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Trying to understand the Cristiano Ronaldo-to-Atlético Madrid chatter

Why are Atlético being linked with a longtime nemesis in the twilight of his career?

Portugal v Czech Republic: UEFA Nations League - League Path Group 2 Photo by Valter Gouveia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to write about this or not, because spoiler — it really seems like smoke emanating from Jorge Mendes’s group, trying to drum up interest in its aging (but still, highest-profile) client. However, seeing as Bayern Munich took steps again this weekend to deny any interest in signing Cristiano Ronaldo, and Atlético Madrid remain somewhat-credibly linked with the player, I guess it’s time we dive into the situation.

You may have heard Ronaldo wants to leave Manchester United after just one season back at Old Trafford — which, for all intents and purposes, turned meaningless after Atlético eliminated United from the Champions League in March. Man United ended the Premier League campaign in sixth place and will be playing Europa League football during the 2022/23 season.

Manchester United v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Ronaldo — a serial winner throughout his career and someone who just can’t stand being told “no” — has no interest in playing Europa League football. The 37-year-old reportedly told the club to sell him if a suitable offer arrived, and he took off for his native Portugal before new coach Erik ten Hag and the rest of United’s players left England for their preseason tour in Asia.

Chelsea FC — well, mostly new owner Todd Boehly — was credited with a strong interest in acquiring the five-time Champions League winner, but coach Thomas Tuchel nixed the potential transfer. Meanwhile, here’s what Bayern are saying:

ESPN earlier this week reported that a Saudi club made a lucrative, borderline-obscene offer to bring Ronaldo to the Middle East. But the ex-Real Madrid superstar turned it down as he wants to continue playing in Europe. And right now, Atlético seem to be the last club standing between Ronaldo and an unhappy season outside the Champions League’s comfy confines.

Christ. What a sentence. I cannot believe I just typed that.

Let me go wash my hands.

After ESPN and the Athletic reported on Atlético’s interest in Ronaldo (or, probably more accurately, Mendes’s interest in getting Ronaldo away from Manchester), Relevo’s Matteo Moretto on Friday tweeted the obvious — though Mendes has talked about Ronaldo with Atlético, the player is not an option right now because the club cannot pay his salary. Nor is there any room in the squad for him.

On one hand, I could end this article right here. After all, Atlético are just now cobbling together the money to sign Udinese right-back Nahuel Molina, with possible formulas including €10 million up front with a further €5 million in bonuses plus center-back Nehuén Pérez — or a loan with a €15 million obligation to buy that will be paid in 2023.

If we want to play this out logically/intellectually, Atleti would need to find ways out for Álvaro Morata, Saúl Ñíguez, and at least one other player to even get in the neighborhood of offering Ronaldo his salary demands. He signed a two-year, ~€60 million contract with United last August.

Then, there’s the fit.

Ronaldo, long one of the game’s premier narcissists, would certainly demand a fixed starting role in any team that wants to sign him away from Manchester United. In Atlético’s case, acquiring a player like him would throw an already-delicate forward balance into chaos.

He’ll still score goals, because he’s really good, but Ronaldo turns 38 next February and has grown more allergic to pressing and playing for the team as he ages. The goals alone — 24 in all competitions last season — are not enough to compensate for Ronaldo’s declining ability. Shoehorning him into the side arguably made Man United a worse, less-fluid outfit last season.

But one might wonder if, future financial viability be damned, Atlético feel the temptation (if not pressure) to respond to other moves being made at the top of LaLiga and replace one slow but renowned forward (Luis Suárez) with another (Ronaldo).

Future Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema still spearheads Real Madrid’s attack. Robert Lewandowski, the continent’s next-best forward behind Benzema, will play for Barcelona next season if the Catalan club can continue “activating economic levers” and register him in time. (Adrian Sousa just posted a good breakdown of that club’s financial picture, and why Joan Laporta’s board is doing what it’s doing, on his YouTube channel.)

Reigning domestic and European champions Madrid have also added €100 million midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni this summer, while Barça presented €65 million Leeds winger Raphinha this week and are (somehow) planning even more signings. Atlético have only brought in Axel Witsel and Samuel Lino for a combined €6.5 million — and there’s a very-real prospect that Real Betis and/or Real Sociedad draw even closer to the Colchoneros in the hunt for next season’s top four.

There’s the Diego Simeone pull to consider, as well. Ronaldo sat down for an interview filmed as part of last year’s six-part Amazon Prime Video docuseries about Simeone. He expressed great admiration for Cholo’s competitiveness and love for the game, remarking on how much he enjoyed competing (i.e. scoring loads of devastating goals, then taunting everyone after) against Atlético as a member of Real Madrid and Juventus.

Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images

What’s happening with Ronaldo right now is akin to what’s going on with NBA superstar Kevin Durant. Both players are in their mid- to late-30s, and they want to leave their current teams after forcing their way there in the first place and finding out their mere presence alone did not guarantee success.

NBA teams are wary of parting with significant assets to land Durant, a future Hall-of-Fame player, from the Brooklyn Nets. They know he could easily be on the market again in 12 months if he wants to be. Any club sniffing around Ronaldo via Jorge Mendes has to know he’s a parche, a patch, a bandaid, a “win now, ask questions later” type of move.

I’ve gone far too long on this already, so I’ll stop here. There are some Atlético supporters and long-time socios who are sick at just the rumors alone. I understand and share their reticence. The Rojiblancos need to improve their team next season, but ultimately, rumors about their interest in Cristiano Ronaldo simply do not make sense (at least to me).

Ronaldo and Mendes are going to have to face the reality that they may not get what they want this time. That’s too bad for them.