The date is June 16, 2017. Real Madrid have just won their first European Cup and League double for the first time in 59 years, with Cristiano Ronaldo predictably playing a key role. Yet it is on this day that two of Portugal’s biggest sports newspapers reported the 33-year-old had made an ‘irreversible decision’ to leave Los Blancos. In an era where such headlines could easily be dismissed, there was far more to them than met the eye.
Despite Ronaldo having the time of his life on the field, things took a rather sinister turn off it. Just weeks before he scored a brace against Juve in the 2017 Champions League Final, which Madrid won 4-1, the Portuguese was accused of defrauding Spain’s tax authorities to the tune of €15m. It is claimed the country’s treasury wanted to make an example out of the 33-year-old, so as to deter other high-profile figures from any creative accounting.
To add more fuel to the fire, the former Manchester United attacker had reportedly felt distance and lack of protection and distance from Madrid. Their stance came in stark contrast to that of Barcelona when Lionel Messi faced a similar ordeal. Whereas Los Merengues put out a measly 93-word statement in defence of Ronaldo, the Blaugrana went as far as launching a support campaign with the hashtag #WeAreAllLeoMessi after he was given a 21-month suspended prison sentence for tax fraud.
If that wasn’t enough for a breakdown in Ronaldo’s relationship with Madrid, there was more. President Florentino Perez promised Ronaldo a new contract after Madrid clinched their 12th European Cup last year. The Euro 2016 winner may have already been earning a handsome sum, but his on-pitch achievements deserved to make him the world’s best-paid footballer. Instead, Neymar and Lionel Messi went on to dwarf their arch-rival, who in turn was never given an improved deal.
The final nail in the coffin came towards the end of last season, when speculation intensified that Madrid were preparing to break the world transfer record again for Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar. Los Blancos already appeared to have one eye on life after Ronaldo when they splashed out €100m on Gareth Bale in 2013, only for the Portuguese to delay that transition with goals galore. However, having turned 33 in February, there would’ve been no coming back from the Brazilian taking his place.
Ronaldo’s powers looked to have evaded him once and for all midway through the 2017-18 campaign after just four goals in his first 14 League games, while Zinedine Zidane was busy singing Neymar’s praises, at a time when the Frenchman also didn’t hesitate to rest his talisman. However, like so many times before, the No 7 silenced all his critics as he ended the season in unstoppable form. It may have also given Madrid a false sense of security over keeping him – but hindsight proved the 33-year-old had other ideas.
Indeed, it became abundantly clear that this term would be his last in a Madrid jersey after he opened the door to an exit immediately after the side beat Liverpool for a third consecutive Champions League in May. Given the nine years of sterling service that Ronaldo had given the club, they had no choice but to give their blessing to a transfer and did so by slashing his release clause from €1bn to €120m, even if they demanded him to announce that leaving was his decision.
The clause reportedly did not apply to United and Paris Saint-Germain, not that Juve will particularly care. Madrid’s loss is certainly their gain.