Cristiano Ronaldo primed to make debut in Middle East debut and could face Lionel Messi – how did he get here? | Football News

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Cristiano Ronaldo is primed to make his Saudi Arabia debut in an exhibition match against Paris Saint-Germain, which could pit him against Lionel Messi. How did he get to this point while his greatest competitor became world champion?

In little over 30 minutes’ drive from the Autograph Collection Hotel in Al Samriya, which housed Portugal during the World Cup, a glance over the water presented a panorama of Saudi Arabia.

It proved a useful backdrop for some of the journalists covering Fernando Santos’ team in Qatar, or more specifically, what had devolved into instalments of the Cristiano Ronaldo saga.

His actions; chiefly the self-indulgent interview given to Piers Morgan which tanked his relationship with Manchester United and ruined any chance of a top European club coming knocking ahead of the tournament, plus friction with the backroom team while in Doha that included public petulance from the forward and his family, dominated the news agenda while destabilising Portugal.

Ronaldo stunned the football world with his 90-minute interview with Piers Morgan

As Messi scaled the height of football, crowing his career with the ultimate prize in Qatar, Ronaldo has been left to revel in his price. The globe’s highest paid footballer has swelled his bank balance to enormous effect, and his business prospects – primarily with hotel and restaurant investments – is set to balloon in the Middle East, but at great cost.

Ronaldo hampered his relationship with United and their fanbase, Portugal’s chances at the World Cup, his closeness with super agent Jorge Mendes, and his legacy.

For so long, Messi and Cristiano operated on the same sphere and were difficult to separate.

The World Cup didn’t go as Ronaldo planned

Lionel Messi had a dream World Cup in Qatar

Qatar 2022 was the stage that changed that, following a series of miscalculations by the latter while the former delivered ultimate glory for Argentina and a supreme personal story arc.

By contrast, a few employees in the Portugal set-up that historically fawned over and fought every bad word against Ronaldo were already exhausted before the tournament had even kicked off.

Before the total 90-minute public relations exercise with Morgan was released, Portugal’s media team feared their actual World Cup campaign would be a sideshow on account of the drip feed of teasers that began on November 13.

They were right. Every press conference, training session, match, and moment from the point of arriving in Doha and departing centred around Ronaldo; that interview, his future, the disrupted dressing room.

Cristiano Ronaldo gestures after coming for Portugal as a second-half substitute

Bernardo Silva was the first to face the media and around 70 per cent of the quizzing was on the Portugal captain.

“The information coming from England has nothing to do with the national team,” he said in frustration. “It doesn’t affect me, it affects Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not going to comment on anything.”

On November 21, after team-mates grew increasingly tired of fielding questions about his behaviour and the press office advised it would be helpful for him to address the situation himself, Ronaldo sat at the top table at Shahaniya Sports Centre.

His presence was not communicated in advance, and unlike the other nations at the World Cup, Portugal limited entry into their base and required an emailed visit request a day prior from media. This was to try and combat what Spanish publication Marca succinctly described as the “Cristiano chaos.”

Ronaldo’s gambit was “I don’t have to worry what others think” and that included the feelings of long-time agent and friend, Mendes.

Ronaldo parted ways with his agent Jorge Mendes

The man who has shepherded his career for two decades warned against the Talk TV appearance for several reasons. “He communicated, very strongly, there was no benefit for Cristiano,” one of Mendes’ associates explained.

“There was no market and these kind of controversial steps would for sure close any big doors in Europe. Jorge spoke about the legal consequences from Manchester United, the bad feeling it would give the fans. He said it was the wrong timing for Portugal with the World Cup.”

Mendes and Ronaldo fell out and ended their relationship

Ronaldo wouldn’t hear any of it, believing he could put out his ‘truth’, perform to the highest level for Portugal in Qatar, and pull a top club in Europe.

He refused to accept reality, but that is possibly due to what happened the last time he engineered a move.

Leading into the summer of 2021, when Ronaldo was agitating for an exit from Juventus, Mendes had also attempted to open the player’s eyes to his changing landscape.

The agent’s conversations with club presidents and sporting directors would flag the same concern: Cristiano’s individual brilliance in finding the back of the net was at the expense of a team’s collective structure. Everyone would need to adapt to him rather than him simply fitting into an established unit.

Fewer clubs were willing to bend and potentially break financially and otherwise to accommodate Ronaldo. However, the jostling between Manchester City and United for his services – in addition to the understandable adoration which greeted his Old Trafford second coming – convinced the five-time Ballon d’Or winner otherwise.

He was still not just wanted, but vaunted. The problem was, and this is a topic City have addressed, Ronaldo extracted only the glow of the situation rather than the grounding of it.

Pep Guardiola had missed out on Harry Kane and wanted a “filler” – a goalscorer to tide the club over until they secured Erling Haaland.

United acted out of nostalgia to prevent Ronaldo from turning up at City, swayed by the sentiments of Sir Alex Ferguson and former players with influential platforms like Rio Ferdinand.

Mendes and the club’s most directed manager have a solid relationship owing to the way the agent behaved when his client first wanted out of Old Trafford in 2008.

Cristiano Ronaldo with Sir Alex Ferguson in his first spell at Man Utd

“At the time, [Ramon] Calderon was running for Real Madrid’s presidency and used Cristiano as a reason to vote for him, which was unseemly of him,” Ferguson told France Football in 2017.

“I took the plane to Lisbon to meet Cristiano in Carlos Queiroz’s house. I told him, ‘You are not leaving this year. I do not want to sell you to Calderon. But if you play well, you will leave later’.

“Jorge Mendes was amazing. He did not want Cristiano to leave. He felt that he was not ready. He put his financial interests aside as well as those of the player – all that money he could have won – for Cristiano’s career, including that amazing 2008-2009 season.

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Sky Sports chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol discusses whether Lionel Messi could join Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia.

“He knew that I would not go back on my promise. His concentration and work ethic were marvellous. In 2009, Florentino Perez became president of Real, which made it easier for us to work with him concerning his transfer.”

Relationships were pivotal but the crux is Ronaldo was not originally on the agenda for either City or United in the summer of 2021, nor was his signing an ideal scenario for either.

“Cristiano wanted Jorge to do the same trick, to bring the biggest clubs again, to have them fight for him,” Mendes’ associate said.

It was completely implausible. From the moment it was made public knowledge that Ronaldo wanted out of Old Trafford – after Erik ten Hag’s positive first week on the training pitches in Carrington – to extend his Champions League legacy, the rejection was thick and heavy.

Ronaldo criticised Erik ten Hag in his interview with Piers Morgan

Europe’s elite entertained talks with Mendes owing to his status in the industry rather than Ronaldo’s dwindling one. They were intrigued by the commercial expansion the great goal-getter could offer, but repeatedly circled the fundamental problem of him being a counter to progressive football.

Oliver Kahn’s “he would not fit into our philosophy” response from Bayern Munich was mirrored throughout the continent. Real Madrid would not even loosely consider a Ronaldo reunion and president Florentino Perez was caught on camera responding to a fan with: “Sign Cristiano? Again? He’s 38 years old!”

The age was wrong but the strategy from Real, clearly seen in the reconfiguration of their midfield in particular, is to create the next great team not be rooted in the past.

Napoli would join a list of clubs rejecting reports of their interest in Ronaldo, but the one which provided the biggest emotive sting was Sporting.

The player’s family had designs on the romantic narrative of returning to the place that sparked one of the greatest sporting careers. But despite Ronaldo being happy to massively reduce his wages, with United even happy to subsidise the bulk of it to get him off the books, his old employers didn’t bite.

“It was never even a topic or was on the table,” said Sporting president Frederico Varandas.

Diego Simeone has long been an admirer of Ronaldo, as a WhatsApp conversation with his assistant, German Burgos, leaked in 2018 illustrated: “Messi is very good but he is very good because he is accompanied by extraordinary players.

Diego Simeone is a big fan of Ronaldo

“But if you had to choose between Messi and Ronaldo for a normal team, who would you choose?”

Despite all the chatter that swirled in the summer, which led to Atletico Madrid supporters unfurling a ‘CR7 not welcome’ banner during a pre-season match, Simeone insists the Spaniards did not consider a move for Ronaldo.

“The rumours are far from what actually happened,” he said in October.

“People sometimes speak to tell what they want to, not what actually happens.

“Ronaldo is an absolute benchmark for Real Madrid. I would not see Palermo playing at River Plate or Riquelme or Ortega at Boca. There are situations that are very clear.”

There was one club that did give plenty of consideration to what manner Ronaldo could serve them in. Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly was seduced by the expansion the Stamford Bridge side could gain commercially, socially, and “as a brand.”

He was bowled over by the marketing deck, understood to be designed by former United employees, which was presented by Mendes during a meeting in June. There was no football merit to Boehly’s fascination with Ronaldo, which former manager Thomas Tuchel strongly pointed out.

Chelsea owner Todd Boehly wanted Ronaldo in the summer

‘Why would we make United’s problem ours?’, he is known to have declared rather than asked. It was one of the significant areas of friction between Boehly and Tuchel, which fed into the latter’s sacking.

Mendes, with a better reading of market forces than anyone, had implored Ronaldo to be patient, fall in line under Ten Hag, and show the world that he could still contribute at the top of the game in a team sense.

Clubs needed to see he could adapt, adjust, support, guide youngsters and still make decisive on-pitch contributions when required.

Ronaldo bristled at this and was not budging: he wanted to be a starter for a Champions League side. The best player in the world, the greatest ever in his eyes, should not be sitting on the bench anywhere.

Ronaldo wasn’t happy with a place on the bench

The self-belief that propelled an awkward teenager to the apex of the sport and rightly generated legendary status was now harming the curtain close of an extraordinary career.

The only offer that United received in the summer was from Saudi Arabia – a £25m bid from Al-Hilal they were willing to accept. Ronaldo rebuffed a two-year deal with a head-spinning £305m package to wait on an elite team.

During the means to an end with Morgan in November, the presenter pondered: “You want to keep playing at the highest level. You want to play Champions League football, you want to be breaking records.

“It comes back to my gut feeling about you, that if it was just about money you’d be in Saudi Arabia earning a King’s ransom. But that’s not what motivates you. You want to keep at the top.”

The response was sharp and emphatic from Ronaldo: “Exactly. Because I still believe that I can score many, many goals and help the team.”

A transfer ban took Al-Hilal out of the equation and positioned Al Nassr for a coup. Mendes was also out of the picture, with the esteemed personal manager Ricardo Regufe playing point on the transfer.

As revealed by Publico in Portugal, Ronaldo’s personal manager who has known him from early 2000s while working for Nike, brokered the £173m-a-year contract along with the player’s legal team. They also facilitated the severing of his ties with United.

At the onset of December, Ronaldo was still distancing himself from Al Nassr, saying reports he was close to joining them were “not true at all.”

Ronaldo greets fans during his official Al Nassr unveiling

But there was not much choice. After the unchecked faux pas of referring to Saudi Arabia as ‘South Africa’ at his unveiling for the club, Ronaldo stated he had “many opportunities in Europe, many clubs in Brazil, Australia, in the U.S. and even Portugal” to wade through.

Corinthians and Sporting Kansas City were the alternatives. There were no football decisions left to make, only a business call.

Rudi Garcia, the Al Nassr coach that could have been in situ at United had they not opted for Ralf Rangnick instead, joked “first I tried to take Messi” when asked about Ronaldo.

Both players will feature at the sold out King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on Thursday. Ronaldo in his capacity as captain for an all-star side made up of Al Nassr and Al Hilal players, Messi in his capacity as a world champion.

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