If you thought Russell Wilson was the worst signing in recent memory, well, you obviously haven’t kept tabs on what’s happened with Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United. A once heralded return to Old Trafford has now become the team’s worst nightmare, and it’s worse than you could ever possibly imagine.
On Sunday night Ronaldo decided to let his frustrations turn into an unparalleled outburst, appearing for an exclusive interview with Piers Morgan in which Cristiano burnt the club to a crisp, throwing everyone under the bus from manager Erik ten Hag, to other club executives, Wayne Rooney, and even team owners the Glazer family. This all happened without Manchester United knowing, and it’s without a doubt one of the most astonishing public displays of behind-the-scenes drama we’ve seen.
What brought it to this point? Why is Ronaldo so intent on burning the club to the ground? How does this end? Let’s dive in.
A fairytale beginning
It’s impossible to comprehend how bad Ronaldo’s relationship has gotten with Manchester United based on how brilliantly it all began. On August 27, 2021 it was announced that the club had reached terms with Juventus to bring back Ronaldo. He was coming off a 29 goal season in Serie A, 100 goals since arriving in Italy, and was defying time itself by still playing at such a high level.
United, coming off a pandemic-shortened season, were simply looking for more help. They’d just finished 2nd in the Premier League behind long-time rivals Manchester City, and there was reported interest from City to bring in Ronaldo — so landing him was really a win-win-win. It gave United the help it needed, was a feel-good move for fans, and prevented their rivals from landing another weapon to add to their considerable war chest.
In the first 24 hours after his arrival Ronaldo’s new No. 7 jersey became the fastest-selling in history, eclipsing Lionel Messi following his move to Paris Saint-Germain. The hype was unbelievable.
Ronaldo’s second run started with a bang, as he scored two goals in his first appearance, before scoring the game-winner in the club’s first round game in the Champion’s League. At 3-0-1 United was in first place, flying high, and everything was incredible. Then it started to collapse.
The friction begins
October and November were disastrous. The team’s hot start was quickly overtaken with shocking losses, dropping to the likes of Aston Villa, Leicester City, and an embarrassing 5-0 drubbing at Old Trafford at the hands of Liverpool. A loss to City, followed by a 1-4 loss to Watford were the icing on the cake, leading to Ole Gunnar Solskjær being sacked as manager.
This was a pivotal moment. The former Manchester United forward may have struggled to bring the team wins, but he was extremely well liked by Ronaldo. The pair played together from 2003-2007, and during the team’s bad form it was reported Ronaldo was the one holding the ship together, urging his teammates to support Solskjær despite their struggles. Not even Ronaldo had enough pull in the end to keep Solskjær around, and going against his wishes the team began their search.
United’s interim manager was another player whom Ronaldo played with and liked, Michael Carrick — and while the two may not have seen eye-to-eye on football decisions (namely leaving Ronaldo out of his starting XI against Chelsea), there was mutual respect between the two. United went 1-1-1- during Carrick’s three game stint, which was nothing to write home about, but it steadied the ship. Many, including Ronaldo, wanted to see Carrick get a little more rope as interim manager — but his wishes were spurned again.
Ralf Rangnick and the age of animosity
In late November it was announced that United would continue under Austrian national coach Ralf Rangnick as their new manager. It represented the first time in Ronaldo’s second run with the club that he would play under somebody he didn’t have a previous relationship with, and things were icy from the jump.
Whoever you side with in their tensions, the two were like oil and water. Rangnick wanted to mold United into his own image, scrapping the attacking principles of Solskjær, which may have created a logjam at forward, but allowed Ronaldo to be the feature star when his number was called. In its place, a more balanced attack which relied on counter-attacking off defense and a desire to get more involvement out of Jadon Sancho, who was one of United’s marquee signings over the summer of 2021.
This all game at the expense of Ronaldo’s personal performance, which would have been fine if Machester United were winning, but the success the team had was fool’s gold. They were narrowly beating clubs they should have demolished, and when they faced an actual test the Red Devils folded.
Ronaldo couldn’t stand Rangnick, and it seemed like the feeling was mutual. With every public comment from the manager about the need to spend more, get younger, and revamp United it represented an existential threat to Ronaldo’s second run with the club. When it came to reading between the lines Rangnick’s opinion was very clear: United didn’t need Cristiano Ronaldo.
The team finished with 58 points, its lowest in club history — and while Rangnick was by no means the sole reason for the struggles, his desire to revamp the club wasn’t working. Manchester United and Rangnick mutually agreed to part ways, and the search for a new manager was on.
Does anyone want Cristiano?
It became clear following the disappointments of 2021-22 that Ronaldo wanted out. It was rumored during the summer that he wanted United to find him a home on a Champion’s League team, and that he wasn’t really interested in participating in a Manchester United rebuild.
It’s unclear whether United would have sold Ronaldo, because it never reached that point. The idea of finding him the Champion’s League home he wanted was an extreme long shot, largely due to his age, performance, and the return United would need to have it make sense.
Meanwhile, new manager Erik ten Hag was looking to put his mark on the club and Ronaldo was hellbent on becoming a fly in the ointment. ten Hag said all the right things publicly you’d ask him to, insisting that Ronaldo was “part of [his] plans” and that there was “no intention” of selling Ronaldo, but Cristiano completely undermined him before the season even began — leaving United’s preseason game against Vallecano shortly after he was benched at halftime.
Ronaldo knew that walking out while United were still playing would cause a stir, especially with the game at Old Trafford — and that was the point. He was trying to force the team’s hand, and behind-the-scenes Ronaldo’s manager, Jorge Mendes was soliciting transfer offers without United’s consent.
This was a calculated move to undermine ten Hag’s start at United, knowing that by disrespecting the new manager he might get what he wanted, as well as using his sway in the locker room to sew discord. The problem was that nobody really wanted Ronaldo, at least, nobody who met his exacting criteria.
United and ten Hag get off to a disastrous start, followed by an incredible turn
Any idea of “winning cures all evils” when it came to Ronaldo was quickly pushed aside when Manchester United were embarrassed in back-to-back losses to Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford to start the 2022-23 season. Sitting in 20th place there were immediate questions about ten Hag’s tactics, and his ability to keep the team together.
Those questions were erased almost as quickly as they were formulated, when on August 22nd the team beat Liverpool at Old Trafford. It was a momentous win, one that not only showed ten Hag could adapt and make gains with United — but perhaps more importantly, an iconic match where Ronaldo only played four minutes as a sub.
A life without Ronaldo is a life best lived
It became clear that the less ten Hag played Ronaldo, the better United was as a club. In the three games where Ronaldo played 90 minutes at forward the team has a record of 1-2, while bringing him in as a sub won more games, with United going 5-1 against much stiffer competition.
This turned ten Hag’s job into a duality: Managing Manchester United, and managing Cristiano Ronaldo. Feeding his disgruntled star enough minutes and opportunities to keep him happy, without compromising his ability to lead his team to victory.
On October 19 the relationship snapped. Ronaldo refused to enter the game when his number was called as a substitution against Tottenham, leading to a punishment of being left out of the roster against Chelsea the following week.
¡Se enojó Cristiano!— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) October 19, 2022
Se fue a los vestidores en pleno partido, al ver que no iba a jugar contra Tottenham.
¿Es un error que en el @ManUtd lo dejen en la banca o su actitud es incorrecta?#LigaPremierTD pic.twitter.com/lDpJkOKAaj
ten Hag tried a different tact following the benching, by appealing to Ronaldo’s ego. He named Cristiano as a captain for the team’s game against Aston Villa — which was a relatively low-stakes game United should have easily won. Ahead of the game he praised Ronaldo as a leader, and it seemed like maybe things were being patched up.
Ronaldo wore the captain’s armband, played all 90 minutes, and United lost 3-1 to Villa in embarrassing fashion. Cristiano was terrible, and provided no spark. Ronaldo would miss the following two games, with ten Hag claiming Ronaldo was ill.
United bounced back with a gutsy come-from-behind win against Fulham that stabilized the club and moved them into fifth. It wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was progress — and that’s why what followed was so shocking.
Ronaldo burns Manchester United to the ground
The same day United fans celebrated their 2-1 win, TV screens lit up with Cristiano Ronaldo’s face, teasing an exclusive one-on-one interview with Piers Morgan. It’s unclear when the interview was filmed, but it came without the team’s knowledge and during a time Ronaldo was reportedly “ill.”
"I feel betrayed."— Piers Morgan Uncensored (@PiersUncensored) November 13, 2022
EXCLUSIVE: Cristiano Ronaldo tells Piers Morgan he feels like he's being forced out of Manchester United in an explosive interview.
90 Minutes with Ronaldo. Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm on TalkTV.@cristiano | @piersmorgan | @TalkTV | #PMU pic.twitter.com/nqp4mcXHB0
The ranging interview, set to air Wednesday night, covered all Ronaldo’s gripes with United under the auspices of “telling fans the truth,” but in reality we already know of several proven, verifiable lies. Among his claims were that “nothing” had improved in terms of player amenities at United between his first and second stints with the club. A point which is clearly wrong.
Sources told ESPN that the pool, canteen and recovery areas have all been revamped, while more than £200,000 was spent to build a state-of-the-art analysis and meeting room at the specific request of Ten Hag.
Ronaldo also said he felt like he was being “forced out” of the club over the summer, which is an attempt to re-write history. ten Hag and United worked overtime to try and keep him happy, while Ronaldo’s manager was trying to find an out for him.
The truth according to Cristiano only applies if you believe the idea of having the audacity to ask him to sub is an attempt to “force him out.” Which is really the core core conceit of his issues over the past several years. This is unquestionably an elite athlete who at his peak was the best in the world, but now Ronaldo has shown an inability to handle no longer being the Ballon d’Or winning global face of soccer. At 37 he’s claimed slights by Real Madrid, Juventus, and now Manchester United — all with the refrain of “disrespect.”
While we don’t know everything Ronaldo will say in the 90 minute interview, it’s safe to say he won’t be challenged or questioned on any of it. It’s not Piers Morgan’s style to press an interviewee, because that’s not his brand. This is far more an exercise in letting Ronaldo preserve his public image, and air his grievances, regardless of what the truth is.
What happens next?
Manchester United have largely remained quiet on the interview, saying they are waiting to see its full contents before issuing a statement. However, early reports indicate that everyone is supporting ten Hag, regardless of what is said in the interview.
Certainly it seems Ronaldo is already getting a frosty reception from his Manchester United teammates.
Bruno Fernandes gives Cristiano Ronaldo a frosty reception as Portugal meet for the World Cup. pic.twitter.com/W5rDdMirc8— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) November 15, 2022
The World Cup will be a much-needed break for everyone involved, but when Manchester United return to Premier League competition on December 27 it could be a very different story. At this point Ronaldo is an under-performing 37-year-old. He needs United more than they need him, and the idea a Champion’s League team would clamor to make a January transfer and invite the drama he’s caused is wishful at best.
Ronaldo can still be a coveted, celebrated centerpiece of a team — but it won’t be on a top-flight European club competing in the Champion’s League. The sooner he accepts that, the better, and until then everything is just noise.