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Method behind Ronaldo's misery

When they say that in football you should never go back, it usually means it is a bad idea to return to an old club and try to relive former glories. There is nothing in the old cliche about it being a mistake to revisit your old city though, as Real Madrid attacker Cristiano Ronaldo appears to be at least considering at the moment.

Last Friday, Spanish paper AS revealed that the player's "sadness", first announced in early September, had not yet gone away, and then on Saturday followed up by suggesting he was more likely to leave for Paris St Germain, Manchester City or Manchester United next summer than sign a new contract with Madrid. All three of these clubs were apparently more than happy to put a smile back on the Portuguese attacker's face, and the chances of a deal happening were growing by the week.

Ronaldo had, apparently, a few new reasons for still feeling low. Firstly, Madrid had not officially criticised Levante's David Navarro for the elbow which opened his eyebrow in the previous weekend's La Liga game, an assault which left him suffering vision problems and dizzy spells and unable to play in Portugal's midweek friendly in Gabon. Secondly, he had again lost out to Lionel Messi for an individual award, this time the LFP's player of the year 2011-12 trophy - further evidence, AS reckoned, that Barcelona's directors lobby harder for their players to win.

While this last reason ignored the fact that the LFP award is voted for by the players themselves, and the idea of United spending a fortune to bring him back to Old Trafford seems far-fetched, such stories tend not to appear in the Madrid media out of nowhere. We cannot know for sure who was leaking exactly what to whom, but it was unlikely a coincidence that these stories - and the player's original interview with reporters in the Bernabeu mixed-zone after he had declined to celebrate a goal during a routine 3-0 win against Granada - appeared just as preliminary contract renewal talks began behind the scenes.

Such speculation is of course catnip to the Spanish sports papers, who can spin a vague rumour or off the record briefing into a few days of exclusives and cover stories, but this one did seem plausible. It would be no surprise if Ronaldo feels he deserves a pay-rise after his performances helped wrest the La Liga title back from Barcelona last season. He is still on the same deal signed when moving from United in 2009, while Messi has since significantly improved his terms. Around the time Ronaldo announced his sadness, Barca president Sandro Rosell spoke publicly about a further pay-bump for his star player. Madrid counterpart Florentino Perez has stayed quiet on the idea, however, for a number of reasons.

Ronaldo's current deal earns him €10.5 million a year (net) and runs until 30 June 2015. The word around Madrid is that he would like another €5m a year, to bring him back above Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney in the wages hierarchy. Changes in income tax rates introduced recently by the cash-strapped Spanish government mean this would cost Madrid about €30m per annum in total. Ronaldo turns 28 next February, so agreeing to these terms over five or six years is difficult for a club which does not rely on a billionaire owner (Perez is super-rich, but tends not to invest his own money). So they would reportedly prefer any raise to be based on bonuses for goals scored or trophies won, a suggestion not to the liking of Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendez.

Well-connected Madrid based journalist Ruben Uria blogged this week that a further reason for the impasse was that Ronaldo and Mendez want to retain all the player's image rights. According to Uria, under Ronaldo's current deal Madrid get 40 per cent of the money earned from Ronaldo's own commercial deals signed since he joined the club. This covers deals which reportedly total around €30m a year, which means they would almost cover Ronaldo's current gross salary. Mendez wants to change the terms so that his client gets 100 per cent of revenue from any new sponsorship contracts signed, just like Messi does at Barca.

The matter of image rights is something that Perez, and Madrid's director general Jose Angel Sanchez, would feel they cannot concede. From the beginning of his first spell as president, the construction magnate has based his business plan around generating commercial revenue from superstars, from Zinedine Zidane through David Beckham to Kaka and Ronaldo. This includes taking a large share of their own individual deals to finance their huge transfer fees and salaries. Giving in to Ronaldo's demands would leave a huge hole in the club's finances, and set a dangerous precedent for future negotiations with other current players or new galacticos. Perez cannot budge on this, even for Ronaldo.

All of which makes the current "sadness" all the more intriguing. Ronaldo showed no noticeable signs of any complications from the eye injury on his return on Saturday, but he did not score as Madrid beat a sorry Athletic Bilbao 5-1. Reporters who wished to put the latest rumours to Mourinho either before or after the game were disappointed to see number two Aitor Karanka take both press conferences. That was not hugely strange as Mourinho is as usual rowing with local reporters and Karanka played for the Basque side so knows them well. The assistant coach dismissed the issue by saying "there are some questions which do not deserve an answer" and it quietened just a little.

There was further consternation on Monday when photographs appeared in the English press of Mourinho's wife school-hunting in London, reminding everyone of the former Chelsea manager's famous visit last January. Mourinho is, of course, also represented by Mendez, and that stunt helped secure improved terms for the Special One when he signed a contract extension in May. The coach's own future then featured predictably heavily in Tuesday afternoon's UEFA press conference in Manchester, with Ronaldo's career-plans forgotten for the moment.

On Tuesday, AS editor Alfredo Relano, an increasingly loud critic of Mourinho and Mendez, decided to have an unusually strong go at Perez too. "Madrid is a wild horse that some years ago threw Florentino out of the saddle," Relano wrote. "He is now up in the air, badly tangled up in the reins." According to the veteran journalist - a lifelong Madrid fan - the club's president had willingly handed over control of the club to Mourinho and Mendez, who have no feeling for Madrid's traditional gentlemanly values. At least when Perez's first galacticos project crashed and burned in the mid 2000s the supporters had some heroes to cheer. For him, neither Ronaldo nor Mourinho, with their sudden sadnesses and regular rows, are sympathetic figures.

It now looks like the only way for Perez to prove he still holds the reins at the Bernabeu is to get Ronaldo to sign a new deal. That still seems the most likely outcome, with his agents just upping the pressure to get the best possible terms for their client, and Madrid eventually likely to find enough money from somewhere. It is striking, though, that both bouts of "sadness" appeared in the run-up to games against Man City. He wouldn't, would he?

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