Such is the case with Cristiano Ronaldo -- the fleet-footed, body-swerving, step-over king who left the comfort of his spiritual home with Manchester United in England, where he reigned supreme, to become the second-best player in Spain with Real Madrid.
In 2009, when Ronaldo realized his boyhood fantasy of wearing the blanco of Los Blancos, it appeared that he’d done everything there was to do with the Red Devils. He’d spearheaded their challenge for a hat trick of Premier League titles; he’d helped them to two League Cups and one FA Cup; and, most impressively of all, he played an instrumental role in their second European Champions League triumph. Furthermore, he was appreciated by teammates, fans and critics alike. Sure, his alleged diving and perceived arrogance made him a polarizing figure to some, but you couldn’t dispute his talent. Ronaldo, whose list of individual awards during his United career deserve their own Wikipedia page, had made a good case for being the greatest player in the history of the English Premier League.
He was also the boss’s pet. Sir Alex Ferguson, not the first person you’d think of as a father figure (though when I interviewed him during a preseason tour of the USA a couple of years back he was surprisingly avuncular), had taken Ronaldo under his wing as a raw recruit out of Sporting of Portugal and turned him from a circus boy into a ringmaster. CR7 was his protégé and his biggest success, and, like Eric Cantona before him, Ronaldo enjoyed a special relationship with Sir Alex that both inspired and protected him.
But Ronaldo wanted more. Or, since there was very little more to be had, something different. Let’s call it George Best syndrome – “I’m dating Miss World, but I think I’ll give Miss Universe a call because, well, you never know.” So Ronaldo pouted and pushed, huffed and hinted, and eventually Sir Alex cut the ties that bind. So off he went, into the brave new world of the Santiago Bernebeu where he’d been preordained by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez as the jewel in the crown of Los Galacticos mark II.
And he’s taken care of business, scoring for fun while helping Real to the Copa del Rey and La Liga titles in rapid succession. Okay, this season the team is on more of a slow burn, but Ronaldo is still delivering. He’s currently the team’s top scorer, and he has a potentially key role in a realistic Champions League quest.
So why is it increasingly rumored that he’s looking back wistfully at Old Trafford? Well, here’s a theory. It seems pretty apparent that CR7 needs to be appreciated. Pele once said that only he knew when he’d had a good game whatever the fans and sycophants told him. Obviously I can’t know for sure, but I don’t believe Ronaldo feels the same. In fact he seems like a walking contradiction, as, despite his bravado, I feel his sense of worth is wrapped up in what others think of him. He needs to be loved.
The whole thing about feeling "sad" at the Bernebeu a few months back, which started the latest transfer speculation, stemmed from a perceived lack of appreciation of his talents and his worth. Financially, though fabulously wealthy by normal standards, he was reportedly only the 10th highest paid player in the world game – a blow to his ego as much as his pocket I suspect.
Then there’s the issue of his popularity inside and outside the club. Yes his performances are applauded by the Madridistas, and yes, you’ll find colleagues and local media paying lip-service to his vital contribution to the team, but there’s a sense in which he’ll never be truly top of the pops at the Bernebeu because that space is reserved for born and raised Merengues like Iker Casillas, or long-time adopted sons like Sergio Ramos, rather than recently hired help like Ronaldo.
Then there’s the Messi factor. As was reiterated last weekend when CR7’s hat trick was upstaged by Leo’s quartet, the little Argentine is just always there, inadvertently but relentlessly undermining Ronaldo’s achievements with one preternatural performance after another.
So Ronaldo’s ego takes a bashing in Spain, and that brings me to another reason why, in an unguarded moment, he might be feeling the pull of United. As a young man, where do you often turn when things aren’t going your way? To your dad. Well, Ronaldo’s dad passed when he was 20, and, for all his man-management skills (apparently players at Chelsea and Inter loved him), Jose Mourinho seems way too young and businesslike to be an arm round-the-shoulder kinda guy. For example, when Casillas was designated by the other players to request an end to the practice of sequestering the team in a hotel on the night prior to a home game, the skipper was reportedly dismissed like Oliver Twist. He asked for more and didn’t get it, suggesting the Special One just doesn’t do warm and fuzzy.
Now I’m not saying Sir Alex Ferguson is a soft touch, but, as he demonstrated in the past with Ronaldo, and later with his handling of Wayne Rooney’s want-away tantrum, he’s far more parental than Mourinho and has the tolerance to cope with high maintenance stars that only comes with maturity.
For these reasons, Old Trafford may have what Ronaldo is missing at the Bernebeu. Namely, the unconditional love of the club and its fans; top-billing in the team and the league; influence; and, of course, that special relationship with a boss prepared to indulge him in exchange for his high-octane talent.
Oh, and no more Messi.
Okay, he’s not Gary Neville, but Ronaldo is certainly an adopted son of Manchester at heart. He played his best soccer there and I get the feeling he would do so again if given the chance of making a return. He’s not the prodigal son because he hasn’t squandered his talents, but I still think he might be happier at “home”. Now if only United could afford him . . .