Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United should complete one of the great fairy tales in modern football. His six years at the club between 2003 and 2009 saw one of the game’s greatest glow ups, transforming from a talented (but temperamental) showboater to one of the most devastating and breathtaking destroyers the game has ever seen.
He joined a boy and left a man. He scored 118 goals in 292 games, won four Premier League titles in six years, brought Manchester United their last Champions League title in 2008, and paraded the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year Awards around Old Trafford that same year.
For a group of fans who may have missed out on Thierry Henry’s reign at the top of the game four years earlier, he was the first “Best Player” they ever remember.
He left the Premier League in 2009 for a world record fee but his star didn’t stop shining, it only grew brighter. You already know the rest. Four more Ballon d’Or awards, 20 trophies at club level, a European Championship with Portugal and so many ‘Team of the Year’ nominations they don’t even list them on Wikipedia.
He’s one of the most gifted athletes of our lifetime. That’s unquestionable. His messianic status on the pitch is why his return last month resulted in the most frenzied reaction to a transfer since…well, Leo Messi departed Barca just weeks earlier.
But it’s this same pedestal, the greatness with which he’s automatically bestowed, that causes so many fans to feel discomfort every time he’s championed on the timeline or called a hero on TV.
On the pitch, his greatness is infallible. Off it? There’s still a chapter in his life that lots of people are struggling to understand and don’t know how to feel about. The sport, the media, and the fans need to start respecting that.
For those who don’t know – and there are many – Cristiano Ronaldo was alleged to have raped a woman in Las Vegas in 2009. The allegation was first reported by investigative German news-magazine Der Spiegel in 2017 and again in 2018, including an in-depth first person account of the incident by the alleged victim, Kathryn Mayorga.
The 2018 report from Der Spiegel included contents from leaked emails, reportedly from a conversation between Ronaldo and his legal team, which includes alleged quotes from the player acknowledging Mayorga “said no and stop several times” and that he “apologised” after their encounter. Ronaldo’s legal team have always denied the legitimacy of the emails.
Following the report and at the request of the victim, Las Vegas Police re-investigated the crime in 2018 – but by 2019, they concluded the claims could not “be proven beyond reasonable doubt” and therefore declined to continue the investigation.
As a result, Ronaldo will not face criminal charges but Mayorga, who was originally paid a fee of $375,000 in 2010 in return for her agreeing to not go public with the accusations, is pursuing a civil lawsuit in the US for substantial damages.
It’s important to note that Cristiano Ronaldo has not faced any charges and has not been proven guilty of any wrongdoing. But it’s also important to recognise this is an ongoing legal matter with material in the public domain that can be triggering or emotionally difficult for many people to read.
This is why Ronaldo’s return needs to be handled with an element of sensitivity and awareness that’s been sorely lacking through so much of the conversation about his return.
Upon sealing his move to Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called CR7 “a great human being”, while Jamie Carragher appeared on Sky Sports to say Ronaldo is “an example to every footballer”. Elsewhere, the same broadcaster chose to hide replies from followers on Twitter who referenced Ronaldo’s sexual assault allegations, and other news organisations mostly declined to make any comment on the issue in their wall-to-wall coverage.
It’s these types of decisions that lead many to believe football would rather bury its head in the sand than confront difficult conversations around one of its most iconic players. It also brings to light the game’s problematic relationship with rape culture and paying respect to those who have been victims of sexual assault.
The announcement of Ronaldo’s transfer came just one day after Benjamin Mendy was arrested and charged with four counts of rape and a sexual assault. Mere days after the news broke, we learned Manchester City were aware of the serious allegations against Benjamin Mendy but they continued to play him anyway, according to reports by The Athletic.
Whether it’s wilful ignorance or an industry that can’t see beyond its own bubble, it’s a reminder that this male-dominated sport isn’t quick to put itself in the shoes of those who could have induced trauma in relation to these issues.
This is why it’s problematic that media platforms, fan culture, and thought leaders aren’t recognising the awkward internal conflict many fans feel with Ronaldo’s return.
The game is – sadly – institutionally structured to minimise the experiences of women (just 35 of the 523 directors in the EFL are women), and speaking about Ronaldo’s “greatness” as a human being right now, without addressing the elephant in the room, shows that.
This piece isn’t here to tell you to feel any type of way about Cristiano Ronaldo the player. He remains a supreme athlete who will undoubtedly leave his impression on the Premier League yet again this season.
But it is important to consider those who aren’t so excited about his return and to respect those who may feel conflicted about seeing him celebrated so widely right now. If we’re going to cheer wildly every time he wins a game for United this season, we should also be ready to have awkward conversations in other moments. One shouldn’t exist without the other.
Football should be a safe space for everyone – as fans, we should never lose sight of that.