Ronaldo, Donnarumma don't have "player power" as clubs still in charge
This may be remembered as the summer of player power.
Cristiano Ronaldo, speaking via his minions, says he has made an "irrevocable" decision to leave Spain and Real Madrid. Gianluigi Donnarumma, who only became old enough to legally buy alcohol in Europe last February, turns down a contract extension that would have made him one of the highest-paid goalkeepers in the world. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil sit tight as their contracts tick down towards free agency at Arsenal. Marco Verratti's people tell Paris Saint-Germain that the midfielder wants to leave and it's not about money, but about "prestige."
Cue talk about lack of loyalty. Cue the biblical pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth. Cue agents as bogeymen. As ever, it's a little more complex than that and every case is somewhat different.
Most of us get the basic objections that agents and players would raise: careers are short and so they need to maximize earnings and opportunities. It's a two-way street: clubs are extremely eager to force out unwanted footballers and few bat an eyelid. But there are two obvious points to remember, right off the bat.
Loyalty means one thing to supporters and something entirely different to players. When it comes to love, a fan's love is like that you might have for your child (or your mom). It's unconditional, it's constant and it endures even when they drive you up the wall or when you have a blazing row.
The best you can hope for from a player -- and there are a few exceptions, guys who have put their money where their mouth is, taking less money or even pay cuts to play for the team they love -- is serial monogamy. We're talking folks who are fully passionate and intense in their relationships until they break up and become fully passionate and intense with their new significant other. In other words, complete and total commitment along with genuine love for the club, but only as long as they're there. When they sign with someone else, it all starts over again.
(There's obviously another category of players, guys who are -- depending on your point of view -- mercenaries or simply professionals. They do what they're supposed to do when they're around but have no problem moving on when something better arises.)
The other point in all this is that the narrative is, mostly, controlled by clubs, not players. Clubs stick around and exert, to some degree, control over the media (the bigger they are and the greater the proximity, the more control). Players either move on or eventually grow old and retire. Even a massive global brand like Ronaldo pales by comparison when juxtaposed against that even greater juggernaut, Real Madrid.
Taking the cases in reverse order, you realize they're all somewhat different.
Verratti has (or, at least, is led to believe he has) a chance of joining Barcelona. He's 24 years old, has spent five seasons at PSG and has served his time. Would he feel differently if he had total confidence in Unai Emery and if the Parisians appeared to be on the verge of ascending to the highest level of European football? Maybe. But that's not the reality of the situation. The reality is that he has served the club well; if he goes, it will be for four or five times what PSG paid for him, which is frankly a rarity among guys who leave that club.
Ozil and Sanchez are a season away from free agency, which means their transfer value is depressed. You can blame them for that if you like but it's worth bearing in mind that Arsenal are also pretty aggressive with their wage structure and part of the reason they did not extend their deals was, again, uncertainty. Arsene Wenger did leave it rather late to re-commit.
Still, their situations are different. Sanchez has plenty of suitors, especially at a cut-rate price. Ozil, not so much. But if they do reach free agency, the world will be their oyster. Both are 28, which means their next contract will likely be the last significant one they sign. There's absolutely no reason for them to hurry to the negotiations table and put pen to paper. That's not being selfish; it's being smart.
Donnarumma strikes a chord because he's so young, joined Milan as a 14-year-old and famously kissed the badge. And, let's face it, because Mino Raiola is his agent. Yes, he turned down a lucrative contract extension, one that would have ensured that if Milan do sell him down the road, they'll get a nice pay day. But it comes at a cost (Donnarumma will continue to earn a relative pittance) and a risk (like any footballer, he could suffer a career-ending injury at any time).
Still, he's gotten death threats from a fan base who feel betrayed. The fact of the matter is that he's in this position because he didn't extend his contract sooner. He became Milan's first-choice goalkeeper back in October 2015 and continued to earn fourth-choice keeper wages ($170,000 a season) until now.
Part of the reason Milan didn't lock him up was uncertainty over the ownership -- Silvio Berlusconi spent the best part of the past two years negotiating a sale, first to one group and then to another -- but that's an explanation, not an excuse. Smart stewardship, even as you're selling your company, means locking up your assets. They didn't do that and it left new sporting director Max Mirabelli in a very weak negotiating position.
Raiola has cited question marks over Milan's ownership -- Chinese entrepreneur Li Yonghong borrowed more than $350 million from Elliott Management, a Wall Street hedge fund with a history of uncompromising tactics to buy the club and it's a legitimate concern. If Donnarumma signs and, two years from now, Elliott are in charge and want to do some asset-stripping, vulture fund-style, it will be no good for his career.
My guess is that unless one of the truly big boys makes a move, Donnarumma will end up extending his deal, possibly with a reasonable release clause or a portion of the sell-on if he does move on -- a bit like the Paul Pogba to Manchester United deal, which Raiola also negotiated. But right now, it's all up in the air.
Which brings us to Ronaldo. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the backstory and let's get one thing out of the way first. Leaving Spain won't make him safe from the Spanish tax man if found guilty, unless he decides to go on the run or go play for Pyongyang City. There are extradition protocols and he has assets than can be frozen.
Is he engineering this out of greed or self-interest, the negative qualities most often associated with "player power?" It's tough to tell. It's hard to see him doing any better financially or in terms of global branding anywhere else -- not if whoever buys him has to also fork out a transfer fee. It won't be the ridiculous $250m some have cited but with three years left on his contract, it will be close to a world record.
No: he seems genuinely annoyed at the perceived lack of support he's getting in his tax case. Whether Real Madrid could have done more or not is hard to say. Florentino Perez is a powerful man but Spain is neither a feudal society nor a banana republic. Wealthy corporate interests don't usually get to order judges around.
So what's going on here? Diva behaviour? Or, as some are speculating, maybe a double bluff?
Florentino figures that as dominant as Cristiano was in big games, he won't be at this level for the next three years (he turns 33 this coming season) and they're paying him more than $40m a year. So maybe cashing in now isn't a bad idea... except he can't be seen to be the one forcing Cristiano out. Therefore, he works out this charade with Jorge Mendes, his agent. Who, of course, doesn't want to make it appear as if his client is being sold for footballing reasons. And in terms of preserving the Cristiano brand, maybe a new market (like PSG) isn't a bad option. Certainly better than the risk of a benching or lackluster end at the Bernabeu.
There's no basis to the above conspiracy theory other than speculation. But that's what you get in these situations when things don't add up.
Whatever else Ronaldo's case may be, it's not player power. In fact, a closer look at these cases above suggests the power still lies with the clubs (and, to some degree, with the agents, most of whom rely on clubs for commissions as often as they rely on players.)
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.