By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Birthdays are often a time for reflection. As the years pass by, a new anniversary brings extra questions; thoughts concerning projects, plans and dreams, the next steps in life: the future. And all of that is likely to be running through the mind of Cristiano Ronaldo right now.
The Portuguese celebrates his 28th birthday on Tuesday and, although exhibiting the finest football in what has been a wonderful career, the forward is now approaching the final few years of his playing days - with his Real Madrid future far from certain.
So will he stay at the club where he is now an idol? Should he leave and make one last big move? Can Madrid afford to lose him? Can they even afford to keep him?
Cristiano's current contact expires in 2015 and changes in tax laws in Spain mean Madrid will need to fork out a fortune to retain the services of their prized possession. But with Ronaldo keen to see out his present deal, the Spanish side also risk losing their star man - for whom they paid €96 million [£80m] in 2009 - for a reduced fee in the summer of 2014. One way or the other, then, a decision must be made in the summer.
Ronaldo was upset at Madrid and made his feelings publicly known after scoring twice in the 3-0 over Granada in September. The Portuguese was unhappy at the lack of support he was receiving from senior figures at the club as he attempted to win the Ballon d'Or. He needed to feel loved.
Madrid faced Granada once more on Saturday and it was Cristiano's unfortunate own-goal (the first of his career) which separated the two teams this time.
Much, however, has changed in between those two matches. Madrid may be 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, but Ronaldo has been the one shining light in a calamitous campaign so far for Jose Mourinho's men. And he has looked especially impressive since the disappointment of missing out on the Ballon d'Or to rival Lionel Messi earlier this year. Cristiano now has 10 goals for his side in 2013 and 179 in total for the capital club - in just 178 appearances.
|KAKA COULD HOLD THE KEY
|Kaka joined Madrid in the same summer as Ronaldo, in 2009, as Florentino Perez returned to the presidency, but while the Portuguese has gone on to become a Madridista idol, the Brazilian has struggled and, having previously insisted he will stay and triumph at the Bernabeu, he must now accept his days at the club are numbered.
Kaka has been used less than any other first-team player in 2012-13 and could have moved to AC Milan in the January transfer window.
Madrid, however, are still holding out for around €18m [£15.4m] for the player, who earns the same in wages as Ronaldo and is also under contract until 2015.
If, as expected, he moves on in the summer, the money recouped plus savings made on his wages will be used to try and fund Cristiano's contract.
But will he stay?
The Portuguese earns around €10m [£8.6m] after tax on his present deal, but with his representatives keen to negotiate a new arrangement worth €15m [£12.8m] in net wages, as well as exclusive image rights, Madrid may be left out of pocket by agreeing to a new deal.
The image rights are currently split 60/40 in Ronaldo's favour and Madrid would lose that income should they agree to their player's difficult demands. More of a concern, however, will be his wages.
The problem lies in the abolition of the so-called 'Beckham Law', which allowed foreigners who had lived in Spain for less than 10 years and who earned above €120,000 [£103,000] per annum to pay a lower tax rate of around 23 per cent and not the usual 45%. David Beckham was one of the first to take advantage of the law after his move from Manchester United in 2003.
Cristiano arrived while that law was still in force and continues to benefit from the arrangement. However, the Spanish government has since scrapped the initiative and any new deal would see Ronaldo required to pay 52% of his salary to the taxman. Madrid, therefore, are faced with a difficult dilemma. Give in to their player's demands and they will be hit with an annual outlay close to €31m [£26.5m] - just to pay the Portuguese the net €15m he has asked for.
That may seem a huge hardship for the club, yet the alternative is even more unthinkable. Without Cristiano, Madrid look an ordinary team and there is simply no replacement for the Portuguese. Lionel Messi, unlike Luis Figo back in 2000, would never swap Camp Nou for the Bernabeu, while Neymar (who also celebrates a birthday on Tuesday) is far from the finished article and looks likely to join Barcelona anyway. Tottenham's Gareth Bale and Atletico's Radamel Falcao have also been named as twin targets should Ronaldo walk away, but those two would cost a combined €100m [£86m], maybe more, while the Welshman admitted recently that he would be delighted to be even half as good as the Portuguese. So he has some way to go yet.
For his part, Ronaldo has responded positively on the pitch, shown a more generous attitude towards defensive duties and recently defended Mourinho publicly. A change in body language, demeanour and a more humble approach off the pitch have seen the Portuguese's popularity peak at the Bernabeu, where he has been hailed with chants of "Cristiano, Balon de Oro" in recent games, and in the dressing room, as he has developed a closer relationship with the Spanish stars such as Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, having previously formed part of the group of foreign players.
Problems with the club have also been resolved following a conversation with president Florentino Perez and today's Ronaldo is a much happier version than September's sad and sorry soul. Madrid now believe he is willing to stay and be part of the club's future, with or without Mourinho, while they are also aware of his immense importance to their hopes of challenging both Barcelona at home and Europe's elite in the Champions League.
If Madrid can make the sums add up - not an easy ask, but one that will be facilitated by the sale of Kaka - then the chances of a new deal being agreed for Ronaldo in the summer are favourable. It's what Ronaldo, the fans, and the club are truly wishing for as the Portuguese superstar blows out his 28 candles.
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