Unless we have all read the signs wrongly and in fact he was just doing it all along to gain a bit of attention, this weekend Cristiano Ronaldo is going to announce his wish to join Real Madrid. Of course he is: if he had no intention of courting the Spanish champions he would have stated simply and clearly a month ago that he was happy to stay at Manchester United. But he didn’t because all along he has wanted to go play for the team his mum, his godfather, his agent and his Uncle Tom Cobley and all have been dreaming of him joining since he conducted his first step-over at the age of six months. For the finest player to pull on a red shirt in a generation, United was only ever a stepping stone to reach his ultimate destination. The moment the team in white came in from him, there was to be no holding him. He was off.
The intriguing thing is what happens next. If Ronaldo thinks it will just be a case of contacting his bank to send a wheelbarrow round to the Bernabeu to pick up his first wage packet, he has another think coming. Even with a promised fee of £70million, United are not going to make it easy. If they don’t want to sell, they are under no obligation to do so. Alex Ferguson has already stated that he is happy to let the player “rot in the reserves” rather than let him go to Madrid. And since he is under contract for three more years that is an awful lot of rotting to do. He might be decidedly whiffy at the end of that spell.
United have seen a steady stream of players heading westwards out of Manchester to Madrid these past few years. David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Gabriel Heinze have all headed there since 2003. But, as Ferguson has been at pains to point out, he no longer required the services of that particular trio. He was happy for them to go. Pleased to bank the cheque and move on. Ronaldo is a very different case. Not only is his skill, his panache, his bravery crucial to United’s style of play (as anyone would be who scores 42 goals in a season) Ferguson will not wish to see his multitude of talents being employed for a direct rival. Which, in these Champions League dominated times, is what Madrid are, as much a direct rival to United as Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester City. Actually, rather more than Manchester City. So the United manager will do everything he can to stand in the way of such a move. In 22 years at Old Trafford, Ferguson prides himself on never letting go a player he wanted to keep. The man has a way of getting what he wants.
So if Ronaldo is obliged to stay against his wishes what then? About ten years ago, Prince, in a bid to release himself from his long-term record contract, changed his name to some incomprehensible hieroglyphic and continually had himself photographed with the word “slave” scribbled on his knuckles. George Michael too spent an age trying to extricate himself from his deal with Sony, refusing to produce any material for them even though he was contractually obliged to do so. Can we expect the same of Ronaldo? Will he have himself pictured in the stands at Old Trafford during matches in a set of handcuffs? Will he fling the biggest sulk since Nicolas Anelka was born? Will he go on perpetual strike? In which case, what would happen if United had a terrible injury crisis, say Nani fell over his own ego in training, what then? Would Ronaldo be expected to step in (or rather step over) as cover?
It could be interesting times ahead in the court of the Lollipop King. But whatever happens, United fans need to start getting used to this unpalatable truth: unless he really is just the biggest tease on the planet and all this dallying with Madrid was just a bit of a giggle, that magnificent goal he scored in Moscow in the Champions League final was the last one Ronaldo will ever net for the club.