GENEVA, Switzerland – The truly remarkable thing about Cristiano Ronaldo's decision to admit that he wants to leave Manchester United – just two days before the start of Euro 2008 – is that he knows exactly what he is getting himself into.
The Portuguese superstar already shouldered the dreams of a nation and the pressurized tag of "world's greatest player" leading into football's second-biggest international event. By adding some clarity to his club future with the declaration he hopes to move to Real Madrid, he guaranteed a level of personal scrutiny few other football stars have experienced.
Yet at 23, Ronaldo feels comfortable enough to bear that burden, and he remains unwaveringly true to the career path he has privately mapped out for himself.
If he can ignore the added hype and lead Portugal to the European Championships trophy at Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium on June 29, he will join the list of all-time greats even at this relatively early stage of his journey.
Many disagree with his decision to seek an escape route from United, the club that signed him as a precociously talented teenager and which he took to the Premier League and Champions League titles this season. The timing of his decision is equally shocking.
Imagine Kobe Bryant single-handedly steering the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship against the Boston Celtics, then declaring he wants a new challenge by saving the Chicago Bulls or New York Knicks. Or picture Peyton Manning wanting out of Indianapolis after leading the Colts to the Super Bowl two years ago.
It simply wouldn't be allowed to happen and there is every chance that the Glazer family, which owns Manchester United, will fight tooth and nail to keep their most prized asset. However, no other football player on the planet has the force or nerve to dare to play politics with such a formidable employer.
The Manchester outfit is a club – and a billion-dollar business, no less – that generally holds all the cards in any negotiation. Even though Ronaldo has two years left on his current contract, his case is one of power player at its most extreme level, and, chances are, he will be sporting Real Madrid white in a few months time.
When David Beckham trod the same path from Man U to Madrid in 2003, his playing ability and marketability made him one of the most valuable commodities in football. However, the difference in Ronaldo's case is that United was prepared to let Beckham go, provided the price was right. With Ronaldo, Man U would love to keep hold of him, but it will eventually be forced to realize there is little long-term future in refusing to sell a player whose heart is clearly elsewhere.
The Spanish champions will have to come up with a world record transfer fee of around $150 million and wages of $400,000 a week after taxes, but they will feel safe in the knowledge they are getting a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.
"Not only in England has he been considered the best in the world," said Portugal coach Luis Felipe Scolari on Friday, 24 hours before his team was due to tackle Turkey in its opening Group A match. "The whole world thinks he is the best."
United is generally regarded as the world's biggest club, with enormous international profile and support and the European Cup stashed safely in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet. But what is clear is that Ronaldo sees Madrid as a bigger club, or at least a club better suited to his current situation and desires.
It is easy to pick holes in that argument, but Ronaldo and his agent Jorge Mendes have not made any glaring career mistakes to this point. They used trickery as delicate as any of the player's flicks or step-over moves when dealing with the media this week by posting Ronaldo's wishes via a Brazilian Web site to not show any favoritism to a Portuguese or English media outlet.
"I would like to play for Real Madrid but only if it is true they are ready to pay what Manchester United asks of them," Ronaldo said. "However, it does not depend on me."
Yet such is the interest in Ronaldo that a few clarifying words will not make an open-ended situation go away. Questions regarding his future will come up before and after every match in which he plays at the Euros.
So why would Ronaldo put himself through this kind of hassle just before a tournament he is desperate to win? Why not just stay at Manchester United, a legendary organization and one which has helped develop his special talents to their potential?
Rumors about Ronaldo's dissatisfaction with the city of Manchester and its miserable weather have stuck like mud for more than a year. Also, a frosty relationship with the U.K. tabloid press and its several reports about his playboy lifestyle (including alleged romps with prostitutes) would be another reason for him to take off.
United is not totally blameless, either. Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the great tacticians of the modern era, may have made a foolish faux pas by hinting the Glazers would rather let Ronaldo rot in the reserve team than sell him at any price. That comment probably antagonized Ronaldo and his advisors and ultimately may have provided the final push for a player struggling to make a definitive decision.
But none of those concerns that seem to have made Ronaldo so keen to leave have had any negative impact on his game.
Indeed, this season, he has done much to dispel the flimsy theory that he was a big-game choker, producing outstanding performances in the Champions League quarterfinal away leg against Roma and again in the Champions League final victory over Chelsea despite his missed penalty in the shootout.
All of which begs the question: If Ronaldo can perform like he did this season when not fully content, what might he be capable of when all is well? And what can he possibly have left in the tank for the Euros?
"It has been a very demanding season," he said recently. "But all the work I have done has been with the knowledge that I was going to the Euro finals at the end of it, so I expect to be 100 percent.
"This has been the best season of my career, but that has not been a matter of good luck. I have worked hard to improve technically as a player and physically as an athlete. The reward for my club and my country is the goals I have scored."
The reward for Ronaldo is a probable move to the club he has always dreamed of playing for, one of the largest contracts in sports and a shot at immortality. And they are goals that are befitting the world's best – and most powerful – player.
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Manchester United
- Real Madrid