While all the talk in England for the last week has been about a certain extremely unhappy Portuguese man at Manchester United, the FIFA World Cup has quietly crept up on us, slapped into the middle of our domestic season as it is.
This will be a new experience for most major leagues in Europe, but it’s not necessarily that new a concept for many players. Let’s not forget some of the Premier League’s best players of the past five years, players like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, for example, have become used to leaving their domestic league mid-season to go and represent their country at the African Cup of Nations. It is not unheard of. However, for European players and the leagues themselves this a completely new situation, where even the mighty Premier League has to take a temporary backseat.
How this change of schedule impacts the tournament remains to be seen. From an English point of view, for years now one of the biggest excuses given by commentators and pundits for England’s failure to win a major international tournament since 1966 has been fatigue. The intensity of a full Premier League season is too much for England’s players to cope with, some say. When they then go into a major tournament they are not at peak level, tired after a 10-month high energy-draining season.
From that point of view a winter World Cup in Qatar eliminates this excuse. England’s players are mid-season and should be fresher and more ready than ever to deal with the physical and mental demands of a World Cup, you might assume. Of course the warm climate in Doha and the 30 degree heat poses other challenges, and if you saw a recent video clip on social media of England’s players exhausted, crowding around a fan to get some cool air, you might wonder how they will cope in Qatar’s desert environment.
As far as Cristiano Ronaldo is concerned, the subject certainly proved explosive in England. His tell-all interview with celebrity troll Piers Morgan has racked up more than six million views on YouTube alone, and is all most football fans have been talking about in England for the last week – eclipsing not only the final week of the Premier League season before the World Cup break and Arsenal topping the table but even the World Cup itself.
With 497 million followers on Instagram alone, Cristiano Ronaldo – if you hadn’t heard already – is kind of a big deal. The interview has blown open an irreparable rift between Ronaldo and Manchester United that had been threatening to explode all season since the appointment of manager Erik ten Hag, and led to the end of Ronaldo at Manchester United after his contract was terminated.
Ronaldo will have known this was a realistic possibility when he sat down with Piers Morgan, and so the fact he still chose to take part in it does lead one to wonder: who exactly is advising Ronaldo on this and what were they thinking in allowing him to go nuclear against his own club in such a way?
“The fans are the most important thing in football” Ronaldo says at the beginning of his 90-minute expose. But was he really thinking about the fans before he went on to criticise his manager ten Hag, the Glazer family that owns the club, the former manager Ralf Rangnick, former teammates Wayne Rooney and Gary Neville and, really, anyone that has dared cross his path over the course of the last year? It doesn’t seem so!
Ronaldo criticised the club’s facilities, the lack of investment and accused the Glazers of ‘not caring’ about Manchester United. Most United fans will support him on those points and in fact some feel delighted that someone in a position of real influence has finally spoken out publicly about the Glazer family. They are hugely unpopular at Old Trafford after saddling the club with over £500 million worth of debt in a leveraged buyout in 2005 and overseeing a sharp decline that has seen United’s two biggest rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool, overshadow them for the last 10 years now.
The problem is, the one man who has actually started to show signs of turning things round at Old Trafford is the man Ronaldo claimed he has ‘no respect’ for: Erik ten Hag. Ronaldo correctly highlighted many of the problems but delivered a scathing attack on the one man who seems capable of solving these problems.
This is because, ironically, ten Hag himself has identified Ronaldo as one of the main problems.
At 37 years old Ronaldo is not the player he was (3 goals this season, two in the Europa League against FC Sheriff). But like any great athlete who has been at the top of his profession for close to 20 years, he is refusing to accept this.
In some ways we should admire this – it is this bloody-minded stubbornness that has led Ronaldo to be considered one of the greatest players of all time. He will not accept no for an answer and will do all in his power to bend the world to his will, and not the other way round. That’s how he got to the top.
But time waits for no man. If reports are to be believed, Ronaldo was desperate to leave in the summer but there were few takers, his £500,000 per week wage a major stumbling block.
Manchester United are said to have explored legal options with a view to terminating Ronaldo’s contract and taking legal action against the player for breach of contract. The club statement mentioned a ‘mutual agreement’, and in leaving his interview with Piers Morgan could end up costing him up to £20 million in wages. An expensive sit-down.
The choice to interview with Morgan himself was highly questionable. A seasoned tabloid journalist, Morgan needlessly goaded Ronaldo into several of his more inflammatory comments, like a clinician drawing poison from an Amazonian tree frog. “Rooney hates you” says Piers at one point, with all the tact of a gossiping schoolchild. Ronaldo should have known better – or been better advised to not fall into the traps laid by Piers Morgan, who emerges as one of the few winners from this saga, reviving his flailing TV show.
Ultimately, for Manchester United supporters, in a way it is a win-win situation. The interview only further strengthens ten Hag. He emerges from this particular battle as the victor. He has not allowed Ronaldo to destabilise his squad or his first few months in charge and it is Ronaldo, not ten Hag, who has left. Chelsea seem the most likely destination as a statement signing for new owner Todd Boehly.
Meanwhile, in the club’s final match before the World Cup a teenage forward by the name of Alejandro Garnacho pulled off a brilliant late winner against Fulham that was reminiscent of a certain Portuguese legend’s winner at the same stadium for Manchester United in 2007.
You would not bet against Cristiano Ronaldo using this whole episode as motivation to go now and win the World Cup for his country Portugal and prove everybody wrong. It’s what he does.
But when the dust settles in years to come he may look back at this interview and realise it was not really necessary to end his legendary Manchester United career in this way.
“But what about England and the World cup”, you might ask? I’ll be back with my view on England’s tournament so far.