“Sorry, I’m not that kind of player,” Cristiano Ronaldo once said during an interview with Piers Morgan. He says it with pride and his admirers point to it as proof of his lofty ideals. But it prevents him from coming to terms with his new reality.
They say that most players are the first to know when their time is up. Ronaldo, as has often been the case in his amazing career, is not much of a player. His curse is that the mindset that drove him to the top of his game is the same mindset that is making his decline worse than it needs to be.
If anyone was expecting this gruesome but fascinating interview to include revelations about Erik ten Hag’s shocking treatment of a 37-year-old man at work then they would have been disappointed as they waited for evidence in vain.
The coach charged with setting Manchester United on a new path did not insult or abuse Ronaldo. They named him as captain in what may be his last appearance for the team. Ten Hag’s fault was that, at times, he did not select Ronaldo in his team.
This is what made him refuse to come off the bench against Tottenham. Ronaldo has apologized to his teammates for this. Kind of. “I’m sorry, but at the same time, I don’t regret not coming.” Sorry, not sorry.
“The teacher did not respect me,” he adds.
Ronaldo was not very fit at the start of the season. Although he seems to admit that he couldn’t walk on the sidelines at the time. He played in the 4-0 thrashing at Brentford, was left out of United’s next four wins, only to return in the home defeat to Real Sociedad.
The benched Tottenham led two games within a week of Ronaldo’s start. Ninety minutes into Omonia Nicosia’s narrow win at Old Trafford. Seventy-two minutes in the stadium in the clash with Newcastle United.
It is worth remembering because this is not the story of a player who has cooled down as he approaches his 38th birthday. His latest appearance, a terrible 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, was his ninth start in 13 games. Ten Hag may have played him too much.
There’s no denying that Ronaldo doesn’t have a job at Manchester United. His goal against Everton showed what he can do. They can help. That’s why Ten Hag tried to find him a place. The actor was more attracted than he would admit.
Ronaldo said: “I don’t want to be ashamed to say that I am 20 years old. He continues to say that retirement at 40 is a plan. That’s when he comes closest to admitting that time is an invincible enemy.
“But I’m flexible and I’m smart enough to know my strengths, which I’m good at. And I’m still playing at a high level. I score goals and I’ll continue to score goals – if my mind is clear and happy and if the people around me, are helping me to be a successful player.”
He is right because it is possible to build a team around Ronaldo that maximizes his results. Maybe Manchester United are not doing that. The problem is that as his abilities diminish and the end draws closer, there is less reason than ever for Ten Hag to do so.
Ronaldo is now looking at his time at Real Madrid as a sign of how he would like to be treated, but it seems he didn’t agree with what was done to him because he was at his peak. That could not go on forever.
He has been named as a substitute seven times in nine La Liga seasons – as often as Ten Hag asked him to do the job before at Manchester United. In the last five years of La Liga Ronaldo as a Real Madrid player, he was not on the bench once.
No wonder all this is strange to him. “Don’t tell me that the top players, the guys who want everything, the important players, are going to play three minutes,” he says of the request to come on late in the loss to Tottenham. “Come on, this is not acceptable.”
Maybe he’s right. United fans have seen Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes accept their place at the back but Ronaldo is different. Maybe it’s a good thing Eric Cantona hasn’t changed. He was a great man from his first day there to his last.
This tends to be the case with the true greats. Before he went to the States. Johan Cruyff rushed to Feyenoord when he saw that Ajax was not bending to his will. Diego Maradona ate clubs. Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain is not without controversy.
There is no real example of this in the Premier League, nothing that would look like a regular figure in the game being asked to accept a limited role before he is ready. Maybe this inconsistent look is how things look.
For United, it meant more difficult topics at a time when they should have hoped the worst was behind them. Alejandro Garnacho’s big moment was swallowed. Looking instead restores the years of failure that have led them to this mess.
Ronaldo has a point when he questions the appointment of Ralf Rangnick and his claim that United are no longer leading the way in terms of development is unassailable even if they start to correct those mistakes. Supporters will receive criticism that is visible to the owner.
But as he cries, unchallenged by the sycophantic Morgan, the attitude is that of a man capable of identifying any problem but one.
Maybe there was another world where Ronaldo could have accepted his role in changing the culture, being a beacon of good times as he strives to restore them. Perhaps Ten Hag would count on a great player to set these standards.
But this would have required more than just a desire for fame and complete banishment, it would have required humility and self-awareness. Ronaldo’s message to his manager and the world at large is clear. Sorry, I’m not that kind of player.