It’s getting harder to be a romantic about world soccer with each passing day.
The sport’s competitive balance is further consolidating into a handful of ultra-clubs, bankrolled by the kind of petrostates, new money oligarchs and avaricious Americans that make you shudder once ankle-deep looking in their means.
Now you have Cristiano Ronaldo, whose return to Manchester United, where he won the Premier League three times and the Champions League once and blossomed into at worst a top-five player of all time, should be as triumphant as homecomings get.
Instead, it’s hard to feel too enthusiastic.
Let’s shear emotion for a second. Here are the facts. In 2019, Ronaldo admitted in court documents to paying Kathryn Mayorga, a woman who through her lawyers consented to be named, $375,000 in 2010 to settle allegations he sexually assaulted her in Las Vegas in 2009. The Las Vegas district attorney’s office declined to prosecute the allegations — which is not the same as clearing Ronaldo of them — because they “cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Another lawsuit from Mayorga over the settlement remains open.
Additionally, two women, one of whom later withdrew her lawsuit, accused Ronaldo and another man of raping them in London in 2005. British authorities determined there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Ronaldo and the case was dropped.
Presumption of innocence is fundamental to the justice system around the world. Ronaldo remains a free man, and for all we know, he should be. Collectively, these allegations did not meet the threshold for punishment by the legal system.
That doesn’t make them any more comfortable. Victims don’t often fabricate sexual assault. Statistics showed that around the time of Mayorga’s accusation, and they still do today. That’s if victims even report it in the first place.
It’s a heavier lift to appreciate players like Ronaldo, who can bend soccer’s abstract chaos to their will, when the underbelly is continuously exposed.
We still try, almost instinctively, because everything else about this story is exciting. The youngest of four children, Ronaldo grew up in poverty with an alcoholic father and managed to be promoted to Sporting Lisbon’s first team in his native Portugal at the age of 16. He caught the eye of legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and summarily floored United’s stars in a friendly that clandestinely doubled as an audition.
Once signed, Ronaldo inherited United’s iconic No. 7 shirt and won the first of his five Ballons d’Or as world player of the year in 2008 while becoming one of the most famous athletes in the world.
He completed blockbuster transfers in 2009 to Real Madrid and 2018 to Juventus, where he continued to collect major trophies and pad his legacy as one of the greatest players ever, but he never lost his eye for United. Ronaldo honored Ferguson upon his retirement in 2013. He’s publicly laughed off notions of playing for United’s arch rival Manchester City — even if he might’ve been more open to it this summer.
Now he’s returning, where he’ll pair with international teammate Bruno Fernandes, who made the PFA Premier League Team of the Year last season, and former Real Madrid teammate Raphaël Varane, who signed with the Red Devils earlier this month, as well as splashy summer signing Jadon Sancho. It’s not an altogether perfect fit, but it’s going to be compelling to watch, and these homecomings in sports are few and far between.
None of that jars the broader picture. His undisputed greatness aside, it’s already not the easiest thing for a neutral to root for Ronaldo, who’s unabashed in telling his teammates how he really feels, coldly corporate on his social media channels, and the possessor of a goal celebration that’s look-at-me even by goal celebration standards. Add in the legal ugliness, and it’s even more of a chore.
A move to City would’ve made an entire fan base uneasy. A move to Paris Saint-Germain, where Lionel Messi already is and Kylian Mbappé might soon not be, would’ve been endlessly fascinating and also further accelerated soccer’s discompassionate centralization of power.
This move to Manchester United at least offers a familiar environ in which the 36-year-old can end his brilliant European career.
That’s really all it offers. Too much has happened since he left to consider much more.