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Real Madrid’s Mixed Messages Put the Ball back in Cristiano Ronaldo’s Court | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Florentino Perez and Cristiano Ronaldo pose for a photo in November 2016, after Real Madrid extended the Portuguese forward’s contract until 2021. (Getty Images)

London – “That’s not something I am contemplating.” The phrase was repeated often but that did not make it any more true. On Monday night Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, insisted he was not even thinking about a series of scenarios that he certainly is thinking about. He has to. As he said himself: “Things happen and you look for the best solution for everyone.” What happened was that the Portuguese daily A Bola broke the story that Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave Spain; the question now is whether that solution actually involves him walking away, eight years after his arrival. And if so, who provides an escape route? Who gives him somewhere to go?

It is what he wants, the report said. Other reports followed, with none of them denied. A Bola is close to Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, and Pérez gave them a certain credence; although there was the usual proviso applied to press reports, this was no flat dismissal of baseless rumors. The headline that started it all was stark: “Ronaldo wants to abandon Spain.” Here is the thing: depending how this is managed, it may not be such a bad thing for Madrid either. Their position is a strong one, if unexpected. Managing this is not just about getting what you really want or even what can be achieved in return; it also includes the apportioning of responsibility. “Abandon” is a word Madrid would have welcomed: if it happens, he did this.

Roughly translated, two more words were also significant: “right now”. It is only June. Pérez said he has not spoken to Ronaldo yet. He said he would do so when the Confederations Cup ends. Even after that, there may be a long way to go. At the very end of the interview with Onda Cero radio when, having said that he was “not contemplating” any changes in the squad, he was talking about potential signings, Pérez noted that he liked those that get done just as the window is swinging shut, late on August 31. “Let me rest a bit,” he said. “I pick up strength in August.” That is applicable to Ronaldo too, if need be. Time, he will feel, is on his side.

But first, way before that, comes the next step: let’s hear from Ronaldo. Your move. Pérez’s appearance was, in essence, a means of returning the ball, sending it back into Ronaldo’s court. If he started the game, he has to play it. Pérez talked about finding out through the media, about how the last time he had seen Ronaldo the Portuguese had been excited about the future, and about how this was all a bit “strange”. He said he knew only what he had seen in the papers. He claimed, less conclusively and less convincingly, not to have spoken to Mendes. Now he wanted to talk to Ronaldo, he said. A way out of this mess, a way back into Madrid, was offered – if not an easy one. Time was bought too, tranquility.

The A Bola story emerged because Ronaldo’s camp wanted it to; the lingering doubt is whether it really is an exit strategy or something else. Having taken that first step, Madrid had to act. Pérez chose to express his innocence, surprise and an image of serenity. In a sense, Pérez has called Ronaldo’s bluff. It is easy enough to hide behind the media – the story can always be denied if need be. The message was clear: if that’s what you want, say so publicly. Ronaldo was being forced to play his hand. It is some game now, with Mendes and Madrid on either side of the table.

Pérez noted that Ronaldo remained under contract, said that he was “a Madrid player” and, in an interview with Marca which appeared the next day, that he would “continue to be”. He said: “The best thing for him and Madrid is for him to stay.” He also said: “Right now, Cristiano is a Real Madrid player and something very strange would have to happen for him not to be, and I am not [even] contemplating that.”

All that is true, but there’s that “right now” again and he also said: “We’ll see what happens.” As for “something very strange”, this situation was already one he had described as strange. Pérez is more than capable of denying the truth but this was still not an absolutely unequivocal “not for sale”. Pérez didn’t even raise the buy-out clause of €1bn (£882m), although he did confirm it when it was mentioned. He said: “We’ll listen to Ronaldo.” He also said there had been no offers. Which is one way of inviting them, perhaps. The door was not closed on any eventuality.

There may never be a good time to lose Ronaldo, Madrid’s outstanding player as their most historic season reached its decisive chapter, but faced by his desire to leave – if that is really what it is – there may be ways of making this work. Madrid could see it as an opportunity, even if the timing is not perfect. At 32, he is still in remarkable shape, but they were going to have to face a post-Ronaldo future at some stage. If they can command a gigantic fee, that would enable them to do so with confidence, bringing the budget to sign others. Eden Hazard and Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé are players they have actively pursued, and the strength in depth this season allows for optimism, even in Ronaldo’s absence.

If this situation can be resolved, with Ronaldo staying, then fine. If it cannot, they must make the best of it. His departure is an eventuality that must be allowed for, even if it is an uncomfortable one; it must be contemplated, even if they claim not to be contemplating it. The way it plays out matters, not just the way it ends – including how the fans respond. If he stays, that too must be managed and cannot come at any cost.

In the interview Pérez also offered up a defense of his player, who the following day was called before the judge to testify on July 31 charged with tax evasion, which he denies. The defense responded to the idea that Ronaldo has felt isolated, not protected by his club and criminalized by Spanish society. Yet if the threat of departure was designed to put pressure on the Spanish state, to encourage Madrid to intervene, or to engender sympathy from the public, it is not clear that it will work. Pérez’s defense, like the claim that he will stay, was not watertight, nor taken to extremes. Instead, the terms of any negotiation, to stay or to go, were already being hinted at.

Pérez’s defense of Ronaldo, “an honest man”, “not driven by money”, who “does a lot for others”, stopped short of Madrid taking responsibility for his tax problems and focused on his irritation with the media rather than the club. Pérez said at one point it was “nothing to do” with Madrid, and it would make no sense for the club to pay any fine. He insisted that Ronaldo “would not want that”, although that is something he reportedly does want. Some of those reports are said to come from sources close to the presidency.

Conversations with Mendes would clarify the veracity of those reports. They may already have done so. For now, Real Madrid’s president insisted, the next conversation will be with Ronaldo in 12 days’ time. We will listen, Pérez said. They will watch, too. It is Ronaldo’s move.

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