The Ronaldo Headache

Recent events have shined a spotlight on Manchester United’s problems with their star, Cristiano Ronaldo, stemming from both professional and personal issues.

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It seems as though just yesterday Cristiano Ronaldo completed his return to Manchester United, a move that sent the soccer world into a frenzy like none before. The prodigal son had returned to the club where he had forged his name, and expectations were sky-high. After leaving Manchester back in 2009, the Portuguese star went on to achieve legendary status, becoming a five-time Champions League winner, leading Portugal to victory in the European Championships, and receiving both the Golden Boot and the Ballon d’Or—the most prestigious individual awards a soccer player can receive—five times each. After many long years and in the twilight of his career, the legend of the game would make one last statement with a fairytale comeback, returning the struggling Red Devils to their former Premier League and Champions League glory.

Those were the headlines that were written. Those were the hopes. But things have not panned out according to the fairytale script. While Ronaldo performed well individually last season, finishing as United’s top scorer, the Red Devils as a whole were poor under both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was sacked, and then Ralf Rangnick, finishing sixth in the league, missing out on Champions League qualification, and failing to perform in the Europa League. Following that disappointing season, Ronaldo made it clear that he wanted to leave the club to play Champions League soccer and to enjoy a more successful end to his career. However, because the United board was not keen on letting him go and other clubs were unwilling to make a move, a transfer never materialized. It was unlikely that any top clubs would be willing to create a system around an aging, 37-year-old striker who was past the prime of his career and at an age by which most players are long retired or playing at lower levels.

And so, with the arrival of new manager Erik ten Hag for the 2022-2023 Premier League season, Ronaldo and Manchester United have found themselves in a precarious position. From United’s point of view, they have an unhappy and aging player, to whom they are paying an eye-watering $518 thousand a week. From Ronaldo’s point of view, these are the last few years of his career, and as the overachiever that he is, he will be content with nothing less than ending his career with a bang and winning soccer’s biggest trophies. As the season progressed, the situation got worse, culminating when Ronaldo left Manchester United’s game against Tottenham Hotspur in the 89th minute out of frustration. This action is indicative of the idea that Ronaldo views himself as superior to the manager and the club, a view heavily criticized by the media. More importantly, however, these recent events have shone a spotlight on United’s problems: the Red Devils have a serious Ronaldo headache on their hands.

Their problem is rooted in several places, both professional and personal. The most glaring of these has to do with Ronaldo’s lack of regular playing time. Throughout his career, the Portuguese striker has been the player whom managers would build their team around. Whether it was for Real Madrid, Juventus, the Portuguese National Team, or even Manchester United, everyone knew that Ronaldo would be playing for most, if not all, of every game. But this year, things changed drastically. Ronaldo has rarely started games in the Premier League, being relegated to a few short cameos off the bench or just remaining as an unused substitute for the whole game. For someone who arguably has the strongest determination and mindset of any athlete in the world, his lack of playing time has been a major source of frustration for him. In fact, Ten Hag has admitted that “he wants to play, and he is pissed off when he is not playing.” This attitude was clearly on Ronaldo’s mind when storming off the pitch against the Spurs, choosing to do so directly after the substitution of Anthony Elanga and Christian Eriksen in the 87th minute. Fascinatingly, Ronaldo did the same thing during a preseason game against Rayo Vallecano this past summer, exiting the match early after being subbed off in the 45th minute, something that he was also heavily criticized for. It’s clear that a recurring theme is developing with Ronaldo at United: when Ronaldo doesn’t play, he is not happy.

There is also a human aspect to Ronaldo’s problems. In April, Ronaldo and his partner Georgina Rodriguez announced the tragic loss of their newborn son, emotionally writing on Instagram that “It is the greatest pain that any parents can feel.” Regardless of their celebrity status, for a parent, losing a child is one of the worst and most traumatic experiences of one’s life, and the sentiment of the couple since then has communicated just that. Ronaldo recently posted a picture on Instagram with renowned psychologist, self-help expert, and professor Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, following a private talk they had together. This meeting with Dr. Peterson is perhaps indicative of some of the personal and mental struggles that Ronaldo has been experiencing and has been at odds with to overcome. In turn, his mental health struggles have seemingly been trickling down into his professional career and a major contributing cause to the Ronaldo Headache.

With both sides at an impasse, it seems there’s no perfect resolution to their problem. On one side, we have an aging player who just a short time ago was arguably the best soccer player in the world, and on the other, a club and manager who do’'t have Ronaldo included in their long term plans. In all likelihood, the two will part ways during the January transfer window, giving Ronaldo the move he originally wanted. As a whole, what we are currently witnessing is likely the end of the long yet incredibly successful journey that has been Ronaldo’s legendary career. Time comes for us all, even Ronaldo, and that is just the inevitability which is now catching up to him. Keep an eye on the Portuguese National Team during the upcoming FIFA World Cup, as it will be one of the final opportunities for the legend of the game to end his career on a high note, enshrined in soccer immortality.