In Tudor times there were few things more disastrous for a British noble than the honour of a home visit from the monarch. Oh no. He’s here again. The man with the week-long pheasant-gorging mass drunken banquet in his eyes.
Attempts were sometimes made to shutter up the windows and simply hide on these occasions. Otherwise the sight of the royal train looming across the horizon, with its legions of cooks, soldiers, jesters, fancy-boys and pantalooned hangers-on was a harbinger of bankruptcy, slaughtered livestock, ruined fields and general devastation of anything within grabbable range.
In 1602 the court of Elizabeth I turned up at Lord Egerton’s Harefield Hall and consumed 676 chickens, 96 pigeons, 59 rabbits, 23 ducklings, 20 pigs, 38 partridges and 24 lobsters in the course of a single three-day party, at an equivalent cost of £10m – although no doubt accompanied by some really sick embroidery posts added to the personal tapestry feed.
When it comes to conspicuous excess it is never hard to find a parallel with football. Where renaissance royalty leads, football will inevitably follow, and for the past few years there has been something of the royal tour about the fag-end of the age of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Here they come again, this pair of ageing divinities, still giving off light and heat, still raking in the eyeballs, but also scorching the soil and stealing the air from the sky, transformed into a kind of sporting plutonium.
It seems pretty clear that Ronaldo will move on again this summer. You can hardly blame him. There is a duality here. For all his preening grandeur Ronaldo is a pure sporting beast: he simply wants to win. But follow the money and right now he is also the single greatest celebrity revenue stream the sporting world has ever seen. Ronaldo generates £2m from each sponsored post on Instagram. It would be simply carelessness for anyone connected to this sporting-industrial complex to allow him to spend his 38th year playing against Gent, Omonia and Lechia Gdansk. Manchester United have played this game. They are now on the other side of it.
The rumours linking Ronaldo to Chelsea have circled vaguely this week. It is said the new owners are interested, which would be the first really obvious red flag of the new era. Because, make no mistake, signing Ronaldo would be a disaster, as it would for any serious sporting entity.
It seems deeply odd that it is still necessary to say this out loud, that the idea of roping either one of Ronaldo or Messi into your orbit is not instantly disregarded as absurd, subject of fan protests and angry rants from concerned club legends.
It was obvious even last summer that Ronaldo’s move to United and Messi’s to Paris Saint-Germain would end in high-priced failure. In part because anyone willing to pay this much for the light of a dying star is going to ruin your club one way or another. And in part because of the obvious devastation, the royalty tax, the fact it is simply impossible to live with this presence for long.
Behold my light, for I am death: since the start of 2020 Ronaldo has had six club managers while Messi has burned through five. If Ronaldo turns up at Chelsea we can probably round that up to eight, taking in Thomas Tuchel and whoever replaces him (Jesse Marsch? A senior Kardashian?), which will happen because Tuchel is a purist and systems man, his entire shtick based around biddable, hard-pressing footballers as opposed to an ageing Andy Warhol-print super-athlete.
Which is fine. Managers come and go. But will Ronaldo make your team better? Amazingly, this does still seem to be a genuine question. We should probably do this quickly here. The obvious answer is: No, he won’t.
The confusion is understandable because it relates to the most basic of numbers. Nobody has more league goals in a single season for United since Alex Ferguson left. How can the cheering, scoring man be the problem?
But of course the question is not whether a half-speed genius is still a genius or whether Ronaldo is better at finishing than Marcus Rashford (answer: yes and he will be when he’s 87 and performing his daily global ab workout posts on a pair of robot super-legs).
The question is whether this is how you build a team. And the other numbers are also simple. With Ronaldo United scored 57 league goals. In four previous seasons without him they scored 73, 66, 65 and 68. While Ronaldo was restocking his highlights reel, every other striker at the club fell off a cliff. Any idea of a grooved system of play fell apart. As they said in Italy, Ronaldo is the solution to the problem he causes. Oh no, we can’t play like an elite, tactically and physically complete modern team. But wait. Luckily we have a brilliant sniper-striker who can still make us just about competitive.
At the end of which, seen purely though the lens of sport, the answer is clear. Signing Ronaldo would make Chelsea a less effective team. But then, of course, this is not really what’s happening, is it? And this is the sadness of Ronaldo-Messi, the late years, during which these twin sources of light and joy of the past two decades have become a kind of tell, catnip to two separate models of toxic ownership: the investor class, driven by the buzz, the commercial hit, the instant share price uplift; and the nation-state power project designed to seek out heft, status, PR gains.
There is something nauseating about seeing these pure sporting talents being pawed at and weaponised by football’s billionaire class, like ageing movie idols on the arms of some sweating studio investor; and becoming in the process just another marker of the way the unchecked billionaire model will eventually overwhelm this sport. Women’s Super League TV deal, a source of hope for the footballing future of half the population, amounts to £8m a year, or a bit more than three CR7 social media posts. What is the point of endlessly enriching these people? The market may demand it. But the market will also drain the soil under your feet.
There is above all a sadness to this, because that basic status is earned. These are perhaps the two greatest club players of all time, footballers who remained somehow strangely pure through their golden years, a clean warm square of light in the middle of all that greed and hunger. Sport would have taken care of their exit route in a previous life, ushering even its most brilliant stars to a place where they can still flourish. The modern version maintains that they are still kings, royal households, emperors insisting on their mandate, holed up in the palace and refusing to fade from view, sucking the light with them as they fall.