Ronaldo woos United fans but Real love will be back

Ian Herbert
Friday 08 August 2008 00:00

Even when his explanation is composed so plainly and yet articulately, it is hard to find much sincerity in a player whose ego allowed him to sanction the publication, in what passes as a biography, of an image of himself smouldering in a shower beside the caption: "I like to feel good with my body."

Cristiano Ronaldo's summer romance with Real Madrid will be best remembered for the way he batted his eyelids only at the Spanish press corps during the European Championships; for his eagerness to sanction suggestions that keeping him at Old Trafford was tantamount to slavery as he limped out of an Algarve clinic in plaster. But for those with longer memories – the Manchester United fans whose gallows humour about the loss of the world's finest player has been characterised by the Ronometer in the redcafe chatroom – the night of 21 May will take some getting over. That was when he buried his face in the mud of the Luzhniki stadium, walked around the pitch with a European Cup winners' medal around his neck and, when asked if he was staying, promptly told the world: "I never promise nothing."

Ronaldo, whose choreographed renewal of vows with Manchester was delivered to the Portuguese Publico newspaper's Bruno Prata – the husband of Manuela Brandao, an employee of Jorge Mendes who minds the player and wrote the biography with him, had a different version of that Moscow night to tell yesterday. "I'm going to say something here that I've never told anybody. If we hadn't been European champions I probably wouldn't have even thought about going to Madrid," he told Prata, suggesting that United's success meant he had won all there was to win." The facts are rather different. Ronaldo dropped his first hints a full week beforehand – delicately but deliberately to a journalist from the Spanish broadcaster Antenna 3, barely 30 minutes after Sir Alex Ferguson had spoken, voice hushed, about the historical significance of the final, 40 years on from Munich.

In many ways, Ronaldo's latest utterance is as calculated as that piece of innuendo. After Ferguson flew into Lisbon three weeks ago and told Ronaldo a transfer was a no-go, Plan B was the contrite interview. Judging by one significant disclosure – Ronaldo's declaration to Prata that: "My coach was kind enough to come and visit me in Lisbon a few days ago" – the interview seems to have been conducted immediately after the endgame and held back for publication just before his expected return to Manchester today.

Judging by United chatroom traffic, it seems to have worked. The player has certainly done enough to head off the kind of hostile reception Emmanuel Adebayor received at the Emirates on Saturday and he need not fear the boos Rio Ferdinand encountered three years ago after stalling for six months over his contract – on the face of it, a far lesser offence.

In part, that is because United are the winners in this story for our times, in which a player tries to take control, agitate for a move without asking for one and so override a contract which rewards him well. It is also because football supporters have short memories when it comes to a player like Ronaldo, whose brilliance outshines his love of the bathroom mirror. And it is because United have got one over on Real Madrid.

But it is also because the term betrayal is hard to define. Carlos Tevez has declared his wish to return to Argentina in time – possibly four years. Is it a betrayal if he chooses to do so in two? For a 23-year-old Ronaldo has served a mighty long time at United – six years – and it is hard to take issue with what he told Prata about his love of Spain, its one-hour flying time from his mother and its cultural appeal – "everyone realises Spanish and Portuguese culture and lifestyle are more similar". Viewed that way, plainly and without this summer's subterfuge, his admission that he wishes to leave in the end makes sense. Ronaldo might consider himself "a kid" but a further six years at United would take him virtually to the age of 30 and the point of his footballing decline.

The player's departure next summer now looks likely – William Hill already have him at 5-6 to be at the Bernabeu this time next year – but there should be decent odds on him also leaving a hero. Ferguson will allow him to escape without censure because he is an old man in a hurry this season to match Liverpool's 18 titles and defend a European Cup – the true sign of greatness, as Rio Ferdinand observed on Tuesday.

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