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The Ronaldo experiment may not have been the right way to go

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Signing Cristiano Ronaldo was a huge financial gamble — and it’s one that Juve may not be able to win.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus FC looks dejected during the... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Yes, I know what I’m getting into with this article.

I will start by saying that this piece has nothing to do with the merits of Cristiano Ronaldo as a player. He’s one of the best players to ever put on shin guards. He’s a freakin’ alien. We all know this.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean signing him was the best thing for Juventus. THIS is what we’re going to be dealing with today.

Buried under all the jubilation of Ronaldo’s arrival in 2018 was the fact that Juventus President Andrea Agnelli was taking a massive gamble. It was an attempt not just to push Juve over the last hump and get them the Champions League title they haven’t gotten since 1996, but to put the finishing touches on a long-simmering brand-building operation that, it was hoped, would push Juve firmly into the financial realm of the Real Madrids, Barcelonas, Bayern Munichs, and Manchester Uniteds of the world. Agnelli was banking on Ronaldo being the fuel to rocket Juve up from 1A to 1.

We’re halfway through Ronaldo’s four-year contract in Turin, and if you strip everything away, the cold reality of things is that it’s looking like Agnelli may have gone in the wrong direction two summers ago.

First off, I don’t think it’s remotely arguable anymore that the justification for signing Ronaldo — at least from a sporting perspective — was fundamentally flawed. At the time it was thought that Ronaldo would be the last piece of the puzzle for a team that had been to two Champions League finals in four years and had been seconds (and a terrified referee) away from completing an insane comeback at the Bernabeu in the quarterfinal the year before. The last two years have shown that idea to have been highly optimistic. The front office had long neglected the midfield, and their failure to adequately replace the likes of Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba finally came home to roost. With the exception of Rodrigo Bentancur and the post-restart renaissance of Adrien Rabiot, no one in the unit was worth their playing time over Ronaldo’s first two years. The Portuguese could’ve played at his absolute Man U/Real Madrid zenith and not overcome that problem. That midfield has been significantly rebuilt this offseason, but we still have to see if it will work, and with further problems at fullback and the striker position this team still has some serious flaws.

It’ll take some serious internal improvement for Juventus to actually reach their ultimate goal in Europe. I focus on internal improvement because heavy investment from outside sources probably won’t be coming this year, and Ronaldo’s presence is a big part of that.

Reporting on Ronaldo’s salary varies slightly depending on what source you get, but it’s important to know that usually the number that you see is his net salary, after taxes. Either way, it detonated the wage structure that Beppe Marotta had been carefully cultivating for years. Forbes puts his net salary at €30 million per year, and extrapolating based on Italy’s top tax bracket put his gross salary at around $64 million, which, run through the exchange rate to Euros, amounts to just shy of €54.2 million. That’s a massive outlay for a single player, especially when you consider it’s nearly four times more than the next highest paid player (Matthijs de Ligt). Ronaldo’s salary is more than the next three players on the list (de Ligt, Paulo Dybala, and Aaron Ramsey) combined.

Andrea Agnelli (L) shakes hands with Cristiano Ronaldo of... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

If Juventus really were punching at the level of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the Premier League elites, that wouldn’t particularly be a problem. It also wouldn’t be too big a deal if the Juventus deal “paid for itself” on his shirt sales and sponsorships like so many touted it would after the team shattered sales records and renegotiated some sponsorships. But the fact of the matter is that the money Juve is spending on Ronaldo is clearly inhibiting the team’s ability to enhance its roster from the outside. Based on current transfer reports, the team’s most likely options to replace Gonzalo Higuain at the No. 9 position are cut-price, short-term deals for the likes of Luis Suarez and Edin Dzeko — which are lateral moves at best. The deal for Weston McKennie, while refreshing as a throwback to the low-risk, high-reward deals of the early days of Marotta’s tenure, is also a sign that the team’s purchasing power at the moment is extremely low. The fact that a move for Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar — who has been linked with the team since February and reportedly wants to come to Juventus — and would only cost €40 million to €50 million, isn’t materializing is also a serious red flag.

Admittedly, the issues in this transfer window have a lot to do with the lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s totally unreasonable to hold that against the people who pulled the trigger on the Ronaldo deal — there’s no way they could have anticipated the largest pandemic in a century to overwhelm the world 19 months after signing him.

But the problems go deeper than the pandemic. This lengthy Twitter thread by the blogger Swiss Ramble, who focuses on the business side of the sport, analyzed the Deloitte Money League from 2018-19 season, the most recent season with data available. Based on that data, Juve operated at the fourth-largest loss in Europe and had the second-highest net debt. The club’s finances haven’t been the same since they detonated Marotta’s carefully constructed wage structure to invest in Ronaldo, and it’s preventing the front office from addressing the team’s needs in a timely manner. While the de Ligt deal certainly was an excellent move, instead of going for a similar move to upgrade the midfield in the same window, Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici was reduced to signing Rabiot and Ramsey on Bosmans and hoping they worked out the way Pogba and Andrea Pirlo did. The repeated attempts to get Higuain’s contract off the books, starting the moment Ronaldo arrived, are a major indicator of how much the team needs to work around his line of the wage bill.

The disproportionate spending on Ronaldo is preventing the club from adequately and quickly improving the rest of the squad — thereby wasting the opportunity to attain the on-field success they’re looking for with Ronaldo on the field. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps the team locked in relative mediocrity in continental competition.

If Agnelli’s endgame of making Juventus one of the world’s biggest soccer brands does end up coming to fruition as a result of this move, it would certainly make this momentary difficulty more palatable in hindsight. But, from where I sit, it’s hard to see that happening. The massive influx of attention that Juve has received from Ronaldo’s arrival came from people who are fans of Ronaldo, not fans of a club. It’s hard to envision the majority of them remaining Juventini for the long haul after Ronaldo is gone. Perhaps some will truly fall in love with the stripes, if they were inspired by the club or caught early enough. But any eventuality other than the lion’s share of that attention shifting away toward Ronaldo’s next stop, wherever that may be, is a hard sell. A large segment of the current benefits of having Ronaldo on the team — the media and social media attention, the attractiveness of the team to rising young talents, the record-setting shirt sales — will no longer be there when Juventus becomes the team Ronaldo used to play for.

Juventus was always playing a long game as they tried to build the team back into the kind of power it was at the turn of the century. It was a good plan, but it perhaps worked a little too well. It’s hard to remember, but when Antonio Conte was hired as manager in 2011, no one was expecting what actually happened to happen. The success Juventus has had since then came way ahead of schedule, and the team has been dealing with the impact of those accelerated expectations ever since, and the acquisition of Ronaldo is one of the symptoms of that. Angelli went off-script when he pulled the trigger on this move — in my opinion to the club’s detriment. The best way to level the team up wasn’t to grab at the coattails of a guy whose following transcends club allegiances. There have certainly been off-field benefits to having him on the roster, but the permanence of those benefits is questionable at best. It may have taken longer, but finding a superstar of the team’s own making building the brand off the success of that player would have been a far more effective, and with far more long-lasting effects.

Instead of taking that longer route, Agnelli went for instant gratification. The problem with instant gratification is that its effects tend to wear off. And right now, it’s hard to see a future where that doesn’t happen—and harder to imagine how Juve stays on an upward trajectory when it does.