If anything perhaps encapsulates Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at Juventus, it was his last game for the club.
Ronaldo came off the bench against Udinese to seemingly win the game very late in the day with a textbook header, as he met Federico Chiesa’s teasing cross to plant his header into the corner of the Udinese goal.
Off came the shirt, those perfectly proportioned muscles flexed for the tens of millions of Ronaldo fans across the world.
Then the goal was disallowed by VAR, and the game finished 2-2.
Ronaldo’s final moments for Juve at the Dacia Arena personified his three-year stint: in with a bang, out with a whimper.
Much has been said and written about Ronaldo’s time in Serie A in the days since he left to re-join Manchester United. Was he a success? Was he a failure? Did he hold Juventus back? Was he worth the exorbitant outlay?
The truth is somewhere in the middle.
What isn’t up for argument is that, in the end, Juventus were more than happy to get Ronaldo off the club’s wage bill, his €31m ($36m)-a-season salary simply crushing the club’s shrinking revenue in the pandemic-shaped landscape we find ourselves in.
Things all seemed so different when Ronaldo arrived in Turin three years ago. Here was the man who had tormented The Old Lady in the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff and who earned a standing ovation from his new fans after scoring that overhead kick in the following season’s quarter final first leg clash in Turin.
Mr. Champions League had now arrived to deliver the one trophy to the one club who not just craved it, but needed it more than any other in Europe. A team who hadn’t won it since 1996, and lost umpteen finals in an attempt to win another one.
But Ronaldo wasn’t just signed for what he could do on the pitch; the club had an eye on growing club revenue, which Andrea Agnelli believed had hit a glass ceiling due to the limitations of playing in Italy.
The Ronaldo effect was immediate. The club gained around 5m new social media followers within 24 hours of the deal being announced. In his first season, Juve’s revenue grew by some €58m ($68.4m) from the usual sources (stadium, commercial deals, merchandising); the club sold 1m shirts in 2018/19, more than double compared to the previous year.
In the second, Juve’s existing deals with Jeep and Adidas were renegotiated due to the presence of Ronaldo, rising from €17m ($20m) to €42m ($49.5m) (Jeep) and from €23m ($27m) to €51m ($60m) (Adidas).
In his three years at the club, Juve’s accumulative social media following doubled, from 50m to 113m followers. Ronaldo ultimately brought eyeballs to Serie A, and on this front he was an unequivocal success.
Whether he was a success on the pitch depends on how you define it. Yes he scored goals, 101 goals in 134 games in all competitions in fact, but Ronaldo wasn’t brought to Italy to win Serie A or the Coppa Italia. Juve had long-since proven they could achieve that with Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata, with Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic.
But despite how Juve might have felt, or perhaps gleefully hoped, Ronaldo alone wasn’t going to win the Champions League.
The round of 16 second leg comeback against Atletico Madrid in March 2019 will likely be regarded as Ronaldo’s greatest moment in black and white, overturning a two-goal deficit by his sheer force of will. The three Champions League journeys all ended in immensely underwhelming circumstances. Eliminations against Ajax, Lyon and Porto weren’t in the script and what neither party signed up for.
On the pitch, Ronaldo was difficult to accommodate. It’s been reported that as he was leaving the club in June 2019, Max Allegri advised Agnelli to sell Ronaldo. Agnelli then hired a systems coach in Maurizio Sarri, who also found the same issues. Sarri had asked Ronaldo to play as a false nine in his 4-3-3 system, only for Ronaldo to refuse, supposedly. Sarri’s successor, Andrea Pirlo, also struggled to effectively use him.
Throughout his three seasons – but especially in the latter two – there was a genuine lack of cohesiveness and rhythm to Juve’s play, almost as if the club was caught between two stools: trying to cater to Ronaldo, whilst at the same time play an attractive, system-based brand of football that would win over the neutral.
The end product was a highly disjointed team that dug its way out of games based purely on moments of individualism.
By the same token, the constant chopping and changing of coaches and systems by the club didn’t help Ronaldo either. At Real Madrid, he played alongside Karim Benzema for years, establishing an ultra-effective partnership. At Juve, Ronaldo played with Mandzukic, a returning Higuain and then Alvaro Morata in his final season, all three vastly different kind of strikers. There was a real sense of Juve throwing things at the wall to see what stuck.
The nucleus of the side that had reached two Champions League finals in three years were either ageing or had been sold by the time of Ronaldo’s arrival. Gianluigi Buffon had left the club that summer to try an adventure abroad; Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci’s collective brilliance at Euro 2020 felt like a step back in time, as the pair hadn’t been that effective at club level for years.
For a club that could seemingly do no wrong on the transfer market in the earliest years of the 2010s, the summer of 2016 was a turning point. The latter half of the decade saw Juve essentially undo all their good work with a succession of disastrous transfer windows: the departures of Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba were never – and still haven’t been – adequately replaced; buying a 28-year-old Gonzalo Higuain for €90m ($106m) was a ludicrous decision without the benefit of hindsight; €80m ($94m) was spent on wingers Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi in 2017; buying and then selling Joao Cancelo only after one season; selling Leonardo Spinazzola to Roma; signing Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot as free agents but handing them massive salaries.
What’s all this got to with Ronaldo, you may ask?
By the start of his second season, the litany of mistakes made by the once-dependable Beppe Marotta, and especially by his successor as sporting director, Fabio Paratici, turned Juve’s squad into a bloated mess. It was top-heavy and the midfield had glaring Vidal and Pogba-shaped holes that weren’t sufficiently fixed, but filled over with band-aids like Emre Can and Blaise Matuidi.
For all the drawbacks that having Ronaldo in your team entails, he wasn’t surrounded by a fully functioning team.
Yes, Ronaldo’s insistence on playing where he wanted ultimately hurt the side, especially under a system-driven coach like Sarri. But the chronic mismanagement of the club over the last five years hamstrung the club’s ultimate goal of winning the Champions League far more than Ronaldo’s mammoth wages did.
The pandemic also played a pivotal role in his premature departure, as Juve’s revenues shrank as a consequence of no fans inside the Allianz Stadium. Ronaldo’s wages were ultimately too much for the club to carry, as the team’s salary rose from €258m ($304m) in 2018 to €328m ($386m) a year later, and another huge increase to €374m ($441m) by the end of 2019/20.
But as Fabio Capello opined in a recent issue of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Ronaldo ‘lost confidence’ in the Juve project. At 36-years-old, he knows his chances of winning a sixth Champions League are diminishing by the season, and he was never going to achieve it at Juventus. For all that he held Juve back, the club also held him back. A move away was the best-case scenario for all involved.
So how to rate the Ronaldo experiment?
Neither the club nor the player achieved what they wanted, Champions League success. Ronaldo brought more fans to Juventus, but how long will they stick around for? In the modern age, evidence points to Generation Z children following individuals, not teams.
On the pitch, Juve regressed with every passing year Ronaldo was at the club. Partly due to Ronaldo, partly due to years of mismanagement. The biggest loser of the Ronaldo experiment has been Paulo Dybala, who has been shunted into various positions by Allegri, Sarri and Pirlo over the last three season, with none of them working particularly well.
Despite the trophies won and the goals scored, Ronaldo’s legacy in Serie A is similar to that of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Luis Figo, Rivaldo and Hristo Stoichkov before him: a legendary player who played in Serie A, rather than a Serie A legend.
In the end, Cristiano Ronaldo was the right player for Juventus, at the wrong time.