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Cristiano Ronaldo is leaving Real Madrid.
That stunning statement, after years-long charades of speculation that invariably proved unfounded, became official Tuesday. Real Madrid confirmed that Ronaldo, a top-two player on the planet, will complete a lucrative transfer to Juventus.
The Italian club later confirmed its capture of the Portuguese megastar, specifying a transfer fee of $117.5 million and additional payments of $14.1 million to Ronaldo’s previous clubs.
Juve president Andrea Agnelli had traveled to Greece, where Ronaldo is vacationing, to finalize the four-year deal on Tuesday. The transfer fee puts Ronaldo among the 10 most expensive transfers ever for the second time. An exorbitant salary will bring him closer to, if not beyond, the wages of Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Along with its confirmation, Real Madrid published a goodbye letter from Ronaldo. “I have only feeling of enormous gratitude for this club,” the 33-year-old said. “However, I believe that the time has come to open a new stage in my life, and therefore I have asked the club to accept transferring me.”
Ronaldo departs Madrid on the back of a historic third consecutive Champions League title. He scored an astounding 450 goals and claimed 15 total trophies over nine seasons. He won four Ballon d’Or awards as the best player on the planet.
But there are reasons his glittering tenure came to such an abrupt end.
Why would Real Madrid sell Ronaldo?
For Real Madrid, the breakup marks the commencement of a necessary rebuilding process.
Though the 2017-18 team ascended to the top of Europe once again, fissures had begun to appear. More than half of the threepeat’s core is now over 30. Los Blancos finished 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and benefited from plenty of good fortune in the Champions League knockout stages.
With manager Zinedine Zidane stepping down and former Spanish national team coach Julen Lopetegui replacing him, this summer was the natural starting point. It was time for a refresh before the fissures became full-on cracks.
[Bushnell: Winners and losers of Ronaldo’s move to Juve]
That’s not to say Ronaldo couldn’t have been a part of the rebuild. At 33, he is still near the height of his powers. But according to reports, if he was going to be a part of it, he wanted another new contract and pay raise that would ensure he was a focal point. Real Madrid was unwilling to make those guarantees to a 33-year-old, and instead decided to part ways.
Why did Ronaldo want to leave Real Madrid?
Ronaldo had three years remaining on his Real contract. But it was reportedly a contract that paled in comparison to those of Messi and Neymar. Ronaldo seemingly wanted more money – either for the money itself, or as symbolic recognition of his worth, or as a sign of long-term commitment from the club, or some combination of the three.
There will be speculation that Ronaldo was in search of a new challenge. Or, as he wrote in his letter, that he felt it was time for a new stage in his life. Or even that he was bored, having won four European titles in five years. And there might be some merit to that.
But the principal factor at play here seems to be Ronaldo’s role at Real Madrid. A move now preempts the previously plausible scenario where Ronaldo fell out of favor with a manager (Lopetegui) who might preferred not to build around an aging striker. Lopetegui’s possession-based system, curated over years with Spain youth teams and the senior team, is unlike any Ronaldo has ever starred in. The two likely could have jelled. But there were no guarantees, especially if and when Ronaldo begins to decline.
This isn’t about Lopetegui, though. Immediately after the Champions League final, Ronaldo was already speaking as if his time in Madrid had come to an end. “It has been very nice being at Real Madrid,” he said then.
Ronaldo seemingly wanted assurances that he was at the center of Real Madrid’s plans for years to come. If he wasn’t, he’d find a club who could A) grant those assurances, and B) afford to pay him Neymar money. Juventus was either one of a few clubs who fit both criteria or the only one that did.
How can Juventus afford Ronaldo?
Based on reported figures, Ronaldo’s Juve deal will give the club’s current wage bill an approximately 40 percent spike. He’ll blow up its salary structure. Serie A, for various reasons, is the poorest of Europe’s top four leagues, and Juventus the poorest of the big five league champions. That’s why it had rarely been mentioned as a possible Ronaldo suitor.
But Juve can do two things to bring Ronaldo aboard and still meet Financial Fair Play requirements. First, it can sell players to make room. Striker Gonzalo Higuain – for whom Juventus paid around $100 million two summers ago – is the most likely to be offloaded. Gianluigi Buffon has already left. Others will have to go as well.
Second, however, is Ronaldo’s impact on Juventus’ revenue. Under FFP, its spending capabilities are a function of revenue. Ronaldo’s presence will make the club immeasurably more marketable. Mere rumors of Ronaldo’s transfer caused Juventus’ stock price to soar. There are reports that Fiat, the Italian automobile manufacturing company, will come aboard as a Ronaldo-specific sponsor to fund the deal. Ronaldo, in general, will make Juventus far more attractive to potential commercial partners.
How does Ronaldo fit at Juventus?
Ronaldo will presumably slot in for Higuain as a central striker, with Paulo Dybala behind him. He’ll be a more extreme version of what he had become at Real Madrid, a dynamic poacher whose primary and secondary responsibilities are both to score goals.
Juve eked out a seventh consecutive Serie A title last season by adopting an embarrassingly conservative approach against fellow top teams. The idea, presumably, is that Ronaldo can win those games on his own, capitalizing on the one or two chances he gets to keep Juve as the king of Italy.
But Serie A will not be a challenge for him. Its bottom rungs are significantly inferior to their equivalents in La Liga or the Premier League. The minnows are already overmatched. Ronaldo should dominate them. And nobody will care if he does.
His success at Juventus will be almost exclusively defined by the Champions League. Ronaldo has won it five times, scoring a record 10 goals against Juventus alone in the process. Juve hasn’t won it since 1996. For Ronaldo, conquering Europe with the Bianconeri would be a more impressive feat than any of his Madrid titles. But it’ll also be more difficult.
Where does Real Madrid go from here?
Real Madrid is synonymous with megastars. With one leaving, fans will demand an analogous arrival. And Real president Florentino Perez will surely pursue one.
Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, already the two most expensive players ever, will be his top targets. Neymar is a more realistic one. Either would cost Madrid a fortune. But with the Ronaldo fee, with his salary off its books, and possibly other sales – Karim Benzema? Gareth Bale? – to come, Madrid can probably spend a fortune. The difficulty will be negotiating with PSG.
Another top target could be Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
Real can also use the Ronaldo sale to kickstart a more thorough renovation of the squad. Lopetegui can buy more mid-20s stars who fit his style. With such a strong core, Spain’s most powerful club has been unusually quiet in recent transfer windows. Expect that to change this summer.
What is Ronaldo’s Real Madrid legacy?
Ronaldo came of age at Sporting in Portugal and developed into one of the world’s best at Manchester United. At Real Madrid, he grew into one of the sport’s all-time greats.
He did not transform a club like other legends have. He did not even make Madrid into the dominant club of his era. He won La Liga just twice in nine years. Over those nine seasons, Real’s 15 trophies were overshadowed by archrival Barcelona’s 24.
But Ronaldo highlighted yet another successful era at soccer’s most successful club. He was the face of its European dominance, even if far from the sole protagonist.
And his individual exploits were mind-boggling. Ronaldo evolved as a player in Spain. He arrived as a flashy winger. He left as a lethal center forward. Throughout his evolution, he never missed a beat. His goal-per-game record above 1 is evidence. Because of his time at Real Madrid, he’ll be remembered as one of the best to ever grace the sport.
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