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Cristiano Ronaldo’s Departure Marks The End Of An Era

Kiyan’s column on Ronaldo’s departure: Why now, and what’s next?

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

‘KO’ — by Finn

There was a feeling that this time might be different — that this summer, the noise surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo, Jorge Mendes, and Florentino Perez was more real than it had ever been in previous years. There was a sense that it was no longer just smoke, but rather a raging fire that couldn’t be put out — or maybe one that neither Florentino nor Ronaldo were desperate to put out. Yet still, it’s surreal that Cristiano Ronaldo is gone. It’s surreal that the noise didn’t eventually dwindle down. It’s surreal that we woke up this morning and had accepted that the negotiations had gone past the point of return, and even though we knew it was coming, there was a sense of shock (like the kind you suffer after being bitten by a great white shark and being washed up on a beach) when Real Madrid officially announced Cristiano Ronaldo was leaving for Juventus.

Ronaldo’s departure was inevitable, and there are reasons of why this happened now, rather than in 2021 — even if those reasons are hard to sympathize with for Real Madrid fans who’ve watched the Portuguese king morph into the greatest player the club has ever seen. At the age of 33, Ronaldo still plays at a level that is higher than most players’ peak. He’s still the best goalscorer on the planet. He’s still Cristiano Ronaldo — the freak athlete who takes care of his body with the help of the best sports science available. He wants to play deep into his 30s at the highest standard possible. He’s not done.

But there’s more to this departure. Labelling Florentino Perez as a villain during this moment is naive. There was a sense that it was time — not only for Ronaldo, but for an era. From the 2009 splurge, only Karim Benzema remains (‘remains’ — used loosely). Zinedine Zidane left earlier this summer which many fans felt was premature, but he left knowing that there were going to be things happening in the off-season outside of his control, and he deeply believed that he was not the right man to prolong the winning. He knew the team needed a fresh captain to navigate a fresh start with different blood. Julen Lopetegui knew that he was going to be counting on a younger stream of players that didn’t include Cristiano Ronaldo; and given that Lopetegui is already so well-versed in getting the best of some of these players makes the dominoes fall even more logically now.

Ronaldo has achieved everything possible as a footballer for Real Madrid. At some point, he knows he’s reached a ceiling that can’t be topped. Other club legends have prolonged their stay to the point of severe decline, and in the cases of Raul and Iker Casillas, to the point where fans started to turn their backs. It was not a good look for anyone. Like Zidane; Ronaldo knows there is a time to leave before getting to that stage. It’s not always about decline, either. It is human nature to leave ‘at the top’ — to preserve legacy and try new challenges in uncharted markets. That would be almost impossible to do at the age of 36 when his contract with Real Madrid was scheduled to end, and Cristiano is not the ‘I’ll take a backseat’ type. He leaves after nine years and an infinite amount of trophies and Balon D’ors. He leaves shattering Raul’s records. He leaves surpassing Alfredo Di Stefano as the best player in club history. After nine years, he maintains his goal-per-game (plus change) ratio. After nine years, he leaves not as a man, but as a fucking alien.

In Real Madrid’s official statement released on Tuesday, they made sure to note “at the will and the request of the player” Ronaldo is leaving. Cristiano Ronaldo further confirmed he was not being pushed out in his open letter shortly after: “I think that the moment has arrived to start a new chapter in my life and therefore I have asked the club to accept letting me leave,” Ronaldo said. “I am sorry it is like this and I ask all of you, especially our followers, to please understand me.”

In this context, this entire public dialogue of ‘Ronaldo wanted to leave, so we let him’ can be deciphered in a different way: ‘Ronaldo had concerns, including a salary raise which Juventus were willing to offer whereas we weren’t, and it’s just time to move on to a new era where we have exciting young blood coming through the pipeline, as well as superstars coming in that we need a roster spot for’.

It’s almost blasphemous to so quickly discuss ‘what’s next’ — but we are technically already in the post Ronaldo era, and Perez wouldn’t have unequivocally let Ronaldo walk had there not been exciting moves coming. Maybe Ronaldo would’ve left anyway, but maybe Florentino could’ve twisted Ronaldo’s arm enough by raising the Portuguese’s salary by another nine million Euros. Had there not been some kind of contingency plan, maybe the two parties mutually find a way to make it work, rather than mutually moving on.

Still, while Real Madrid may continue to be great on the pitch, or maybe even conjure another dynasty years from now, it’s hard to accept that this team would be better off in the short term without Ronaldo. No one can score the way he does. No one has the pure balls he does. No one can put the team on his back in a Champions League quarter-final to score a penalty in the 97th minute of a high-pressure match as if he was kicking a grape into the ocean. Juventus signed Ronaldo precisely for his balls. Sure — they capitalize greatly on his marketing power and brand — but they inherit a player who will help put them over the hump in a tournament they’ve come so close to conquering in the modern era. They’re well coached and have good pieces, but now they have the superstar that’s buried them over and over again — Champions League final goals, bicycle kicks from the sky, deadly penalties and all.

Real Madrid lose those balls. Again, it’s not just talent that they’re losing. It’s not just shoes they have to fill. They have the challenging task of filling a void of greatness. We can discuss all of the elite legends and unsung heroes — Modric, Kroos, Ramos, etc — but none of them will have been the face of this dynastic run like Ronaldo was. If Real Madrid are to ease the transition of losing the greatest player that has ever played for them — as well as the loss of the coach that helped lead them to the pantheon — they have to get a lot right in these pivotal moments in the immediate aftermath of this uppercut.

There is a path to win titles without Ronaldo, to be sure, but seeing it as a clear path would underestimate what Ronaldo brings to the table even at this age. What’s refreshing is that this is still a well-managed club off the pitch. Neither Florentino Perez nor Jose Angel Sanchez have been quick-triggered with their decisions. The club is financially stable (which is an understatement, despite some healthy debt), has been investing in youth — under the books, and all exciting talents getting groomed: Martin Odegaard, Rodrygo, Vinicius Jr — still has a core of legends in their peak, and is able to offer players like Marco Asensio more playing time while allowing stars like Gareth Bale and Isco to keep growing into bigger roles. A James Rodriguez return isn’t off the table either.

Now the intrigue of the transfer window truly starts. The reaction to this atomic bomb will be interesting. There is a case to be made that drastic changes are not needed given the conduit of players that already exist in ‘Ronaldo’s position’. Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, and Isco can all play there. That doesn’t include James who is a theoretical option too, or Lucas Vazquez who has provided a bunch of great minutes as a serviceable two-way winger. If you push Isco higher up the pitch on the left flank, you could create space for Mateo Kovacic in midfield. If Eden Hazard arrived, what would that mean for the aforementioned players? In a scenario where you replace Ronaldo with Hazard, how exactly do you replace Ronaldo’s goals?

There is no one way to replace Ronaldo’s goals. He is a statistical unicorn — a complete freak. There are two players who can churn out 50-goal seasons, and you’re not getting the other one. If Real Madrid can’t land Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappe, or Neymar — there is reason to believe at least one of them will be at Real Madrid at some point in their career, but likely not this summer — to help carry the scoring load, then you’re starting to look at players in the Robert Lewandowski / Mauro Icari mould. The current version of Lewa is a watered-down adaptation of his former self. Icardi is an assassin in front of goal, but there are questions of fit — especially in a Lopetegui scheme that asks so much of its strikers. Lopetegui would probably make it work with someone like Icardi (as he did successfully enough with Diego Costa), but he’s long been a fan of strikers who can do more. He’s had success with packing the midfield and deploying a false-nine, and has long been a fan of using strikers like Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno over Alvaro Morata.

Obsessing about bringing in a pure goalscorer would limit your train of thinking into potentially signing the wrong player. If Eden Hazard does become the big signing this summer, then the question is no longer ‘can Hazard replace Ronaldo’s goals?’; but rather ‘how can the team collectively compensate for Ronaldo’s goals?’. There is an argument to be made that the emphasis should be on the holistic feel of the team. It’s not inconceivable that Hazard and Bale can combine for 40 goals next season. Then you add a combined 15-20 from Isco and Asensio, plus an increased output of 20+ from the starting striker (whoever it may be) — it’s not the worst position to be in. It can work. Cautiously, it’s even exciting. It would still be one of the most lethal attacks (if not, then de facto the most lethal attack) around — backed up by arguably the best midfield line on earth.

It is almost impossible to be better without Cristiano Ronaldo, but the team is now in a situation where it has no choice but to continue to build on the young and exciting talent it has. There is a path without Ronaldo. There is a path without Zidane. It is a path filled with tears and emotion, but some of those emotions are positive ones — being assured that the legacy of both Ronaldo and Zidane has officially been preserved, and they’ve both left on the highest notes possible.

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