As the transfer talk heated up, the prospect of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo in a Manchester City jersey increasingly dismayed greats from the red half of town — particularly Rio Ferdinand.
How could the player he won three Premier League titles and the Champions League with at Manchester United contemplate returning to the Premier League with their greatest rival?
“I rang him straight away,” Ferdinand said. “What’s going on? Tell me you’re lying.”
By that point, Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, had already told Juventus on Thursday the five-time world player of the year wanted out of the final season of his contract.
His destination, publicly at least, and not disputed by City, looked like being the blue half of Manchester.
Signing one of the greatest players of all time — especially a United legend — would have been the perfect way for City to end a difficult week. Its long-running pursuit of Harry Kane had spectacularly collapsed when it realized Tottenham wouldn’t sell the striker who was the Premier League’s top scorer last season for even 100 million pounds ($138 million)
The back pages of Friday’s newspapers teased the sensational possibility of the 36-year-old Ronaldo filling the void up front for Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions. But by Friday lunchtime, Guardiola publicly accepted: “Right now it looks far, far, away.”
A deal was far away. But Ronaldo soon won’t be physically far away from City after United acted swiftly to pull off the transfer coup.
Once Ronaldo’s availability emerged — which hadn’t seemed an option at the start of the week — United’s hierarchy made clear to Mendes it wanted to bring the Portuguese back to Old Trafford, 12 years after he was sold to Real Madrid.
The emotional pull with the club that signed him at age 18 in 2003 — and provided the platform for him to become a soccer superstar — proved stronger than playing for a City side that has usurped United to become England’s dominant force.
Ronaldo listened to the pleas of Ferdinand and surely other figures linked to United. United struck a deal on Friday afternoon to pay Juventus 15 million euros (around $18 million), with 8 million euros ($9 million) in add-ons, with only personal terms to be resolved along with contractual and visa formalities.
“When there is an opportunity for him to come and continue his legacy, continue his history with this football club,” Ferdinand posted in an online video, “if Man United had let that slip through their fingers and he had gone across the city to the other side, you would have had to have had security 24/7, around the clock at the stadium, let alone the houses of some of the people involved.”
The former United defender wasn’t over-exaggerating or being alarmist.
Last year, furious fans attacked the house of United vice chairman Ed Woodward with smoke bombs and fireworks. And only four months ago, supporters stormed into the stadium and onto the field, and clashed with security outside Old Trafford, leading to the unprecedented postponement of a Premier League match due to protests.
The dissent has been largely dampened, even before the fan-pleasing re-signing of Ronaldo.
While he is clearly more of a short-term solution to trying to win the Premier League for the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, the summer transfer window had already seen other significant investment and additions.
A couple of months before it swooped to stop Ronaldo joining its neighbor, United struck a deal with Borussia Dortmund worth 85 million euros ($100 million) to bring 21-year-old former City winger Jadon Sancho back to Manchester.
Then the Glazers spent another 34 million pounds on signing center back Raphael Varane from Real Madrid. And where Old Trafford had been the scene of protests in April and May, it became a cauldron of raucous delight when the 28-year-old France World Cup winner was presented to the crowd before kickoff at the season opener.
How fickle some fans can be. All it took was some more spending on the squad, and initial pledges by the Glazers to engage more after the debacle of the failed Super League breakaway in April, for United fans to be won back over after finishing runners-up to City last season.
Of course, it will still require the first trophy since the 2017 Europa League and a return to the era when titles were expected every season — in their multiples — for supporters to be truly happy.
Ronaldo is the connection with the past who can remind this new generation of United players of a time — before City benefited from the influx of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth in 2008 — when the Red Devils ruled English football.
The Premier League can also celebrate Ronaldo opting to come to England, enticed by a reunion with United — and former teammate-turned-manager Ole Gunnar Solsksjaer — rather than playing for the first time in the same team as Lionel Messi at Qatar-funded Paris Saint-Germain.
“A little bit nostalgic and nostalgia doesn’t always work in football,” said Gary Neville, another of Ronaldo’s former United teammates, who is now a Sky TV pundit. “The idea of him going to City was torture for United fans.”
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