It is a move that has been talked about again and again in the time since his departure to Real Madrid in 2009, but without ever really coming close to happening. There was speculation in 2013 and again in 2018, but finally in 2021, United and Ronaldo are preparing for a spectacular reunion.
In the span of 48 hours, and with less than a week remaining in the summer transfer window, Ronaldo told Juventus of his desire to leave the club and, appeared set to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Then, a flurry of text messages and phone calls led to Ronaldo choosing his former club over their most immediate rivals.
After six years at United from 2003-2009 -- 292 appearances, 118 goals, three Premier League titles and a Champions League triumph in 2008 -- Ronaldo made no secret of his desire to join Real Madrid for a then-world record fee of £80 million. But he has remained a fan favourite at United and was celebrated as a returning hero on visits back to Manchester with Real Madrid and Juventus. He even refused to celebrate when his goal for Real Madrid at Old Trafford helped Real Madrid knock United out of the Champions League in 2013 -- Sir Alex Ferguson's last European tie before his retirement.
Ronaldo still calls Ferguson his "football father" and the pair have stayed in regular contact over the years, with Ferguson greeting him after Portugal won the European Championships in 2016. Ferguson played his part in ensuring the five-time Ballon d'Or winner signed for United after deciding to leave Juventus this summer, just when it looked like Ronaldo could do the unthinkable and join rivals Manchester City. It also had long been the ambition of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to bring him back.
Here's how it happened.
With additional reporting from Gabriele Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Rodrigo Faez and Andrew Cesare Richardson
How Manchester United did it
United are not hiding the fact that they didn't begin the summer transfer window with plans to sign Ronaldo. ESPN reported in June, before the start of the European Championships, that Ronaldo's representatives (led by his agent, Jorge Mendes) were gauging interest from some of Europe's top clubs, including United, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, if -- and, at that point, it was a big "if" -- he left Juventus.
The answer from United at the time was a polite no, partly because of a belief that he would decide to see out the final year of his contract in Turin, and partly because of the numbers involved -- especially for a player who, while at the peak of his fitness, turns 37 in February -- but also because their priorities in the transfer market were elsewhere.
Mendes got a similar answer from Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Manchester City. Then came Harry Kane's announcement, made on Wednesday, that he would not be moving to City this summer and instead would remain at Tottenham for at least another year. With no prospect of signing their top target, City began looking into other options and before long, Mendes was back on the phone.
The response this time was more positive than it had been in June and with Ronaldo finally making a decision to leave Juventus, even missing a training session last week, City began looking at how to make a deal work. There was a reluctance to meet the financial demands of both Juventus and Ronaldo -- he earned €31m net and bonuses per year at Juventus, who also asked for around €28m in a transfer fee to avoid a capital loss on the deal that brought Ronaldo from Real Madrid in 2018 -- and Pep Guardiola also had reservations about how he would fit in on and off the pitch.
Still, on Thursday, City had agreed to keep talking to Mendes, but by then, things were already changing. As the prospect of Ronaldo joining City became more and more real and United fans began expressing their outrage, his former United teammates Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, Portugal teammate Bruno Fernandes, and Ferguson all got involved. For their part, Ferdinand and Ferguson told him simply "you cannot sign for City." Phone calls were made and WhatsApp messages sent to Ronaldo -- Evra later posted a portion of his conversation on Twitter -- while Woodward began talking to Mendes.
On Thursday night, Mendes received a proposal from United. On Friday morning, conversations with Juventus began and United assured the Italian club they were prepared to pay a fee, something City had so far resisted. There were conversations about players possibly moving in the other direction but eventually a transfer fee of €15 million, with another €8m in add-ons, was agreed.
When United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's weekly news conference began at 1:15 p.m. UK time on Friday, he was already confident Ronaldo was coming back. Each question about Ronaldo was batted away by Solskjaer until, right at the end, he said pointedly "he knows what we feel about him and if he is going to move, he knows we are here."
The cat was out of the bag. City sources insist they pulled out well before Guardiola began his own news conference at 1:30 p.m. UK time, but official word didn't filter through until later in the afternoon. City remain unhappy with Mendes' role in the saga with some believing he used interest from the Etihad to force United into acting.
Sources close to Ronaldo admit he considered a move to City, but once United revealed their hand, his mind was made up and that he had even taken a small pay cut to make it happen.
Sources have also told ESPN that the pitch made to Ronaldo, done in part by former teammate and now technical director Darren Fletcher, was about "completing unfinished business at Old Trafford and writing a new chapter rather than trying to relive the past." And at 4:50 p.m. UK on Friday, the official announcement came through to cap off a remarkable 24 hours. (Bruno later joked he was an "agent" once the news was public.)
"Manchester United is delighted to confirm that the club has reached an agreement with Juventus for the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo, subject to agreement of personal terms, visa and medical," it read. "Everyone at the club looks forward to welcoming Cristiano back to Manchester." United's announcement post on Instagram is the most liked post by a sports team ever, in any sport.
Even when, to outsiders at least, City seemed destined to sign Ronaldo, those within Old Trafford knew that the player's deep-rooted affection for United would give them a chance of persuading him to choose red rather than blue. Ronaldo has maintained contact with many from his time at United, principally Ferdinand and Evra, but he also has retained relationships with members of staff behind the scenes. And one staffer has told ESPN of a moment in Turin, following United's 2-1 Champions League win against Juventus in November 2018, when his ongoing respect for United became clear.
"We had just beaten Juve with two late goals and Jose Mourinho, the manager at the time, went onto the pitch and started to goad the Juventus fans by cupping his ear to the noise," the United source said. "A lot of the players were pissed off with [Mourinho] because it seemed like he was making the win about him rather than the team and Cristiano was furious with him, too.
"He walked past and said, '[Mourinho] doesn't have the class to manage Manchester United.'''
"We've always known that Ronaldo loved his time at Old Trafford, but I think what people outside the club don't appreciate is how much he still cares, and always has, about what happens here."
The Woodward factor
Since assuming his role as executive vice-chairman in 2013, following the retirement of chief executive David Gill, Woodward has made it his business to get close to the game's so-called "super-agents."
Gill, perhaps influenced by Ferguson's deep-rooted disdain for player representatives, always kept them at arm's length, treating many with suspicion and trusting only those he had grown to know and respect during a decade in the job. Woodward had no such inhibitions, and he worked hard to cultivate relationships with the likes of Mino Raiola -- adviser of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Erling Haaland, among others -- and Mendes, Ronaldo's long-standing representative.
On one occasion, while enjoying drinks with journalists before United's Champions League tie against Olympiakos in Athens in February 2014, Woodward's phone rang, with the screen clearly showing the caller's name. Rather than quickly diverting the call or moving away to take it privately, Woodward instead made sure everyone knew who was calling him -- "Ha! It's Jorge Mendes," he said.
But while he was mocked at times for his determination to get close to powerful agents, Woodward continued to see it as a crucial element of his job and the hard yards have paid off with the signing of Ronaldo -- and it might yet prove key to landing Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund next summer.
Sources have told ESPN that Woodward and Mendes have been in contact about Ronaldo throughout the summer, and that the United director was kept informed by Mendes about Ronaldo's intentions every step of the way. Initial discussions in June led to United being told of the "eye-watering" numbers it would cost to do a deal, but those talks never progressed because of Ronaldo telling Mendes to inform clubs that he would be staying at Juventus.
When Ronaldo changed his mind earlier this month, Mendes made Woodward aware, but United had done their planned business by signing Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and agreeing a deal for Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane.
Signing Ronaldo would also require finding funds from outside the transfer budget and Woodward would need to persuade co-chairman Joel Glazer of the financial and sporting sense of doing the deal that, sources have said, will cost at least £500,000 a week in wages for the next two years. It was only when City emerged as a potential destination for Ronaldo that Woodward was able to find the keys to the Glazer vault.
Sources have told ESPN that Guardiola and some members of the City hierarchy have been unimpressed with the way Mendes conducted negotiations, but if the ultimate objective of drawing City in was to lure United back to the table, it worked. Once it became clear that Ronaldo would soon be heading to City rather than United unless they acted quickly, the Glazers gave Woodward the green light to do a deal.
"It couldn't have been acceptable to any of us if [Ronaldo] wore sky blue," a United source told ESPN. "When he changed his mind [about leaving Juventus] and the deal popped up again, the way to get it over the line was City's interest."
When he replaced Gill in June 2013, Woodward had a list of dream targets. One was to re-sign Pogba from Juventus; the other was to get Ronaldo back to Old Trafford. Pogba returned in 2016 and Ronaldo, 12 years after leaving for Real Madrid, is also back in a red shirt.
"It's a shame it took so long," a United source told ESPN.
Why was he allowed to leave Juventus?
Juventus told Mendes way back in the spring, even before they parted ways with Andrea Pirlo, that they were facing heavy losses and while they'd be delighted if Ronaldo stayed for his final season, they also would not stand in his way if he said he wanted to leave. The club was clear about wanting to recoup in the region of €28m to avoid a capital loss on his move from Real Madrid in 2018, so they could begin their rebuild, but all they asked was that it was best if business got done quickly.
There was zero interest in Ronaldo around Europe, despite Mendes' best efforts. Real Madrid was a no-go, United rebuffed him, Paris Saint-Germain were focused on extending Kylian Mbappe's contract, City were pursuing Kane, Chelsea were looking at Erling Haaland and then Romelu Lukaku. At that stage, Juve believed Ronaldo's preferred destinations were Real Madrid, PSG and Chelsea, in that order, because of his desire to win another Champions League.
When Ronaldo began to be heavily linked with Real Madrid in mid-August, Juve reached out to him and Mendes, though the forward gave no indication he wanted to leave. Mendes said there was interest from other clubs, but it would depend on movement elsewhere -- particularly what happened with Mbappe. Juve also checked with coach Massimiliano Allegri. He said he would go with whatever the club wanted, but that if Ronaldo left, he would need another striker. Other than that, he wasn't too concerned.
With Ronaldo in the squad, Allegri was facing a problem both his predecessors, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo, struggled to deal with: how to fit him in the team. Both realised Ronaldo couldn't play up front on his own (he has the worst pressing stats of any striker in Serie A), or on the wing (because he doesn't like to track back) and their solution was to play 4-2-2 and pair him with another forward, a system that didn't suit the rest of their players.
By Thursday morning, City appeared to be in pole position. Mendes told Juventus that City had been in contact and that things looked promising. Juventus had no contact with City at that point and while they briefed that they were expecting a formal bid, all they got from City was a verbal one. Then, United moved in.
On Friday morning, Ronaldo arrived at Juve's Continassa training ground and spent about 40 minutes saying his goodbyes. The club gave him permission to go and excused him from the weekend's games, though they were still not 100 percent certain he would leave. They had been given information that Guardiola really wasn't sold on him and while they had been told the previous night that United had come into the picture, they did not take it seriously.
At that stage, if the City deal fell through, they thought it was far more likely he'd go to PSG, if they sold Mbappe, or come back to Turin. In the end, the lure of a return to United was too strong.
How does Ronaldo now fit at Old Trafford?
While it seemed unfathomable that Ronaldo could end up at City, you can make a case that he is needed more at the Etihad than at Old Trafford. Guardiola wants a striker after Sergio Aguero's departure to Barcelona, while United's need in the final few days of the transfer window appeared to be a holding midfielder and cover at right-back.
Still, in Ronaldo, United have added a proven goal scorer who continues to find the net well into his 30s. In 134 appearances across two years with Juventus, he scored 101 goals and recorded 22 assists. He finished as Serie A's top scorer in both seasons.
Ronaldo arrived at United the first time predominantly as a winger, but he has morphed into a striker over the course of his career and that's where he will play under Solskjaer. He "fits with the fast, attacking style of play that Ole is committed to," one source told ESPN, but it's likely the pace and energy will come from those around Ronaldo, like Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial. Dan James, who started the 1-0 win over Wolves on Sunday, could now leave on loan, with Leeds United interested.
At Juventus, Ronaldo was used regularly in a two-man attack, and it's possible he could be played alongside Cavani, Greenwood, Rashford or Martial at United, depending on the opposition. Even with another attacker joining the squad, Solskjaer insists there will be enough games to go around and, as things stand, there are no plans to offload Edinson Cavani, who will compete for the spot at centre forward.
United also believe Ronaldo fits in off the pitch as well as on it. Last season, Solskjaer felt that a lack of Champions League experience had meant his team were a little naive in key moments against Paris Saint-Germain at home and away at RB Leipzig, when they were knocked out. Ronaldo and Raphael Varane -- who won the competition four times during their time together at Real Madrid -- should rectify that.
It has been part of Solskjaer's plan to supplement a core group of young players with the experience of Ronaldo, Varane, Cavani and goalkeeper Tom Heaton, and there is hope that the way Ronaldo conducts himself off the pitch, in the way he trains and looks after his body, will rub off on the likes of Greenwood and Sancho.
United were the premier force in Europe when Ronaldo was last at Old Trafford. He's back to see if he can do it again.