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NUTRITION, fitness, ego and Instagram have turned Cristiano Ronaldo into Marlon Brando.
In 1977, the late actor had every reason to stay on the set of the first "Superman" movie, but little incentive to actually turn up and shoot his scenes. The late actor was paid US$3.7 million for 12 days of work. His deal also stipulated that every additional day on set would earn him another million dollars.
He was paid to show up. He was paid more if he couldn’t show up. So Brando found his happy place between the two, forever promising glimpses of his inherent greatness, whilst pondering further riches elsewhere.
Brando in 1977 is now Ronaldo in 2022, a star overcompensating for his fading light by selling former glories to the highest bidder, as if it were possible to compress the peerless back catalogue and flog it in one, brief greatest-hits package.
But it isn’t and the Ronaldo melodrama is turning a tad grim. Like Brando’s seminal character in "On the Waterfront", Ronaldo is no longer a contender, but he’s not a bum either. Quite the opposite in fact, which makes his latest career turn all the more bewildering.
Emotionally, Ronaldo today isn’t Brando then, a disillusioned mercenary for hire, eager to shoot down his own profession at every opportunity.
Nutrition and fitness can still feed the striker’s ego, which sells the Instagram posts and satisfies the will of the eternally driven individual. Ronaldo always wants more. And Ronaldo usually gets more, thanks to the advances in sports science that keep the bronzed icon functioning.
Indeed, Ronaldo has morphed into a sci-fi creation, plugged into muscle-shredding machines and lines of multi-coloured juices as an army of stunned acolytes in lab coats shout, “he’s alive” at opportune moments (usually during the transfer window.)
Brando reached a career crossroads by succumbing to every temptation, craving and desire. Ronaldo has reached the same point by rejecting them all, which only adds to the ongoing tragicomedy.
The royal court can no longer indulge a king who won’t relinquish his crown. At Manchester United, Ronaldo’s power is increasingly symbolic and hereditary, passed down from a previous generation – his own – to his current 37-year-old self. He still rules only because he once ruled in history. His courtiers are ready to move on.
Of course, they won’t say as much publicly. He’s still Ronaldo after all. Manager Erik ten Hag has insisted this week that there is a place for the Portuguese forward, speaking with as much conviction as an American Patriot claiming there’d still be a place for the British monarchy after the Revolution.
But there cannot be. United must evolve and move away from a footballer who continues to be a drawback of his own making. Last season, Ronaldo’s 24 goals were the highest individual tally since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, but the club scored fewer goals in the English Premier League.
With him, they managed 57 goals. Without him, they scored 73, 66, 65 and 68 times in the previous four seasons. Ronaldo’s glare remains so bright, he overwhelms those around him.
Sharing both a country and a club, Bruno Fernandes must be the most loyal of courtiers, empathising with his team-mate’s predicament without uttering a word of criticism, but his form disintegrated last season. To borrow from the Brando comparison, Ronaldo’s luminous presence was kryptonite for too many brittle colleagues.
In his absence, several have flourished. Pre-season jaunts to Asia cannot be overanalysed, but three wins out of three saw 11 goals scored, with Anthony Martial finding the target in each fixture from a central position. Ronaldo’s position.
Clearly, his future lies elsewhere and this is the depressing bit. The only clubs capable of satisfying the striker’s wage demands are those who seek to harness his soft power value on Instagram, rather than his falling stock on a pitch.
Bayern Munich, Barcelona and even Real Madrid have either signed forwards or directly ruled out any bids for a 37-year-old, which leaves only those who are willing to invest heavily to give their reputations a light wash through the endless spin cycles of social media.
A Saudi Arabian club has reportedly had an obscene contract offer rejected. Others will presumably follow as they seek to reach the 469 million followers that allow Ronaldo to charge US$2 million per Instagram post. The funnel-like distribution of global funds in the game means a single, cringe-worthy Shopee commercial with Ronaldo will always cost more than funding a Singapore Premier League team for a season.
It's unpalatable. But it's Ronaldo's reality.
Ironically, his admirable, age-defying shot at omnipresence in the biggest leagues only further diminishes his relevance at elite level, reducing him to a social media influencer being fought over like a trendy antique at an exclusive auction.
(Ronaldo's) admirable, age-defying shot at omnipresence in the biggest leagues only further diminishes his relevance at elite level, reducing him to a social media influencer being fought over like a trendy antique at an exclusive auction.
Retirement would settle the matter, but such a decision would contradict the instincts that have created Ronaldo’s current dilemma. He doesn’t acknowledge the boundaries that rein in lesser talents. He’ll just keep going, complicating a problem that has no solution.
He has earned the right to continue his distant pursuit of a sixth Champions League trophy. Ten Hag is right to rebuild without him. And rival clubs are right not to compromise the fast-pressing tactics of the day to accommodate a half-paced legend physically incapable of adapting his play to the collective cause.
And yet, the current stalemate still feels wrong, as if the sport is now incapable of giving its biggest names an appropriate, dignified send-off.
Instead, the interminable saga drags on, as we watch Ronaldo chase money he doesn’t need, in search of a club that doesn’t want him.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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