“Sorry, I’m not that kind of player,” Cristiano Ronaldo said at one point during his interview with Piers Morgan. He says it with pride and his admirers will point to it as proof of his elitist mentality. But it gets to the heart of his inability to adjust to his new reality.
They say most players are the first to know when their time is up. Ronaldo, as so often in his extraordinary career, is not the most players. His curse is that the mindset that propelled him to the top of his sport is the same mindset that makes his descent much uglier than it needs to be.
If anyone had expected this explosive but ultimately excruciating interview to contain revelations about Erik ten Hag’s shocking treatment of a 37-year-old man in the workplace, they would certainly have been disappointed as they waited in vain for evidence.
The coach who had to put Manchester United on a new path did not relegate or bully Ronaldo. He named him captain in what could now turn out to be his last appearance for the club. Ten Hag’s crime was that he occasionally failed to choose Ronaldo in his team.
That’s the incendiary act that led him to refuse to come off the bench against Tottenham Hotspur. Ronaldo has apologized to his teammates for this. Kind of. “I have apologised, but in the same way I do not regret the decision not to come.” sorry not sorry.
“The coach had no respect for me,” he adds.
Ronaldo was not yet fully fit at the start of the season. Even he seems to accept that he couldn’t walk the way back then. He played in the 4–0 defeat at Brentford, was omitted from United’s next four wins, but returned for the home defeat to Real Sociedad.
The Tottenham game he was benched for preceded two games within a week of Ronaldo starting. Ninety minutes into the narrow victory over Omonia Nicosia at Old Trafford. Seventy-two minutes left in the stadium in the stalemate with Newcastle United.
It’s worth remembering because this isn’t the story of a player who was frozen before their 38th birthday. His most recent appearance, that dreadful 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, was his ninth start in 13 games. Ten Hag may have played him too much.
That is not to say that Ronaldo is of no use to Manchester United. His goal against Everton showed what he can still do. He can contribute. That explains why Ten Hag has tried to accommodate him. The player is more indulgent than he seems to accept.
“I don’t want to be cocky and say I’m the same as I was when I was 20. Of course not,” says Ronaldo. He further suggests that retirement at age 40 is the plan. It comes closest to recognizing that time is an opponent it cannot defeat.
“But I am adapting and I am smart to know my strength, which I am good at. And I am still playing at a high level. I am scoring goals and I will continue to score goals – if my mind is clear and happy and if the people around me help me become a successful player.”
He is right that it is still possible to build a team around Ronaldo that maximizes his output. Maybe Manchester United don’t. The problem is that as his abilities wane and the end approaches, there’s less reason than ever for Ten Hag to do so.
Ronaldo now looks to his time at Real Madrid as a yardstick for how he would like to be treated, but doesn’t seem to have made the connection that he was treated that way because he was at his peak. That would not have gone on indefinitely.
During his nine seasons in La Liga, he was appointed as a substitute eight times – as many times as Ten Hag has asked him to do the job at Manchester United. In Ronaldo’s last five La Liga seasons as a Real Madrid player, he has not once been on the bench.
No wonder this is all so strange to him. “Don’t tell me the top players, the guys who want it all, the key players, will play for three minutes,” he says of being asked to come in late in Tottenham’s defeat. “Come on, this is unacceptable.”
Maybe he’s right. United supporters have seen Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes accept their place back in the ranks, but Ronaldo is different. Maybe it’s a good thing Eric Cantona never had to adjust. He was the main man from his first day there to his last.
This is often the case with the real greats. Pele went to the United States. Johan Cruijff stormed to Feyenoord when he felt that Ajax did not want to participate. Diego Maradona consumed clubs. Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain is not without tensions.
There’s no real precedent for this in the Premier League, no idea what it might look like if an all-time icon of the game is asked to accept a smaller role before he’s ready. Perhaps this unenlightening spectacle is exactly what such a situation looks like.
For United, it means more uncomfortable headlines at a time when they may have hoped the worst was behind them. Alejandro Garnacho’s big moment devoured. Instead, the spotlight turned to the years of failure that led them to this mess.
Ronaldo has a point in questioning Ralf Rangnick’s appointment and his claim that United are no longer at the forefront of infrastructure is undeniable, even as they begin to correct that shortcoming. Supporters will welcome that perceived criticism of the owners.
But as he whines, unchallenged by the cajoling Morgan, he feels like a man is capable of diagnosing any problem but one.
Perhaps there was another world where Ronaldo had embraced his role in changing culture, becoming a beacon of better times as he strove to restore them. Perhaps Ten Hag could have counted on his senior player to set those benchmarks.
But that would have required more than just uncontrolled ambition and drive, it would have required some humility and self-awareness. The message Ronaldo has sent to his manager and the rest of the world is clear. Sorry, I’m not much of a player.