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The Cristiano Ronaldo Questions

Could Real Madrid sell their best player on the heels of a second Champions League title in a row? Could he go back to Manchester? And could anyone else in the world afford him?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

This … might actually happen. Normally, “unhappy superstar wishes to leave perfect situation” stories pop up in places like the Daily Mail or something called “Tribal Football,” but according to ESPN FC, the BBC, and the Press Association, Cristiano Ronaldo wants out of Real Madrid. After Spanish prosecutors accused him of using a shell company in the Virgin Islands to avoid paying upward of £12.9 million in taxes, the Portuguese star “feels great indignation” — great enough indignation to pull the cord on his time in the Spanish capital. Even Real Madrid president Florentino Perez failed to dismiss the rumors, instead saying, “This is all very strange.”

Indeed it is. So, what would a Ronaldo transfer even look like? And where could he even go? Let’s take a look.

Where Could He Go?

According to his agent, Jorge Mendes, Ronaldo’s release clause with Real Madrid is literally €1 billion. (Lionel Messi’s is believed to be about a third of that.) So if you can raise that much money in a couple of weeks, he’s yours — as long as you’re also able to agree on personal terms. With Ronaldo reportedly hoping to receive a weekly salary of around £400,000, those two conditions rule out nearly every club in the world.

Realistically, though, if Ronaldo leaves, it won’t be because someone triggers his release clause; it’ll be because Real Madrid have decided that there’s no way to persuade Ronaldo to stay and therefore it’s time to cash in. Multiple reports suggest that they’re already lining up Monaco’s 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé as his heir apparent. Depending on how much Ronaldo goes for — likely something around £131 million — the club could conceivably sell one player for the world-record transfer fee and then break that record on the guy that replaces him.

According to the BBC, there are six clubs in Europe that could afford Ronaldo’s sticker price without violating the Financial Fair Play rules: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and Juventus.

Then there’s China. According to Mendes, an unnamed Chinese club offered €300 million to sign Ronaldo last winter. Considering that China-based players Carlos Tevez and Oscar actually make more salary money than Ronaldo, an offer that big is more believable than a compromised source like Mendes might suggest. Still, if Ronaldo left Real Madrid for the Chinese league, it’d call into question everything we know about him — his single-minded devotion to being considered the best player of all time — and the global hierarchy of the game. Were this to happen, there’s no real analog in American sports; it’d be like if Tom Brady left the New England Patriots to go play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Where *Should* He Go?

The thing about being the richest club in the world is that you can do everything wrong and it’ll still all work out.

After years of stagnation under the unambitious duo of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho appeared to finally get Manchester United back on track this past season. Although they finished in sixth, they sneaked into the Champions League through the back door of the Europa League, and their underlying numbers were among the best in the league. Still, they built their attack around the seemingly-alien-but-still-35-year-old legs of Zlatan Ibrahimović. After some early-season finishing struggles, it basically worked — until Zlatan tore up his knee in April.

Now, if only there were a better, younger, indestructible version of Zlatan who’s already a club legend …

If Mourinho wants to run back the same style as last season — defense-first players throughout most of the starting XI, aided by two or three superstar attackers who can produce on their own — Ronaldo slots right in and makes the team even better. He gets a hero’s welcome and immediately becomes the centerpiece of an attack that relies on him to put the ball into the back of the net. There’s no Álvaro Morata to steal the glory.

Plus, while United vice chairman Ed Woodward has spent the past four years throwing money at the best players in the world, missing, and hitting guys like Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini instead, signing Ronaldo — the best player on the best team in the world — would mark the second summer in a row, after Paul Pogba’s arrival last August, that he’s signed the top player on the market.

There are plenty of LeBron-to-Cleveland vibes here, too — only if the Cavs were, say, the Lakers. Winning the Champions League with United, leaving, winning three more with Real Madrid, and then coming back to United and winning another? That would give Ronaldo’s career an unimpeachable diversity and symmetry of success — the one thing Messi still doesn’t have.

Where Do We Want Him to Go?

Why not link up with Mendes and his buddies at Wolverhampton? Ever since Mick McCarthy was fired in 2012, the club’s been searching for an equally iconic pair of calves. Plus, if you listen to Derby County’s Bradley Johnson, England’s second division is more difficult than its first.

OK, fine. Here’s an even more unrealistic destination: Manchester City. This would crush United and ruin Ronaldo’s reputation among the club. It’d also give us one of the most interesting pairings in the history of the sport: Ronaldo and Pep Guardiola. The game’s ultimate me-first star links up with its preeminent me-first manager. While Guardiola requires his players to be contributing to the team’s system at every moment — when you don’t have the ball but your team does, your positioning should be unsettling the defense; when your team doesn’t have the ball, you should be pressing to win it back — Ronaldo’s every step, at this stage of his career, is one that gets him closer to scoring a goal. Neither player nor manager has been one to compromise — Ronaldo has never liked playing with Gareth Bale; Guardiola refused to figure out how to incorporate Zlatan at Barça — but in this case, they’d have to figure something out.

If philosophical chaos isn’t your thing, then a return to Sporting Lisbon would be the best move from a fairy-tale-fulfillment perspective. Sporting have already tried to slide into his DMs:

This would require a massive pay cut from Ronaldo, in addition to Madrid selling him for way-below-market price, but it’d be a fascinating experiment in the value of an individual superstar. In the club game, we never get to see someone as good and as productive as Ronaldo on a midtier team. The best players always play with the other best players. So what happens when you put him on Sporting? They walk the Portuguese league, but how good are they in continental play? Does Ronaldo make them a top-eight team in Europe? Could they make a run to the Champions League final? Or would his effect be much smaller since there are, you know, 11 players on the field and one guy, no matter how talented, can make only such an impact when you’re outmatched everywhere else on the field?

And Where Will He Go?

Nowhere.

Occam’s razor says no transfer will ever happen: There are so many moving pieces in each deal — the player has to agree to personal terms, then the teams have to agree to terms, then there are the agent fees, plus the other transfers a team wants to make and the guys they have to sell in order to fund the move — that each individual transfer is more likely to not happen than it is to reach completion.

Here’s the Independent’s Miguel Delaney on why Real, ultimately, won’t want to sell and why Ronaldo, ultimately, won’t want to leave:

For United, signing Ronaldo would require the club to rip down their summer 2017 vision board and replace it with a goofy-looking bronze bust. Of course, if you finish in sixth place in the Premier League and have the chance to sign one of the four or five best players of all time, you do it. But from a logistical standpoint, “doing it” is more difficult than sticking to the plan.

Every summer we hear about superstars who are fed up with their current club. Back in 2013, Luis Suárez went to the press to beg Liverpool to “honour our agreement” and sell him to Arsenal. They didn’t, and he got over it, stayed at Anfield for another year, and put together one of the greatest individual seasons in Premier League history. Three years before that, Wayne Rooney wanted to force through a move to Manchester City that the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor said would be “the most rancorous and staggering transfer of modern times.” That same description would apply to Ronaldo’s departure from Madrid, but when the idea of something is so “rancorous and staggering,” it’s more likely that it’ll never come to be. Seven years later, Rooney still hasn’t left.