Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t been on a big run in recent years.
He lost his place in Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United squad and got into trouble twice for acting like a big baby about it during matches. His attempt to arrange a transfer to a Champions League-qualified European team failed when he reportedly no European club even made a bid. Unable to negotiate a smooth exit from Manchester, he staged a highly damaging and embarrassing interview with the great, great England hurler Piers Morgan to make the situation untenable, and United banished him on the eve of the World Cup – where he was benched , as punishment for a tantrum, and his replacement promptly scored a hat-trick. He made what is likely to be the last World Cup appearance of his life, coming on as a 51st-minute substitute in Portugal’s quarter-final match against Morocco, unable to change the 0-1 scoreline and walking off the pitch in tears. And then his lifelong rival, Lionel Messi, personally carried Argentina to perhaps the most exciting World Cup triumph in history.
When Ronaldo, a few weeks after his United banishment (and 12 days after Messi took the world by storm), signed a contract to join the Saudi Pro League’s Al Nassr club in exchange for a comically gigantic salary, the general consensus received this as the definitive end of his time at or near the pinnacle of the sport – and an ominous and vaguely smelly one at that: a faded legend who had made himself so radioactive that he could only continue his career as the trophy’s hood ornament on a sports washing project in a game’s hinterland. That Al Nassr fared somewhat worse after Ronaldo’s arrival, or so the club’s manager got it shot shortly after Ronaldo threw a tantrum on the pitch in April, after a 0-0 draw in which he didn’t get as much service as he wanted, it hardly needs mentioning. But I mention it anyway because it’s funny.
The subsequent migration to Saudi Arabia of several of football’s other faded eminences – Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, Roberto Firmino, Marcelo Brozovic, a few others – perhaps did little to transform Ronaldo’s transit, in retrospect, from an exile to something small less sad and more like pioneering a trend. It’s a little ironic that the one thing that could have done absolutely the most to validate Ronaldo’s career trajectory from Europe to Saudi as something cooler than a shameless post-relevance cash-in would have been for Messi himself to make the trip, as is abundantly rumored predicted he would do so this summer (and for a salary that far exceeded Ronaldo’s, at that).
If that might have been a slightly bitter consolation for Ronaldo himself – borrowing legitimacy from the guy he has spent much of his professional life outdoing – then what actually happened could only have tasted even worse. Messi rejected an outright surreal salary offer – something in the region of €400 million per season– from Al Hilal, in favor of joining Major League Soccer’s last-place Inter Miami for something like an eighth as much. The verdict, explicit or not: the SPL is a bush league and Messi sees no appeal in joining it at any cost.
Notably, in the catalog of profitable semi-retirements for declining soccer superstars, Ronaldo probably couldn’t (or at least never would) seriously consider the MLS option. In 2017, he was investigated for rape in Las Vegas and allegedly avoided entering the United States for years to escape possible detention. Prosecutors later declined to press charges, and a civil suit by the prosecutor collapsed due to misconduct by her attorney — but as a career case, this likely ruled MLS out for good. Even now, Ronaldo will surely face questions and public scrutiny over the accusation here which he will not have to deal with in Saudi Arabia.
So to recap: Ronaldo is effectively professionally exiled from both Europe and the US; his time in Saudi Arabia has not gone particularly well from a sporting perspective; his reputation is unmistakably tarnished at a point in his career that is probably too late for him to ever fully recover it – and at a point when Messi is as close to universally loved as possible. All in all (and ah, disregarding his worldwide celebrity, unimaginable riches and famous good looks): not great!
This brings us to Monday, when Al Nassr faced La Liga mediocrity Celta Vigo in a friendly in Portugal, and were thumped 5-0.
Ronaldo, hailed as a saint by the Portuguese, crowed and submitted at half-time, faced questions from the media afterwards. Was he gracious and careful about his place in world football and the various leagues that for various reasons he cannot play for? Reader, he wasn’t.
MLS came up as expected: after all, Messi rejected the Saudi Pro League going there. What does Ronaldo think about it? “Saudi league is better than MLS,” he said. “I opened the way to the Saudi league, and now all the players are coming here… In a year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year, the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and the Dutch league.”
What about Europe? Would Ronaldo like to return to Europe?
“Returning to Europe is a closed option for me. I am already 38 and a half years old,” he said, and here you might think he is humbled by his diminution and the reality that no one in Europe wants him. But! “And it’s not worth it. Europe lost a lot of quality. The only one who is one of the best is [English] Premier League. The Spanish league lost its level, the Portuguese one is not at the top, the German one also lost a lot of quality.”
Remarkably, none of this is complete wrong– like how much of what Ronaldo said to Piers Morgan had at least some truth (or at least credibility) to it. If the Saudi Pro League has not yet definitively surpassed MLS as the Vegas casino residency destination for aging soccer greats, it is at least up for debate, and the trend lines and migration patterns at the moment seem generally to point to Riyadh. (Personally, I don’t think the SPL is likely to surpass the Dutch Eredivisie anytime soon, except in the sense that it already has: as a flashy, debauched cruise ship for expensive mercenaries. But maybe it will!)
And the continental European leagues really have fallen far away due to, in various combinations, crappy management, the ongoing financial devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and ownership/revenue models that leave all but Paris Saint-Germain unable to match even mid-table English clubs’ transfer- market power. There are infinitely worse and more disqualifying opinions for anyone discussing world soccer to have than “The Saudi league is better than MLS” and “Europe has lost a lot of quality [apart from the Premier League].”
It’s just … Cristiano, mate. Your team just got flattened 5-0 by Celta Vigo, man! Close!