Until very recently, there had been little new to say about Cristiano Ronaldo. Before his Juventus switch over the summer, the biggest recent development in his career had been his evolution from a wild, tornadic winger who scored forty or fifty goals per season into a more static quasi-striker who scored forty or fifty goals per season, and that process began a few years ago, as he was entering his thirties. The nearly decade-long story of Ronaldo at Real Madrid was one of constancy. He scored—tap-ins, thirty-yarders, free kicks, from everywhere—and they won, and as much as has been made of his princely yacht god of a public persona, Ronaldo is actually, beneath the trappings, a pretty boringly single-minded guy who wants to succeed and has no interest in causing trouble. His most egregious transgression at the club was probably getting Rafa Benitez run out of town in 2016, but he was far from alone in that endeavor. It seemed like the whole squad found Rafa overbearing.
Maybe it’s Leo Messi’s meekness, and it definitely has something to do with the Street Fighter-esque goal celebrations, but Ronaldo has more in common with a quiet star like Messi than a flash merchant like Neymar. His sin, if you conceive of it as such, is extreme vanity: soccer, for him, is a means toward self-glorification. You get the sense that he barely wants to win if he doesn’t have something to do with the victory. (His blatant ploy for attention immediately after the Champions League final supports that theory.)
But all that remains, if you put his ego to one side, is an abiding obsession with the sport. By numerous accounts, he’s the hardest worker most of his teammates have ever seen. He keeps himself in incredible shape and adheres to one of those strict sugar-free, booze-free diets that maniacs in their mid-thirties adopt to stay sharp. We often ask—not a little unreasonably—of athletes that they build their lives around the game they play, because we feel that if they’re not doing everything in their power to play well, we’re somehow being robbed of their potential. Ronaldo is one of the few players who clears that ridiculous bar and he still occasionally catches flak, because he’s doing it for selfish reasons. Status, money, legacy, etc. It’s hard to fathom the existence of somebody who would focus on being great at one thing, relegating everything else to lesser importance, who wouldn’t be doing it for themselves, to satiate some crazed inner drive. If what Ronaldo does is not admirable—and it might in fact be that—it is at least deeply impressive enough to render nearly all criticism of his motivations moot.
He’s smart, too. Real Madrid are in a transitional phase, not just because he’s playing in Italy now, but because they’re figuring out how to integrate some young players and a few starting eleven mainstays are aging out of the lineup. Though they managed to paper over the growing pains last year, to some extent, with yet another Champions League title, the truth is they were uninspiring for long stretches, with no effective plan in attack, unimaginatively whacking the ball around and usually deciding to hit a cross toward no one in particular. They played well enough to win in Europe, but domestically, the Liga table explained their problem succinctly: Madrid finished third, seventeen points behind Barcelona. There are issues that need addressing at the Bernabeu, and that work is (metaphorically) above Cristiano’s pay-grade.
He’s left for Juve, who, even if they lack a smidgen of Real Madrid’s financial heft, might be the most competently run club in the world. They’re good and rich enough to attract top-level talent, and they’re judicious in how they throw their money around, mixing blockbuster signings with sharp, semi-thrifty deals for players who haven’t quite hit their primes yet. Ronaldo will enjoy getting service from Miralem Pjanic, the best box-to-box playmaker this side of Luka Modrić, and he’ll appreciate all the running Blaise Matuidi will do behind him and Paulo Dybala will do to create space at the edge of the box. Plus the pace of play is a little slower in Italy than Spain and Juve have a firmer grip on Serie A than Real Madrid do on La Liga. This isn’t to say Ronaldo will have an easy time of it, but there’s likely to be slightly less work to do in the league, an opportunity for him to save his legs for the European nights he cares about so much.
He’s said he wants to play until he’s forty, but then he’s also said he would retire in Madrid. Who knows. But this is definitely the last stop for Ronaldo, excepting some possible late-career MLS or Chinese Super League move. He’s amber-hued in twilight, which is to say perhaps he only knocks in 39 this year. It’ll be neat to see him recontextualized, as much as he can be anyway, scoring from everywhere, delighting and annoying people in a new country, barely pretending to be happy for new teammates. There’s a lot of baggage with Ronaldo, and there isn’t, because, really, who wouldn’t want him playing for their club? He claims he went to Juventus in part because they applauded his bicycle kick screamer in the Champions League. That checks out. With any luck, he’ll do something similar again next season, and the Juve faithful won’t have to cheer only out of gobsmacked respect.