On March 24, 39,000 people attended the Juventus women’s first-ever league game at the Allianz Stadium in Turin. It was a record attendance for a women’s match in Italy, another evidence of the Old Lady’s assured pre-eminence. In recent years, under the leadership of now-departed chief executive Giuseppe Marotta, Juventus has made a leap towards global popularity. The internationalist outlook of its brand was represented in the presence of stars such as Sofie Pedersen (Denmark), Eni Aluko (England) and Tuija Hyyrynen (Finland) on the team’s roster.
This is where Juventus aspired to reach for a number of years. To have a team with cache beyond Italy, at par with leaders from other European leagues. But the Turin giant could not become an international brand until it possessed the very best footballers. The men’s team was also guided by this preoccupation. Juventus certainly had a great team, but a player of gargantuan stature was missing from its personnel. That is why, last summer, the club sanctioned a transfer fee of over €100 million to prise Cristiano Ronaldo away from a club that had just won the Champions League thrice in succession, Real Madrid.
The situation was ripe for the move. All was not well between Ronaldo and Madrid; Juventus knew nothing else would reasonably make a bigger statement on the continental stage than acquiring his services. The club’s yearning for continental glory — the Old Lady has not won the Champions League since 1996 — would come closer to realisation once Ronaldo put pen to paper. Not since the heyday of Italian football, which lasted till the early 2000s, had a player of the Portuguese forward’s pedigree chosen Serie A as his destination.
The legacy of the 1990 World Cup lives on in Italy, as many clubs and stadiums struggle to graduate to more sustainable ways of living. It is not that Italian clubs lack investment, rather the capital flows are unequal. Serie A is not able to attract as much value as the Premier League; last season, the bottom club in Italy’s first division is estimated to have received £70 million less than its equivalent in England.
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Juventus, of course, inhabits a different reality. But the Old Lady is not even among the top 10 richest clubs of the world — it was placed 11th by Deloitte based on revenues in 2017 (Juventus may have slightly risen in the standings since). To breach the uppermost echelon, the Turin side required the acquisition of a Ronaldo. Spending an astronomical amount on a 33-year-old may seem foolhardy, but it was not a move beyond the economic means of Juventus.
The transfer certainly energised the conversation around Juventus, and the Italian Serie A in general, ahead of the ongoing season. But Ronaldo’s motivations were less clear. He was the undisputed star at Real Madrid, and had carried the team to a third straight Champions League before curiously announcing his intention to leave minutes after the final in Kiev. The Portuguese captain went on to do reasonably well at the World Cup, too.
The forward’s 24 goals in 36 matches this season, at the time of writing, may seem like a fruitful return, but it is his lowest goals per game ratio in a decade. Unlike the last few years at Madrid, Ronaldo has not got the chance to refresh himself by picking and choosing matches in the first half of the campaign. At Juventus, he is the first name on the team sheet for Max Allegri. Whether the rise in minutes played suits Ronaldo’s body is a serious concern.
An argument in favour of his arrival was the slower tempo of Italian top-flight football. Although it is true that Ronaldo can envisage a longer stay in a major European league thanks to this peculiarity of the Serie A, his advancing years have limited him from dominating defences like he did in Spain. It must be said, though, there is a greater emphasis on tactical organisation in Italian football and teams are better drilled to avoid a mauling defeat.
In Spain, coaches do not spend as much time on defending resolutely. This may explain why Ronaldo experienced a sudden spurt in goals when he moved there from England. A different facet of his game came to the fore in La Liga, too. Ronaldo was hardly ever the leading goal scorer for Manchester United, but, over the years, he took on that role with alacrity for Madrid. The forward’s pedigree in the air has come handy for Juventus this season, a team that often looks to find the man at the far post for headed goals.
Developments outside football have impacted the 34-year-old considerably as well. Ronaldo’s departure from the Spanish capital was not entirely driven by reasons football. The Portuguese footballer was reportedly upset with Madrid for not supporting him enough in the tax evasion case that was settled only this January. In Juventus, though, Ronaldo found an unflinching ally.
When Kathryn Mayorga courageously came out in public last year to accuse the footballer of rape, a crime said to be committed back in 2009, the club released a statement that was in poor taste. The denials by, both Juventus and Ronaldo, were careful prevarications — football stars at the Turin club seem to enjoy more luxuries in the eyes of law. However, the conduct of the club and the player should deeply disturb us.
Las Vegas police reopened its investigation into the case after Der Spiegel went public with Mayorga’s account. The German newspaper was armed with details from Football Leaks, a prominent whistleblower, which revealed that Ronaldo admitted to the crime in a statement he gave to his personal lawyer. Armed with this information, and other alleged breaches of the non-disclosure agreement, Mayorga has sued the Portuguese footballer. However, according to a recent report in ESPN, the legal notice is yet to be served to Ronaldo as international treaties ensure that it is legally complicated to pursue someone across borders, nigh impossible if investigators want to access a celebrity like the Portuguese footballer. But if he were to enter the United States of America, Ronaldo is likely to be questioned by the police — a fair trial could lead to a lifetime sentence.
This is where the forward’s symbiotic relationship with Juventus comes in handy. The club has already announced that Ronaldo will not be a part of its pre-season tour to the US, while the team’s influence in Italy is likely to ensure that its prized asset is protected from legal inquiries. It is a relationship that should make the football world uneasy.
But the allegations do not even seem to graze public consciousness as the routine of football chugs on. Recently, a Ronaldo hat-trick inspired Juventus to a stunning comeback win over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round of 16.
Up next is Ajax in the quarters, a tie for which the Old Lady must be a resounding favourite. Juventus is also set to retain the Serie A title. Ronaldo’s goals may not arrive like before but he is the prime element in this trophy-grabbing machine. Whether he is the player Juventus bought for over €100 million, though, is a question that will be answered decisively in the coming weeks.
However the campaign resolves, the club has already reaped serious benefits. The Turin giant’s market value has risen significantly and its global footprint is wider than ever before. But profitability cannot be allowed to obscure important questions. It remains worth asking, even though an answer may not be forthcoming, what Juventus women’s players think of their club’s stand on Ronaldo. Some of them, like Sofie Pedersen and Eni Aluko, are political advocates in their own right.
The scrutiny on Ronaldo should be severe, even though obscurantist walls are put up whenever he is questioned. Undoubtedly, he commands wide support from football fans still. But it should not be difficult to see Ronaldo for what he is — a phenomenal athlete, a forward obsessed with scoring goals and a big-match player. It is also likely that Juventus and Ronaldo will win many trophies together, perhaps even break the Old Lady’s drought in the Champions League — no matter that he is unlikely to touch the heights that he did in Spain and England.
But as his career winds down in Italy, whitewashing Ronaldo will be a disservice to football.
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