Number six, Sami Khedira… number ten, Mesut Özil… Hold on! – Had Alan Keegan forgotten that Real Madrid’s number seven was in the line-up? Was he supposed to be a footnote on his return to the living room of English football? The place that saw the dawning of one of the biggest superstars of our generation?
“Welcome back…” [Old Trafford erupts into a sea of noise]. Cristiano Ronaldo had returned.
I don’t think anyone has ever seen Cristiano Ronaldo act the way he did as he did last Tuesday night. Football fans have seen him joyful, they have seen him arrogant and they have seen infuriated.
But they have never seen him as shy, subdued and uncomfortable as he seemingly was when the Old Trafford faithful celebrated one of their biggest heroes one more time.
It looked as if he had entered his own personal twilight zone. He was the opponent’s biggest star, the one everyone in the stadium was supposed to boo when announced.
Yet, they showered him with the adoration, the love and the respect he had earned through six years of escaping the adolescent period of a boy to becoming a man. Now he was against them yet they still loved him. He was their Cristiano Ronaldo regardless of what kit he pulled over his head as he jogged onto the Old Trafford pitch.
On the night Cristiano’s play looked slightly off the boil, the tricks didn’t work, his pace never got him past anyone, his shots were blocked, his free kicks hit the wall, he never complained or had a fit for a referee’s decision, even when tackled from behind by Ryan Giggs (who did win the ball clean, mind).
Perhaps it was the memories that got to him? The mirage of the young, skinny Portuguese boy with the blond highlights who danced across a Bolton defence almost ten years ago. The man who after having winked England out of the World Cup in 2006 was shielded by an army of Man United fans worldwide and by a manager who had stepped in as father-figure. Together they’d won the European Cup with the images of a crying Cristiano Ronaldo going worldwide as he had reached the proverbial mountain top. It had all started there. Everything had started at Old Trafford. Cristiano Ronaldo had started at Old Trafford.
The script was obviously written for him to be the man to send his former team out of the Champions League, but what had happened when he scored was something I think most fans saw as a bit unexpected.
Ronaldo had promised not to celebrate and he kept to his word. He generally looked disgusted as he stood there with his hands up, he had a quick glance around the stadium as if to say “Forgive me for what I have done”.
As the Real Madrid players jumped on top of him and congratulated him in pure euphoria, he was the only one who couldn’t even stomach a smile. This wasn’t how thing were meant to be. The dream of playing for Real Madrid was fulfilled, but the feeling of belonging to something more than just a football team was something he had learned elsewhere.
What happened next was one of the more bizarre things I can remember having happened during a football match. Most fans will not remember how Alfredo Di Stéfano and his Milionarios-side of Colombian football’s “El Dorado” had a policy which said “three and out”. That policy meant that if Milionarios were up by three they would play the ball between themselves and not score anymore to not humiliate their opponents.
However, some may remember how Iker Casillas asked the referee to blow his whistle during the EURO 2012 final against Italy as he felt that the Italians were to maintain their dignity at the scoreline of 4-0.
Cristiano Ronaldo had skinned Patrice Evra deep into the second half, brought the ball into the center of the pitch, just outside the box, now, nine times out of ten he would’ve buried the ball into the far corner. But he didn’t…. His shot graced the pitch at Old Trafford and calmly placed itself into the hand of David de Gea. It almost seemed as if he just didn’t want to score anymore against Manchester United. He had done his job, he didn’t wish to rub anyone’s face in it. Or his own, for that matter.
When the final whistle went, the Real Madrid players were running around, they were hugging each other, clinching their fists, hyping up the crowd. All, but Cristiano Ronaldo.
His head down, a grin made of stone and a body language that told its own story. As Luka Modric, the other goalscorer, jumped onto him in celebration, Ronaldo gave away a crooked smile.
One would like to suggest he almost had to, but no man had ever looked as disgusted, as displeased, as disappointed in having sent his team to the quarterfinals of Champions League.
As the “was it or was it not” debate about Nani’s red card will haunt United fans to the end of the season, the image of a heartbroken Cristiano Ronaldo must not be forgotten.
Will he ever return as a Manchester United player? I don’t think so. But if there ever was a night in which Cristiano Ronaldo would understand where his heart belongs, it was this one. It was his dream to play for Real Madrid, but for night only, he truly had come home.