When Cristiano Ronaldo, deep in the bowels of the Olimpiskiy Stadium in Kiev, spoke of his time at Real Madrid in the past tense after this season’s Champions League final, it seemed like nothing more than his usual posturing. The assumption then was that he was angling for an improved contract and trying to wrench some of the attention back to himself after Gareth Bale’s two goals. A little over a month later, though, he has left Madrid, joining Juventus for a fee of €100 million plus reported wages of €120 million over four years.
Madrid’s statement made clear it was Ronaldo’s “will and request” to leave, although the suspicion must be that there was at least some element of relief at his decision. Moving on from aging stars is never easy, and there was the potential for Ronaldo, with his vast wages, effectively to keep the club in stasis. He is 33 now, and, given how diligent he clearly is about keeping in peak condition, it’s possible he could go on at the highest level for five years or even more, it’s equally possible that injuries could begin to nag at him. Already he has reduced his game to operate in a small zone in and around the opponent’s box. There is not much further to go in that direction.
In an open letter on the club website, Ronaldo spoke of his love for Madrid but said, “I believe that the time has come to open a new stage in my life and that is why I have asked the club to agree to transfer me.” It’s still, though, not entirely clear why he would go. Perhaps he just felt he needed a new challenge; perhaps he realized that he cannot go on for much longer as the most important figure in the Madrid dressing room. Perhaps it’s related to his ongoing wrangle with the Spanish tax authorities.
Ronaldo’s career figures are extraordinary: He has scored 573 goals in 763 games (451 goals in 438 games at Real Madrid), and he won four Ballon d’Or trophies in Spain to go with the one he won with Manchester United. His legacy, though, is far from a straightforward one. Ronaldo inspires extraordinary devotion from his legions of fans on social media, but his relationship with Madrid fans was often strained. Ronaldo himself frequently demanded greater devotion, but a certain section of fans has also seemed skeptical of the way his focus has always been on himself rather than the team.
Was he a success at Real Madrid? Four Champions Leagues in the past five years would say emphatically yes, but two league titles in nine years says it could have been better. His potential new strike partner, Gonzalo Higuain, it’s worth remembering, won three league titles in six-and-a-half years at Madrid.
Not that Higuain looks likely to be at Juventus for much longer. The suggestion is that he, Alex Sandro and Daniele Rugani will all be sold to help finance the deal, with Chelsea a probable destination for the central defender and a possible one for the Argentinian. But this is a huge step for Juve. It may not bring the Champions League title to Turin, but it probably does make it more likely–and, after seven straight Serie A titles, there is need to break new ground.
More than that, though, it is a huge step in branding terms. This is the first time since Kaka in 2007 that a reigning Ballon d’Or winner has played in Italy and confirms Juventus among the ranks of superclubs. For the first time in a long, long time, Serie A matches will attract audiences that can compete with Real Madrid, Barcelona and the top Premier League clubs.
Madrid, meanwhile, is left with some leeway to rebuild. Neymar, seemingly, remains the prime target, despite his disappointing World Cup. Club president Florentino Perez tends to replenish his squad with at least one star from each World Cup–often, it seems, as much as a branding exercise as for footballing reasons. Kylian Mbappe, perhaps, would be an option, but it’s unclear why Paris Saint-Germain, freed from the threat of Financial Fair Play penalties, would be willing to sell either having signed them with such fanfare last summer.
Eden Hazard, who is having an excellent World Cup for Belgium, is probably the most likely signing. He has been linked with Madrid repeatedly in the past but, significantly, has stopped denying an interest in leaving Chelsea, who seem willing to sell as part of a shakeup of a squad that has gone stale.
But whoever Madrid signs, this feels like the end of an era. For the past nine seasons, the Clasico has been Ronaldo against Lionel Messi, two players who have won the Ballon d’Or in each of the past 10 seasons. In one transfer the world has moved on, and the plates are beginning to realign.