United Failed to See the Real Ronaldo

Published: 06th February 2015 10:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th February 2015 10:00 AM   |  A+A-

Cristiano-Ronaldo-AP

Di Maria said Ronaldo was having a great time at the Bernabeu. AP

How we miss him. The news this week that Cristiano Ronaldo has a billion-dollar transfer release clause written into his Real Madrid contract had many a Manchester United fan wondering whether it might be possible.

Mischievously revealed by his busy agent Jorge Mendes, the thought of what might happen should that clause be released has tantalised and teased to the point of torment. How the club's fans would love it if Louis van Gaal managed to find a spare billion lurking down the back of the Old Trafford sofa to activate that clause. How great would it be to see him once more floating across English pitches? How United could do with his certainty, his panache, his goals.

Never mind that Mendes's tongue was lodged firmly in his cheek, he has planted a possibility in the public imagination that has rapidly taken root. Forget your urgent need for a centre-back, just bring him home Louis, where he belongs.

Mind, it is an interesting thing about Ronaldo, how his absence from the Premier League has only strengthened his reputation. It is not simply a case of the heart growing ever fonder. His contribution to the game while he was here has been elevated in the memory with every passing year that he has been away.

This week, as he celebrated his 30th birthday, the Portuguese was voted the greatest player to grace the Premier League. In a survey among fans conducted by the Press Association, he beat Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry to the title. Never mind that football did indeed exist before the Premier League came into being, for many this is confirmation that he was the greatest in history to play football on these shores. There has been none better.

Which is to bathe the past in the warmest of rosy hues. The fact is, when it comes to Ronaldo, the passage of time is playing tricks on the memory. Of course he was magnificent when he played for United for six years across the

mid-Noughties, helping to transform a side who had lost their way into European champions. That goal he scored against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final (imagine it, Arsenal playing Manchester United in a Champions League semi-final: how times have changed) was indicative of his ability to shape a game, to bend its outcome to his will.

His goal in the 2008 final in Moscow was another moment that will live forever in the memory, the way he hung in the air, the way he snapped his neck muscles, the way the ball ricocheted off his forehead as if jet-propelled.

Superb as that was, however, the Ronaldo of United was not yet the Ronaldo he became. The goal-a-game record, the endless procession of hat-tricks, the succession of gilded awards: these are elements of his greatness that only reached fruition once he arrived at Real Madrid. The Ronaldo who left United in the summer of 2009 was not the Ronaldo we know today.

Collective memory may have it differently, but we only saw a proportion of his talent. For it fully to emerge, to blossom into the magnificent bloom we now see, he needed to go to Madrid. This is an uncomfortable truth for the Premier League, that the player its customers reckon to be the best they have ever seen was required to go elsewhere fully to realise the greatness within him. To propel himself to the summit, he needed the galactico colleagues; he needed the self-esteem of playing for the best and that white shirt on him. Plus, he needed the regular rivalry with Lionel Messi.

It was probably this last reason that has caused Ronaldo to develop into the glorious 30-year-old genius we see strutting before us. In Spain over the past six years, Messi has constantly raised the bar and Ronaldo has kept clearing it. That was not the sort of competitive boost he was going to get from staying on in England to do personal battle with Jason Puncheon.

Make no mistake, Ronaldo was a wonderful player when he was at United. But, while he was here, the best ever? In those six years he was at Old Trafford did he really outshine what Giggs and Henry - to name but two - achieved? To vote him our greatest are we not allowing subsequent events to play tricks with the memory? The reality is that, while we enjoyed his beginning, we were obliged to watch from a distance as someone else got to see Ronaldo at his best.

But even if we did miss out on his prime, there is no denying how wonderful it would be one day to

see him back in England, to play

out his declining years for our entertainment. How United fans in particular would love that. Even if Van Gaal did insist on playing him as a left wing-back.

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