Cristiano Ronaldo loves Man United but it doesn't mean he's leaving Madrid
Where Cristiano Ronaldo will play his football next season is up for grabs. Whether the tax case against him will be proven or resolved is, also, a matter for conjecture. What is hard fact, however, is that Real Madrid's record goalscorer, their triple Champions League winner and first Ballon D'Or winner for football played while at the Santiago Bernabeu since Alfredo Di Stefano in 1959 is royally upset with his club and much of what surrounds it.
Significantly before the accusation that his enterprises owed the Spanish taxman €14.7 million but around the time that his goals were sealing what is arguably Real Madrid's most successful season ever, Ronaldo was bemoaning life at the Bernabeu to some of his former Manchester United teammates.
Don't get confused. This has happened intermittently during his life with Real Madrid. In fact there were times, particularly under Jose Mourinho, when United kitman Albert Morgan would receives calls on his mobile from the striker in Spain letting off steam about how much less satisfactory Madrid was, as a club, than life had been for him at Old Trafford.
Things had changed, however; Ronaldo's role as protagonist at Madrid, the quality of the football played, his relationship with Zinedine Zidane, the constant flow of personal and team trophies meant that most who knew about his niggles with Madrid's laissez-faire attitude to their stars assumed that the situation had improved. Perhaps changed forever. But former United teammates who spoke to him just as Madrid were being proclaimed champions of Spain for only the second time since 2008 and were on the verge of retaining the Champions League were left in no doubt about his feelings.
A favourite saying of Ronaldo is that Manchester United are the right club for him... just in the wrong region of the world. You guessed it: it's the weather, stupid. What he detailed is that there's almost nothing at Madrid in terms of club structure, club care for their stars or "feeling" with the fans that comes anywhere close to what he experienced at Old Trafford.
If United could somehow be relocated in the middle of a Mediterranean country, he'd join them in a jiffy. That was the tone of it.
Ronaldo felt irritated, wounded and soured by sectors of the crowd that jeered and whistled him. He bemoaned the lack of institutional support for him in private and public and without denigrating Zidane once, he yearned for the day when Sir Alex Ferguson would wade into a situation on Ronaldo's behalf, swinging metaphorical right hooks and left jabs at real and imagined foes.
The camel's back just lacked a straw as he already had the hump. Two of them, in fact.
Now you may have full, medium or zero sympathy for Ronaldo in this aspect: he's well-paid, the club has constructed one of the most successful squads in Madrid's entire history and he should perhaps realize that he had great good fortune to be a central player in an extraordinary era during which Manchester United danced to Sir Alex Ferguson's tune. It was a melody that Ronaldo adored, but it was unique: special moments in the football universe that left most of those who participated in them with a sense of loss and yearning once they passed. Not just Cristiano.
But whatever your level of sympathy, the only way to treat this story right now is to accept that at its core is the fact that Ronaldo isn't simply playing a tactical game. His burned-out patience with most of the non-football aspects at the Bernabeu is genuine. Whether it becomes a tactical game and ends up playing to his advantage is another matter.
It's also worth noting that there is context. As wonderful as Real Madrid's history may be and as exciting to watch as they are right now, they're a club in which players are "commodities." Madrid are very far from being alone in that, but it's a fact. There's a long list of "greats" whose time at the club ended in a distinctly unjust, bitter and "ungrateful" manner: starting with Di Stefano himself, the player who truly made Madrid great but who was treated pretty abominably towards the end of his football career there. Look then at Fernando Hierro, Raúl, Fernando Morientes. Or Vicente Del Bosque, Claude Makelele, Iker Casillas, Jose Antonio Camacho as coach: the list doesn't stop there either.
If (and it remains a very big "if") Ronaldo's imperious time with Madrid ends with him feeling undervalued, let down and angry, then he'll have company. I'd say they should form some sort of support group except for the fact that in many instances, grievances are forgotten and in due course, the "victims" gravitate back to the club.
For now, let's look at Ronaldo's potential strategies.
Here in Spain there's a significant body of wisdom that states Ronaldo will calm down, and that he and Jorge Mendes will figure out a way to stay at Madrid to their advantage. That's perfectly feasible but it allows no room for the issue hovering over Ronaldo's long-term future and significant irritation with his club: The tax case.
Suddenly the media in England is full of "Ronaldo wants to return to United" stories. That remains a dream-ticket item for the club's sponsors and Ed Woodward, the man who would be tasked with making it happen. But the concept isn't easy to reconcile with three things: Ronaldo's intense antipathy towards the Lancashire climate, the serious decline in relations between him and Jose Mourinho and the extent to which the brand of football United play under Mourinho creates significantly fewer chances than Ronaldo enjoys at Madrid.
If Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea or Arsenal were to have a chance of securing him, besides paying Madrid a world record fee, Ronaldo would also need to feel sure that his new club offered him both a reasonable chance of winning further Champions Leagues and Ballons d'Or. For all the other things that this behemoth footballer demands, these two things still drive him. They are central to him.
But what about Madrid? Take it as stone-cold fact that Florentino Perez will have hated learning about the player's "irrevocable decision" to leave the club via the Portuguese media. Their relationship has never been as umbilical or as firm as Florentino's with Zidane because the President signed the manager himself (when Zidane was still a Galactico in 2002) but inherited the deal for Ronaldo. (Oh, and it was a deal he initially complained was too expensive.)
The short-term tactical view, with Alvaro Morata almost out of the door, Karim Benzema never likely to be as prolific as Ronaldo and Gareth Bale still seeking to play the number of matches per season that his talents merit, is that Madrid need to appease and convince. In the short term, there's no question that they still absolutely need their superstar striker but greatness often lies in being able to see the mid-term even more clearly than the next eight or nine months and then gamble on that vision. There will be hawks (perhaps Perez among them) who will believe that a major fee for Ronaldo, the capture of Kylian Mpabbe and, say, Gianluigi Donnarumma, is good -- perhaps even sensational -- business.
Finally, a word of advice to Woodward, United's American owners, their shirt sponsors Chevrolet and Adidas who just love seeing Ronaldo in their kit when his boot sponsor is Nike: don't pool your money to pay Madrid and pay Cristiano's wages just yet. Invest instead in the kind of high-tech gizmo featured over the years by James Bond super-villains and create a sunny micro climate that covers from Hale to Old Trafford and Ronaldo will be yours once more.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.