Social media is a boon for athletes because it allows them to speak directly to the world. No filters, no club press officers, no sponsor PR reps, no misquotes. Just their voice, with their chosen words and the opportunity to clarify and rectify. Somebody probably should have told Cristiano Ronaldo's social media team, because even as Tuesday night's Instagram post passed 12 million likes, it ends up raising more questions than it answers.
With fresh rumours and speculation continuously blowing in through the open transfer window, clubs and players -- understandably -- pick their spots to speak out. But when they do take to social, you'd think they'd do it in a way that makes their stance clearer and easier to understand and digest. Ronaldo's post did no such thing.
Let's break it down, shall we?
The backstory here is that Ronaldo has a year left on his contract with Juventus, a deal that pays him close to $80 million a season. He's been very productive and arguably coming off his best season in Serie A, but he also turns 37 in February, which is one of the reasons why the club aren't rushing to extend his contract.
The other reason, of course, is that Juventus recorded whopping losses of more than $300m over the past two years. That's why there was speculation back in the spring that suggested that if Ronaldo wanted to leave, Juventus might not stand in his way, especially if they could recoup a small fee (which Italian media put at around $30m, or the residual amortisation on their books). They'd lose his offensive production and a G.O.A.T. candidate, but they'd also save on his salary right away rather than next summer, when he becomes a free agent and they risk losing him for nothing.
That was several months ago and, at the time, possible destinations included the usual coterie of megaclubs: Paris Saint-Germain (pre-Leo Messi), Manchester United (pre-Edinson Cavani extension) and Real Madrid.
Late Monday night, the Ronaldo-back-to-Madrid story bounced back thanks to an appearance on the Spanish TV show El Chiringuito by a journalist named Edu Aguirre. He reported that Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti was in regular contact with Ronaldo (with whom he has a "marvelous" relationship from when they worked together from 2013-2015) and his entourage, and wanted to bring him back to Real Madrid.
There's a reason Aguirre was, initially at least, given more credibility than your average talking head on TV. I don't know Aguirre personally, but it's fair to say they appear to be close. His Instagram account is chock-full of photos of the pair together. The most recent, dated mid-July, shows them shirtless (obviously) on holiday.
But there's more. There they are, Edu and Cristiano, on the pitch celebrating his fifth Ballon d'Or! Edu visiting Cristiano at Juventus! Edu and Cristiano cuddling for a selfie! Edu and Cristiano in Dubai! Edu and Cristiano on oversized jet skis! Edu and Cristiano celebrating the Champions League win in Kiev! Edu and Cristiano changing out of sneakers and into football boots next to an oversized brown ball! Edu and Cristiano posing together at the Globe Soccer Awards in Dubai! Edu and Cristiano at what looks like a Spider Man-themed birthday party!
Edu even looks a little bit like his pal or, more accurately, a guy who tries to look like Ronaldo. He has the washboard abs, the defined biceps and the CR7 smile. And, of course, his Instagram handle is EduAguirre7, which happens to be Ronaldo's number.
There's little question he likes Ronaldo a lot. even cries sometimes when Ronaldo speaks. And, at least until a month ago, he evidently had more social media access to him than 99.99 percent of the world's population, which is why a reasonable person would take him seriously. And that's why it was a bit shocking to read Ronaldo talk of the "recent episode in Spain" and how he can't "allow people to keep playing around with [his] name." After all, we were led to believe -- not least by Edu's Instagram feed -- that he was as close to Ronaldo as any journalist.
Does that mean his pal, Edu, went rogue? That he was making things up or, at least, exaggerating things? That they're no longer pals?
We don't know. We don't know, because his post doesn't tell us. We just know that he's focused on his work, and that he's committed and prepared for all the challenges ahead, and that everything else is just talk. And he manages to do all this without once mentioning the team he currently plays for and has him under contract until June 30, 2022: Juventus.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ancelotti took to Twitter to knock back the El Chiringuito report. He said that Ronaldo was a legend who has all his affection and respect, but he never considered bringing him back and was "looking forward." I don't know if his partner, Georgina Rodriguez, has her own social media team or if she handles her own posts, but maybe it's the same folks who handle Ronaldo's social media, because she wasn't much clearer when she reacted to Ancelotti's post with a "jajajajaja" (Spanish for "hahahahaha").
OK, so which bit is funny? Are you laughing at the notion that Cristiano Ronaldo might be going back to Madrid? Or does your laugh imply that Ancelotti is lying when he says he "never considered" re-signing him? We don't know, but if it's the latter, then by implication, poor old Edu Aguirre was telling the truth, right? And so Ronaldo can't be angry at him, can he? Or can he? It beats the hell out of me. Beats the hell out of everyone except, maybe, Ronaldo, Georgina and their friends and family (including Edu... or maybe not).
And while Ronaldo may not like the talk, it's inevitable that folks will talk because one of the greatest players in history becomes a free agent in June. Not just that, but his current club made huge losses, he is closely tied to Real Madrid and their fan base (as he himself notes in his post) and he has a tight relationship with Ancelotti.
The entire episode leaves you with two avenues of speculation. The first is that there's some sort of grand design here. Under this scenario, Ancelotti wants to bring Cristiano back (maybe as a short-term alternative to Kylian Mbappe), Juventus figure it's better to get some cash now and cut the wage bill, rather than get zero in June, and Ronaldo wouldn't mind returning to the Bernabeu. But obviously, the pandemic hit everyone hard, he didn't exactly leave Real Madrid president Florentino Perez on good terms, Mbappe remains a target and so you have to proceed with caution.
So you get Edu to float the idea, see what the reaction is, let Ancelotti issue the denial ("Hey, it was true at the time!") and write a long Instagram post that's a love letter to Madridistas and doesn't mention his current employer. Then you sit back and see what the reaction is in Madrid and Turin. Maybe there's enough there to make it happen. Maybe he and Mbappe (who had posters of Ronaldo on his wall as a kid) can play together next season.
Further supporting this theory is the source, Edu Aguirre. When you're close to a source as he seems to be with regard to Ronaldo, it makes no sense to betray trust so wantonly. That's why I tend to believe that he was relating what he was told, and if there are regular calls between Ancelotti and Ronaldo? Well, I'm going to hazard a guess that Edu knows about him from Ronaldo's end. After all, it's Ronaldo's six-pack, not Carlo's, that appears next to Edu on his Instagram account.
Is it possible that Edu was dispatched to float the idea, and the subsequent clear-as-mud posts from Ronaldo and Georgina are part of an elaborate plan to test the waters? Sure. In fact, it would make sense, though my gut tells me otherwise. Many years of covering this sport teach me that many times things aren't quite as calculate as they appear, things don't always happen try design and media psy-ops are rare.
Which brings us to the second scenario: Ancelotti and Ronaldo do text each other occasionally, Edu got a bit carried away in relating the news and Georgina and Ronaldo (or their social media teams) aren't great at using Instagram to get their point across in a way that people can actually understand.
The rest is just speculation, which, supposedly, is exactly what Ronaldo doesn't like and what his Instagram post was supposed to squash.