Michael Walker: Ronaldo has left Real Madrid but his presence is still felt
Ronaldo soaked up the pressure of Real Madrid in full-on Galactico mode and stuck in the goals
Cristiano Ronaldo: he scored 450 goals in 438 appearances for Real Madrid. Photograph: Getty Images
On the day back in 2009 when Real Madrid unveiled their new world record signing Cristiano Ronaldo, an estimated 80,000 turned up at the Bernabeu Stadium. The club printed shirts in English, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. There were camera crews from 32 countries.
Ronaldo cost Real €94 million from Manchester United. It was not long after Real paid AC Milan €67 million for Kaka. Then came Karim Benzema from Lyon for €40 million. And, from Liverpool for €35 million, Xabi Alonso. All in one summer.
This was Real Madrid in full-on Galactico mode, a continuation of the policy that had brought Zinedine Zidane and the original Ronaldo to the Bernabeu, Luis Figo and David Beckham too. It was about the show – noise, talent, commerce, winning. Usain Bolt was in town for Ronaldo’s debut.
In that first Cristiano season, though, the show did not top the ratings. Real finished second to Barcelona in La Liga, were knocked out of the Champions League by Lyon and by little Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey.
The Galactico policy had received criticism before; more was coming.
Ronaldo was 24 at the time, 25 as his first season in Madrid ended. He and Real would endure another frustration the next season, coming second again, to Barcelona again, in the league, losing to the same rivals in the Champions League semi-final, though at least winning the Copa del Rey – against Barca.
Think of the scrutiny, think of the pressure on Ronaldo then. Although his physique was changing into that of a muscle-bound athlete rather than a tricky winger, the weight on his shoulders was enormous.
We sometimes skip over that, in part because players like Ronaldo are so cocksure. But it was there.
What followed, therefore, is what made Ronaldo special and why he is irreplaceable. He moved from number nine on arrival – Raul, and only Raul, could wear number seven back then – to become ‘CR7’ and while the preening was too much, it was outdone by a tide of trophies carried in on an avalanche of Ronaldo goals.
Between 2012 and his departure for Juventus in July, Ronaldo and Real won two La Liga titles, another Copa del Rey and, above all, four Champions Leagues.
Shade of Barcelona
Real Madrid began the decade in the shade of Barcelona; as Ronaldo left for Italy the reverse was true. It seems barely credible to record that he scored 450 goals in 438 Real Madrid appearances. But, really, he did.
Ronaldo personified and justified the Galactico ideal of president Florentino Perez. Ronaldo made its theoretical power flesh. While other clubs were praised for their tactical innovation or market shrewdness, Real gave the ball to Ronaldo, who scored.
But what happens when such a player goes, even at 33, even for €110 million?
So far this summer, Madrid’s response has been low-key by their historic standards. The €45 million transfer of young Flamengo winger Vinicius has been concluded, and Thibaut Courtois has been bought from Chelsea for €38 million.
There is talk of a “family” atmosphere from men such as Sergio Ramos. Unity and team ethos have been mentioned. There is a new coach, Julen Lopetegui, whose profile is not that of his predecessor Zidane.
We should be unsurprised. Low-key has been the transfer policy for a while. If Real Madrid can ever do anything quietly, it has been to remove a word that defined them from their vocabulary.
In his 2½ years in charge, Zidane did not oversee a spending spree. The club made a headline profit on transfers. They could do so while Ronaldo was scoring relentlessly and Ramos was in charge at the back. Vinicius, in fact, is Real’s most expensive signing in three years.
With Pepe and Marcelo beside Ramos, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield, plus Bale, Benzema and Cristiano – the “BBC” – Real had put together a team that could dominate and seemingly run itself for years. Which it did.
President Perez was delighted. Investment and return.
When Real did go into the market it was to sign the likes of Isco from Malaga and Marco Asensio from Real Mallorca – young, Spanish, affordable. Alvaro Odriozola (22) has been signed this summer from Real Sociedad for €30 million. Perez spoke of “strengthening the search for young players who may soon became the main stars”.
But it can all change again.
In Spain the transfer window closes at midnight on August 31st, and though it would require an astronomical world record fee, Paris St. Germain possess two players in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar who would fit the old historic transfer pattern.
Change can happen suddenly, however, because while clubs love to have policies and budgets, there are, in the words of Harold Macmillan, “events, dear boy, events.”
And on Wednesday night in Tallinn in Estonia, Real Madrid experienced an event. For the club it was like climate change.
In the European Super Cup – taken very seriously in Spain – Real faced up to their post-Ronaldo world and it had Atlético Madrid written across it. Real lost 4-2 and although it was in extra-time it had not happened before. It was something new and unwelcome.
The differences between two excellent sides were small, but there is a feeling in Spain of Atletico on the rise while Real have peaked. It’s all bound up with Ronaldo.
Plus everyone in Madrid knows next May’s Champions League final is at Atletico’s new Metropolitano stadium, a match – an event – Perez will not want to miss.
Then from Catalonia, also on Wednesday, Lionel Messi said Barcelona have “unfinished business” in the Champions League. Barcelona have spent a bit this summer. You can be sure they would like to be in Madrid in May as well.
So if Real Madrid and Perez can feel a pincer movement, it is understandable.
Atlético and Barcelona are part of it, so is the loss of Zidane. But beyond that there is Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who absorbed the ferocious pressure game upon game and who released it goal upon goal. They came at an average of 50 a season over nine years.
It is hard to fathom but it explains why, even if he has left the building, Ronaldo is still making his presence felt.