Madrid like how I play and I know that other teams in Spain like my game as well so that's good – but I'm happy here."
That Ronaldo will never categorically rule out a move away from United is the biggest worry for the club, despite the five-year contract he signed in April last year for around £120,000-a-week. There are no plans to negotiate a new deal but it is obvious that at Euro 2008 this summer he is certain to make himself even more sought-after among Europe's elite. Told yesterday that Real's president Ramon Calderon was "obsessed" with him, Ronaldo said: "Of course it is good to know that other clubs are interested in you."
Honoured as the Football Writers' Association player of the year in London last night – for the second successive year – Ronaldo has always been careful not to be unequivocal when it comes to his future. The question of Real's interest was always likely to be a thorn in Ferguson's side and United will be frustrated he has been pushed on the point so close to the final. The club's general director, Miguel Angel Arroyo, said that Real have the "solvency and the financial liquidity to be able to take on a signing of this magnitude".
Real have also talked enthusiastically about the merchandising potential of Ronaldo, having realised the value of David Beckham after his transfer from United in 2003. After five years at United, if the club were to sell Ronaldo they would expect a fee close to the record £45m Real paid for Zinedine Zidane in 2001.
Ferguson also served a reminder to Avram Grant yesterday that the League title defines the best team in the country and suggested that the Israeli's complaints about refereeing which, he claims, handed Manchester United the title was a mere ploy ahead of Wednesday's final
"The winner is the best team in the League," Ferguson said. "All the players have recognised that. Avram Grant is talking about next Wednesday as far as I am concerned. That [comment] was a preparation for next week."
Ferguson, who admitted on Sunday evening that his complaints about Bolton relaxing before their trip to Stamford Bridge, were a "tickle" to gee Gary Megson's side up, said he had "half-expected" Grant's comments and he is evidently determined not to allow his rival's tactics to impede his search for European glory. "We should have a better record in Europe," he declared. "I could go on and on about assistance [from referees] because [it is] debatable. You could say we should have been champions before we went to Stamford Bridge [for the 2-1 defeat three weeks ago which threw the title back open]."
Ferguson passed up the chance to suggest that Europe's best two sides had made it Moscow, observing that Chelsea "carried a lot of luck" in their semi-final against Liverpool. The strategy he has been working at for the past week or so is to portray Chelsea as the side of greater European experience and he was at it twice again yesterday, talking of Chelsea's greater "maturity" – albeit providing the caveat that United have the "big game temperament". The fact United are undefeated in the tournament "tells you everything," he believes.
Ferguson pledged a more powerful performance than United gave in the FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea 12 months ago. "We will be fresher [in Moscow] and you can expect a better performance from us," he said.Reuse content