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No Clubs for Old(er) Men

There's a confluence of factors that leaves accomplished-yet-aging stars like Cristiano Ronaldo without much of a market in the transfer window.

Massimiliano Allegri, the Juventus coach, and Pavel Nedved, the club's vice president, were both determined to play the issue down. But after Cristiano Ronaldo was left on the bench for Sunday’s Serie A-opening match against Udinese, the rumors and reports that he is seeking a move away from the club have only gained in credibility.

Italian media were adamant that Ronaldo had asked not to start the game, leading inevitably to suggestions that he was seeking to protect his fitness before a potential move. 

"We mustn't try to create sensational stories where there aren't any," Nedved told DAZN in response. "It was a decision shared with the player. At the start of the season, naturally he is not at top fitness. The coach is trying to use the best lineup at this moment. I can absolutely confirm Ronaldo will remain at Juventus this season."

Allegri backed up that version. "I had talked to him before the game, telling him he would start on the bench,” he said. “He made himself available; he did well when he entered the pitch."

That’s certainly one way of looking at what happened. Another way would be to see Ronaldo’s 30 minutes as a substitute as emblematic of his time in Italy in general. Juve was 2–0 up and apparently cruising, then conceded twice. Ronaldo seemed to have snatched an injury-time winner with a characteristic header, only for the goal to be ruled out for a marginal offside in the buildup, leading to another Ronaldo trademark: The disbelieving grin and shake of the head when a decision goes against him.

From a purely football point of view, Ronaldo’s move to Juventus has been a failure. He may have scored 81 league goals in three seasons, but Juventus was winning the league every year, anyway; he was supposed to bring the Champions League title to Turin. In those three seasons, despite Ronaldo's 14 goals in the competition, Juve has once lost in the quarterfinals (to Ajax) and twice lost in the last 16 (to Lyon and Porto). It is further away now from winning the Champions League than it was when he joined the club. And last season, after nine successive scudetti, Juve finished fourth in the league, scraping its way to a Champions League place.

No matter how many goals an individual may score, if he disrupts the tactical balance of the team and prevents it from pressing efficiently, he becomes problematic. Club figures try to claim that Juve has benefited in terms of greater exposure and publicity, which may be true, as indirect advantages are by their nature difficult to discern. Then again, maybe it has not. The pandemic clearly hasn’t helped, but the fact is that Juventus is now €358 million ($420 million) in debt. Ronaldo, signed for €100 million and earning €54 million a year, has, tactically and financially, hampered the development of the side.

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His contract expires next summer, and it may be that Juventus would welcome the chance to offload him now and at least receive some fee. But this appears to be a move driven by the player. Perhaps he wants a move to a club that is more likely to challenge for the Champions League this season. Perhaps racking up goals in Serie A doesn’t feel like a challenge anymore. But the issue seems odd.

Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly wants out at Juventus

Ronaldo is 36. He is in exceptional physical shape, but nobody can keep going forever. He has already pared his game back to operate largely around the edge of the box. Very few clubs could afford him—with or without a transfer fee—even before the pandemic. Manchester City perhaps could, particularly if it does not land Harry Kane, but it’s hard to see Ronaldo fitting in a Pep Guardiola–coached side.

Perhaps Paris Saint-Germain would relish the prospect of partnering Ronaldo with Lionel Messi (and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé), but even its accountants may find it hard to square that with Financial Fair Play regulations. A return to Real Madrid might make some sort of sense, but both Ronaldo and Carlo Ancelotti, the current coach, have denied that—and it’s not at all clear Madrid could afford him, certainly not without offloading Gareth Bale, and certainly not with dreams of luring Mbappé at some point still top of the mind. 

That leaves the left-field options. A cut-price return to his first club, Sporting CP (a move his agent, Jorge Mendes, ruled out in May, and one that wouldn't bring Ronaldo any closer to Champions League glory)? Or perhaps joining Nuno Espírito Santo, with whom Ronaldo shares Mendes as representation, at Tottenham, as a replacement for Kane (who, again, may still not move)? A romantic return to Manchester United? Perhaps that may have made some sense, had the club not already spent big to sign Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane this summer.

None of it, frankly, feels very likely. And what’s really intriguing is that the Ronaldo storm has whipped up only a few days after Robert Lewandowski, who just turned 33 this weekend, was linked with a move away from Bayern Munich. Between retrenchment at many of the top clubs and a look ahead to next summer, when Mbappé and Erling Haaland could be among those tantalizing talents on the move, the market for 30-something forwards, even the extremely talented and record-setting ones, just isn’t there at the moment. And it leaves a player like Ronaldo with little in the way of an exit strategy.

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