The Ronaldo saga, possibly the most tedious bout of “will-he-won’t-he” transfer talk ever, was the bane of most United fans lives over the summer. Here we were, champions of England, champions of Europe, and all anyone wanted talk about was whether our Portuguese winker was going to join Real Madrid.
Two months into the new season, it is still a big theme amongst United fans, who still rarely sing Ronaldo’s song and are quick to criticise every slip and every piece of neutral body language. In doing so, those same fans are turning Ronaldo’s possible move to Real into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before I explain in more detail, let’s look back and try to apply a bit of perspective. A lot of conflicts came to the fore during those two months of hell. United V Real Madrid, United v Marca (the Spanish newspaper acting as Real’s unofficial mouthpiece), United v Fifa, Fergie v Calderon, Fergie v Ronaldo…the list goes on and on, and very exciting and dramatic they all were at the time. Or something.
The most tragic, though, was the conflict that developed between Ronaldo and the Manchester United fans. Tragic because within two weeks of that glorious night in Moscow, those fans who had loved Ronaldo like a son, who had publically praised his every move, who had revelled in his meteoric ascent to the top of the game, suddenly hated him.
The adoration turned into bile, and that bile spilled over into every sort of football conversation, from the mainstream media to the pubs to the blogosphere. Looking back on it now, it seems like such a storm in a teacup – having won nearly every honour available with United, Ronaldo was offered fabulous wealth to go and do something he’d always dreamed of doing. The United fans may have hated it, but they should have understood it.
But disloyalty is the ultimate sin for United fans. With notable exceptions like Dennis Law, it is tough to go back and find another example of a leading player leaving United at the peak of his powers and against United’s will. It is essentially unprecedented under Fergie’s management, where whole rafts of players have given United the majority of their career, leaving only when close to retirement. Or, in the case of players like Giggs and Scholes, some have literally only played for one club.
Regardless of the rational motives put before them, many fans refuse to forgive Ronaldo for threatening to leave – it just doesn’t happen to us, they think. Well, it didn’t. Ronaldo stayed, in spite of everything. He gave a very frank, very honest press conference, where he admitted that he had considered leaving, but ultimately realised that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Where he promised to give his best for United, and apologised for contributing so much to the mayhem. He also apologised in private to the United players and staff, who in turn presented him with a Real Madrid kit as a joke – the players and the management have moved on.
Many fans accepted that on face value, but needed to be shown that he was prepared to do his best for the club, rather than just waiting it out a year and agitating for a move again. So, what evidence do we have so far? Ronaldo devoted himself entirely to recovering from his injury, and did so with such success that he returned a full month early to assist United’s misfiring attack. Despite being below his best, he is contributing goals and assists on a regular basis. In his rare interviews, he talks of regaining the fans’ love.
It seems, though, that the fans don’t want to love him anymore. They talk of supporting him out of a sense of duty, as they would any other player who wears the red shirt, but nothing more. They will not sing his song unless he scores – and then only once – and they criticise him for things they previously were prepared to overlook. On Saturday, Ronaldo hardly smiled when he scored – and he was pilloried for it.
When Fergie talks of bringing Ronaldo back, he talks of a chance to leave Old Trafford as a United legend. I think this appeals to Ronaldo – I think it is the sort of goal he understands, and a masterstroke of man management by Fergie. But it will only work if the fans are prepared to be swayed again – no player, no matter how motivated or well managed, will stay for long at a club where the fans dislike him. If they only support him out of a sense of duty, he will only perform at the level required by professionalism – it’s a two way street.
Ironically, the justification for this lack of love is the assumption that Ronaldo will join Real Madrid next summer, come what may. We’ve seen nothing to back that up. But if the Stretford End want to ensure the best player in the world leaves United at the peak of his powers, they’re going the right way about it.
It’s two months on from the start of the season, and I think the appropriate level of displeasure has been conveyed. The fans need to give Ronaldo a second chance, to welcome him back into the fold, albeit on the condition that if he strays once more there will be no redemption. If the cold shouldering continues, at some point the relationship will be sundered for good and United will lose one of the best players ever to grace the Theatre of Dreams.
What do you make of Ronaldo’s continuing alienation? Can you forgive him, or would you prefer him to leave and end the pain? Let’s hear your views.