“Sorry, I’m not that kind of player,” Cristiano Ronaldo says 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 elite mentality. But it cuts to the core of his inability to adapt to his new reality.
They say most players are the first to know when their time is up. Ronaldo, as has so often been the case throughout his extraordinary career, is not most players. His curse is that the mentality that drove him to the top of his sport is the same mentality that makes his lineage far uglier than it needs to be.
If anyone expected this explosive but ultimately harrowing interview to contain revelations about Erik ten Hag’s shocking treatment of a 37-year-old man in the workplace, they were sure to be disappointed as they waited in vain for evidence.
The manager charged with setting Manchester United on a new path did not humiliate or bully Ronaldo. He named him captain in what could now turn out to be his final appearance for the club. Ten Hag’s crime was not to have selected Ronaldo in his team on a few occasions.
It’s the incendiary act that saw him refuse to come off the bench against Tottenham. Ronaldo has apologized to his teammates for that. Approximately. “I apologized, but by the same token, I do not regret the decision not to proceed.” Sorry not sorry.
“The coach had no respect for me,” he adds.
Ronaldo was not fully fit at the start of the season. Even he seems to accept that he couldn’t stroll into the side then. He played in the 4-0 rout of Brentford, was left out of the next four that United won, only to return for the home defeat to Real Sociedad.
The Tottenham game for which he was benched preceded two games within a week that Ronaldo had started. Ninety minutes into the narrow win over Omonia Nicosia at Old Trafford. Another seventy-two minutes at the stadium in a stalemate with Newcastle United.
That’s worth remembering because this isn’t the story of a player who had been ostracized as he approached his 38th birthday. His last appearance, the dreadful 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, was his ninth start in 13 games. Perhaps Ten Hag had played him too much.
None of that means 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 has been spoiled more than he seems to accept.
“I don’t want to be cocky and say I’m the same as when I was 20. Of course not,” Ronaldo says. He goes on to suggest that retirement at age 40 is the plan. It’s the closest he gets to an admission that time is an adversary he can’t beat.
“But I adapt and I’m smart to know my strength, what I’m good at. And I’m still playing at a high level. I’m scoring and I’ll keep scoring – if my mind is clear and happy and if people who surround me, they 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 won’t. The problem is, as his abilities diminish and the end approaches, there’s less reason than ever for Ten Hag to do so.
Ronaldo now sees his time at Real Madrid as the benchmark 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. It wouldn’t have gone on forever.
He was named as a substitute eight times in his nine seasons in La Liga – as many times as Ten Hag has asked him to perform that task already at Manchester United. In Ronaldo’s last five La Liga seasons as a Real Madrid player, he was not on the bench once.
No wonder everything is so foreign to him. “Don’t say the top players, the guys who want it all, the key players, are going to play three minutes,” he says of the request to come on late in that defeat to Tottenham. “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 for the best that Eric Cantona never had to adapt. He was the main man from his first day there to his last.
It’s usually like that with the true greats. Pele went to the United States. Johan Cruyff stormed to Feyenoord when he felt that Ajax did not bend to his will. Diego Maradona consumed lollipops. Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain is not without tension.
There’s no real precedent for this in the Premier League, no idea what it might look like when an all-time icon of the game is asked to accept a reduced role before he’s ready. Perhaps this unedifying spectacle is just what such a situation looks like.
For United, it means more uncomfortable headlines at a time when they might have hoped the worst was behind them. Alejandro Garnacho’s big moment swallowed up. Instead, the spotlight set back the years of failure that have led them to this mess.
Ronaldo has a point when he questions Ralf Rangnick’s appointment and his claim that United are no longer leading the way in infrastructure is undeniable even as they begin to correct that failure. Supporters will welcome the perceived criticism of the owners.
But as he whines, unchallenged by the sycophantic Morgan, the sense is of a man who can diagnose every problem but one.
Perhaps there was another world where Ronaldo could have embraced his role in changing the culture, becoming a beacon of the better times while striving to restore them. Perhaps Ten Hag could have counted on his senior players to set those standards.
But that would have required more than just unchecked 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 that type of player.
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