Real Madrid is facing a stern test on Tuesday against the reigning Barclays Premier League champions Manchester City Tuesday (live, FOX Soccer, 2:30 p.m. ET). After a start that has seen the giants collect just four points in four games, the subplot to the match is the form — and mood — of the team’s talisman Cristiano Ronaldo.
Simply put: Ronaldo is “sad.” Exactly why is open to conjecture.
Ronaldo has it all; looks, money and a trophy or two to boot. And yet, the superstar’s mental agitation became known to Madrid supporters when he stopped for reporters in the Santiago Bernabéu mixed zone after the 3-0 home win over Granada two weekends ago to say that he felt “sad” for “professional reasons” which he was not prepared to share.
According to various reports, Cristiano Ronaldo had told Madrid president Florentino Pérez he did not feel supported or valued by the club, and wanted to leave. A TV pundit claimed the player had been in tears after the game. The Iberian rumor mill has been in overdrive ever since.
The most popular theory is that the statement of discontent was a negotiating ploy as the Portuguese international – and his agent Jorge Mendes – looked to squeeze more money out of Madrid. Prominent stories in the Spanish papers have helpfully pointed out that players at other clubs – including Wayne Rooney at Manchester United, Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain and worst of all Lionel Messi at Barcelona — are paid more than Cristiano Ronaldo’s current €10 million (more than $13 million) annual salary.
Other well-placed pundits have speculated that Ronaldo is unhappy with a lack of affection from his colleagues and bosses. There have also been persistent rumors of a training ground split between different nationalities in the squad, and a claim that Ronaldo and Brazilian fullback Marcelo no longer speak to each other.
Many people in Madrid feel not all is right in the Merengues’ dressing room, with various players unhappy at manager Jose Mourinho’s strident criticism of their current attitude. Mourinho apparently singled Ronaldo out for criticism the day after last month’s league defeat at Getafe.
This fits with a suggestion that Ronaldo feels a lack of support — from both his playing colleagues and Madrid president Florentino Perez — in the race for individual awards from UEFA and FIFA. Adherents to this theory have pointed to TV pictures from last month’s Champions League draw which showed the Portuguese clearly not enjoying standing empty-handed on the podium while Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta picked up the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award.
Ronaldo’s camp would argue that as he outshone Messi by driving Madrid past Barcelona to last season’s Spanish league title, he should replace the Argentine as FIFA Ballon d’Or (World Player of the Year) holder. Not all Real fans would agree with this, as its goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas has emerged as another deserving candidate for that award, especially after lifting the Euro 2012 trophy for Spain this summer. This puts Pérez in a difficult position of appeasing both his most expensive international superstar and a home-grown Bernabéu hero who is clearly happy to be considered a candidate.
"I believe there are Madrid players who deserve it for the great season we played and for the titles we won,” Casillas said last week. “Cristiano has been at a very high level, but there are others who could deserve it too. Me? There is a lot of talk about this award and it is gratifying to be mentioned by many people. People stop me on the street to mention it. I appreciate that."
It is difficult to imagine Ronaldo stopping to chat with locals on his way to or from training, especially given the current mood among Madrid supporters. Last Wednesday, on his return to the city after international duty with Portugal, he was apparently asked by Mourinho to make a public statement to defuse the situation. Another Facebook message was quickly released, which said CR7 was only concerned with winning games and trophies with Madrid. That did little to clear the air.
On Thursday morning teammates including Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa queued up to tell anyone within earshot that Ronaldo’s mood was fine, that he was training normally and there were no troubles in the camp. Unfortunately, that seemed to be contradicted hours later when the ex-Manchester United man snubbed an attempted embrace by Pérez, live on Real Madrid TV. And this incident was seized upon gleefully by Madrid journalists eager to keep the soap opera running.
Mourinho tried to rein in the rumors on Friday, before Madrid’s game in Sevilla.
“If Cristiano is sad and plays as he has been playing, that’s perfect,” the coach said. “He has given you a fantastic fortnight, while there were international games on which were not great. He needs peace, tranquility and to play football, which is what he likes to do. The Bernabéu and I must be the only judges of his behavior on the pitch.”
That reference to the Bernabéu reminded observers that, since arriving in Madrid as the world’s most expensive player three summers ago, Ronaldo has had an uneasy relationship with his own fans, and he was whistled just last December after missing a number of chances in a defeat to Barcelona.
Even his Spanish title-winning performances last spring did not completely win over some of Madrid’s more traditional supporters, who prefer their players to be less individualistic and more team players.
And, there’s this cold fact: going public with about his current “sadness” at a time when one in four Spaniards is unemployed has not helped Ronaldo’s case. Nor did a limp performance as Real lost on Saturday evening.
But if there is one thing guaranteed to lift the Bernabéu crowd it’s winning a big game. Just last month there were smiles all around after the Portuguese scored in both home and away games as Madrid beat rivals Barcelona to claim the season opening Spanish Super Cup. A goal against the English champions, or even a hard-working, committed performance, would help demonstrate that he deserves more support, from the stadium’s seats, locker room, and board members.
Anything less however, and there’ll be few shoulders for Ronaldo to cry on at the Bernabéu.