United's tetchy carnivore has lost his alpha status to the rise of collectivism in elite football. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Somebody force-feed Cristiano Ronaldo a chocolate croissant — and quickly. The man is sugar-crashing and acting out. His hard-paleo diet is clearly ideal for staying chiselled well into your late thirties and preserving the standing jump of a Neanderthal biting a vulture off a tree. But there are projects in life beyond jumping straight up into the air and now is a good time for this grumpy near-GOAT to take a long, deep hit of refined carbohydrate.
The emotional challenge of entering the gloomy foyer of early middle age is never easy and sometimes you need a bit of sugar in your bowl to brighten the passage. Dopamine spikes tend to bring perspective and empathy, and while carnivores are usually exciting and good-looking, they can’t read a room for toffee. It’s always all about them and all about the gruesome flesh-and-blood problem of predation. Where is my meat? Why are those other carnivores having meat? I must eat them and I must also eat their meat!
Whereas, in fact, Cristiano is facing a bread-and-butter problem — he’s 37 going on 38, he’s not quite so good at football anymore, and he believes that the hard labour of pressing is only for pathetic herbivores. Nowadays, there are only a handful of players who are allowed to disdain pressing duties on the game’s elite plane: the heart-gobbling Erling Haaland, who is 22 and bleeding goals from all his orifices, and the exceptional Paris St Germain front three, whose collective defensive laziness will probably doom their Champions League dreams yet again this season.
But United is not Paris St Germain, and Ronaldo is not Haaland, which means Manchester United coach Erik ten Hag simply cannot justify picking Ronaldo to start anymore. And not being picked is an existential insult that is almost entirely new to Cristiano, who has walked into every side he’s ever played for. Being not even the best player in his club’s attacking array, let alone not the best in the world, might be a profound shock which he cannot quite process, one that perversely made him refuse to play when summoned off the bench.
And given that the end of his 20 years of unrivalled power has arrived soon after the loss of a newborn son, it’s not surprising that Ronaldo is feeling the chill of mortality.
The other interpretation of his bridge-exploding interview with Piers Morgan is that he is not really that furious. Instead, he is calculatedly forcing down his price by making himself entirely unusable to Ten Hag. A desperate United could then be forced to give him a free transfer or even pay out some or all of the remainder of his contract value. If this transpires, even if Ronaldo takes a big wage cut at a new club, he will end up considerably richer than he would have been if he sucked up the indignity of decline and saw out his playing career as a revered elder at Old Trafford.
But as Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have discovered to their cost, engineering one’s own exit from a club that is moving in the right direction (whether by aggressive or passive-aggressive means) can backfire horribly. When Mikel Arteta clashed with those superstars and exiled them at great financial cost, largely because of work-ethic issues they had in common with Ronaldo right now, Arsenal were in a wobbly place. Suddenly, Arsenal are not at all wobbly, while Ozil and Aubameyang have a yesterdayish look about them.
What we are witnessing is a clash between two contradictory evolutions. Off the pitch, the game’s superstars are becoming more powerful than ever before — they are earning ever-crazier wages, they are exerting ever-greater control over image rights and sponsor relationships. They reportedly command the loyalties of young fans, whatever shirt they pull on. Down in Paris, Kylian Mbappe is young and brilliant enough to get away with his impetuous brinkmanship.
But on the pitch, the power of the collective, the supremacy of shared responsibility, is becoming ever greater. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp both made the system supreme over personalities and their younger acolytes are all deeply systematic. Arsenal’s resurgence under Pep’s former aide Arteta has been sparked by the radical selflessness of Gabriel Jesus, a striker who works harder than anybody else on the pitch, at the cost of his own goal-scoring prospects. He represents a new genus of predator: a carnivore with herbivorous ethics.
Ronaldo is not yet extinct, but on this week’s evidence, he’s in the wrong jungle.