In April, Real Madrid were clinging to a 1-0 lead against Juventus in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie. After an initial save from Gigi Buffon led to a penalty-box scramble, a seemingly mishit cross from Madrid fullback Dani Carvajal fluttered away from goal and toward the penalty spot. The play seemed dead, until Cristiano Ronaldo reminded everyone in the stadium that he’s still the one who decides which way the momentum is going:
Suddenly faced with a 2-0 deficit at home, the Juventus fans didn’t know what else to do, so they just started clapping. There’s no tactic to account for that. There is no technique you can teach to your kids. It’s the kind of moment Ronaldo’s been producing for more than a decade now: one that doesn’t just exist outside the patterns of the game, but that breaks the whole thing in half.
Three months and a reported €100 million later, those fans will have the opportunity to applaud him every other weekend and on some Tuesdays and Wednesdays, too. It’s going to take a while before this stops feeling weird to say, but: Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Juventus now.
Basic team-building philosophy suggests that clubs should buy players right before they hit their prime, which is typically within the 24-to-29 age range. It also allows an opportunity to sell the player right before they decline, or agree to a new contract that takes their age into account. It’s an obvious rule of thumb, but one that gets ignored by the majority of clubs.
Juventus, however, have become something like the Spurs or Patriots of the transfer market—exploiting inefficiencies in a world bloated with so much money that there’s rarely any room for nuance. While they’re only the 10th-richest club in the world, per Deloitte’s Money League, they’ve won seven Serie A titles in a row and have played in two of the past four Champions League finals. Their success is rooted in deals for players who were out of contract and didn’t require a transfer fee, undervalued players who were no longer wanted by slightly bigger clubs, or the best players from the other teams in Serie A. On Tuesday, they shattered the transfer record for a 33-year-old. The previous high mark was the £15.3 million Manchester City spent on keeper Claudio Bravo.
Of course, Ronaldo isn’t just any 33-year-old. He’s perhaps the best 33-year-old soccer player we’ve ever seen. He’s averaged at least one goal and assist per 90 minutes in eight of the past nine domestic seasons. The only player with a stronger track record is Lionel Messi. Ronaldo’s production has dropped off from his peak, but how could it not? The guy scored 48 goals and added 16 assists in La Liga 2014-15. After some early-season concerns over his inability to find the back of the net, Ronaldo regressed to the mean as soon as the calendar flipped to 2018. In terms of expected-goals-plus-assists per 90 minutes, he trailed only Neymar and Messi last year. Over the years his role on the field has changed. He’s gone from marauding winger to paradigm-shattering hybrid attacker to the best pure striker on the planet. But he’s still one of the two best attackers alive. Ronaldo scored 26 goals in La Liga last season; no Juventus player has done that in Serie A in at least 20 years.
The importance of signing the most popular athlete on the planet extends way beyond those goals. Ronaldo has essentially spent the past decade making the human-beings-are-corporations-too argument. He has sponsorship deals with pretty much everything, from a Japanese electronic muscle manipulator to an Egyptian steel company. Per a source who represents multiple European players, Juventus’s market cap has gone up €200 million in the past week—just based on the potential of Ronaldo coming to the club. The source also told me that if Juventus can successfully convert Ronaldo’s image into more revenue, the club could surpass Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea—three clubs ahead of it in the Deloitte rankings. Ronaldo’s going to make this team better right now, and he’s also going to make them richer right now and in the future. A well-run Juventus with even more money should be a scary thought for the rest of Europe.
As for Real Madrid, well, we knew this was going to happen eventually. The biggest surprise is how smoothly it seems to have gone down. Rumors of a transfer—to Juve, PSG, or Manchester United—bubbled up a week or two ago, and now here we are. While the deal is a boon for Juve, it’s also a success from Madrid’s perspective. Getting £88.3 million for a 33-year-old is good business, no matter who he is. Replacing Ronaldo’s production won’t be easy, though. He took 6.95 shots per 90 minutes in La Liga last season. Next highest of the team’s regulars was Gareth Bale at 3.69, but he wasn’t a consistent starter. And, like Ronaldo, he made noises about leaving immediately after the Champions League victory over Liverpool.
Despite winning an eye-watering three Champions League titles in a row, Real Madrid have been eerily quiet in the transfer market over the past three years. They haven’t bought any player for more than £45 million since James Rodríguez came over for approximately £70 million after the 2014 World Cup. That won’t continue! Zinedine Zidane is gone, replaced by disgraced ex-Spain manager Julen Lopetegui, and the second-richest club in the world now has an extra £88.3 million burning a hole in their pockets and a massive need atop their attack.
The smokiest rumor so far seems to be surrounding Chelsea and Belgium star Eden Hazard. But Hazard’s most valuable skill is his ability to progress the ball up the field like a running back; he hasn’t scored more than 16 goals in a season for Chelsea, and he took just 2.63 shots per 90 last season. The other rumored candidates are Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, but is PSG really going to part with either one of their shiny new superstars just one summer after buying them? The only way either of those moves will happen is if the club feels like its in serious danger of receiving rough sanctions from UEFA for violating Financial Fair Play. (And it just might be!)
To me, the most obvious options for Ronaldo replacements are Harry Kane (only Messi and Ronaldo took more shots per 90 in all of Europe) and Mohamed Salah (massive global marketing potential, plus he scored six more goals and registered five more assists than Ronaldo in domestic play last season).
Whatever happens, though, the ripple effects across Europe should extend right up until the end of the summer transfer window, if not beyond it. Juventus likely will sell one of their star attackers—Gonzalo Higuaín or Paulo Dybala—to make up for the Ronaldo move. And then whoever Real poach a star from will have a sudden influx of cash and a blank space on their roster. That team will take someone else’s star, and the money will keep on moving.
The World Cup isn’t over yet, but what now promises to be a wild transfer window is just getting started. And if you think the timing of this is just a coincidence—hours before the World Cup semifinals begin—then you don’t know Ronaldo, or Real Madrid.