How Man United persuaded Cristiano Ronaldo to reject Juventus and Man City, return to Old Trafford

Cristiano Ronaldo, twelve years after he left Old Trafford, is back at Manchester United. He has agreed to a sensational return.
This is a move that has been discussed repeatedly since Ronaldo's departure from Real Madrid in 2009. However, it never came close to being realized. In 2013, there was much speculation, but in 2018 it finally happened.

Ronaldo, who had less than one week to go in the summer transfer window, told Juventus that he wanted to leave the club. He was all set to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. After a series of phone calls and text messages, Ronaldo chose his former club over the closest rivals.

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Ronaldo expressed his desire to join Real Madrid, where he was offered a world record 80 million. He was a fan favourite at United, and was a hero when he returned to Manchester with Real Madrid or Juventus. Even refusing to celebrate his goal for Real Madrid at Old Trafford that saw Real Madrid defeat United in the Champions League 2013 -- Sir Alex Ferguson’s last European tie.

Ronaldo calls Ferguson his "football dad" and they have kept in touch over the years. Ferguson greeted Ronaldo after Portugal won the European Championships 2016. Ferguson was instrumental in ensuring that the five-time Ballon d'Or winner signed with United. He left Juventus this summer just as Ronaldo was about to join Manchester City rivals. Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman, had always hoped to bring him back.

Here's how it happened.

Additional reporting by Gabriele Marcotti and Rodrigo Faez, Andrew Cesare Richardson

Manchester United's success story

United don't hide the fact that Ronaldo wasn't signed when they opened the summer transfer window. ESPN reported that Ronaldo's agents (led by Jorge Mendes, his agent) were trying to gauge interest from top European clubs.

United's response was polite. It was partly because United believed he would choose to end his Turin contract, partly because of the numbers involved, especially for a player at his peak of fitness who turns 37 in February, but also because United's priorities in the transfer market were different.

Play 0:30 Solskjaer forecasted Cristiano Ronaldo's return to 2019 Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that Cristiano Ronaldo would be returning when he spoke to children in April 2019.

Mendes received a similar response from Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, as well as Manchester City. Harry Kane announced on Wednesday that he wouldn't be moving to City this year and would instead remain at Tottenham for at most one more year. City was unable to sign their top target so they began exploring other options. Mendes was soon back on the line.

This time, the response was positiver than in June. With Ronaldo making the decision to leave Juventus and even missing a training session last Wednesday, City began to look at ways to make a deal. Both Ronaldo and Juventus demanded that he pay a transfer fee of around 28m to avoid losing capital. Pep Guardiola had reservations about his ability to fit in on the pitch.

STREAM ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ Dan Thomas is joined with Craig Burley, Shaka Herlop, and other experts to bring you the most recent highlights and discuss the major storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S only).

City still agreed to talk to Mendes on Thursday. But things were already changing. United fans became increasingly outraged at the possibility of Ronaldo joining City and his former United teammates Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Bruno Fernandes (Portugal teammate) joined in. Ferdinand and Ferguson said to him that he could not sign for City. Telephone calls were made, and WhatsApp messages were sent to Ronaldo. Evra later posted part of their conversation on Twitter while Woodward started talking to Mendes.

Mendes was presented with a proposal by United on Thursday night. Conversations began with Juventus on Friday morning. United assured them that they are prepared to pay a fee. City has so far refused to do this. Although there were discussions about players moving in the opposite direction, a transfer fee of $15 million was finally agreed with an additional 8 million in add-ons.

The sporting world was taken by surprise when Ronaldo returned to Real Madrid and Juventus after 12 years. Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United manager, was confident that Ronaldo would return to the news conference on Friday at 1:15 PM UK time. Solskjaer answered every question about Ronaldo until he stated pointedly at the end that he knew what his feelings were and if he was going to move.

The cat was out the bag. Sources in the city claim they pulled out before Guardiola started his news conference at 1:30 PM UK time. Official word only came later in afternoon. Some believe Mendes used interest from the Etihad in order to force United into action, despite City's dissatisfaction.

Ronaldo was said to have considered moving to City by people close to him. However, he decided to move to United after United offered it to him and he even took a pay cut to make it happen.

ESPN was also informed by sources that Ronaldo's pitch to him, which was part of a pitch done by Darren Fletcher (former teammate and technical director), was about "finishing unfinished business at Old Trafford, and writing a new chapter, rather than trying to relive past events." The official announcement was made at 4:50 PM UK on Friday to close out a remarkable 24 hour period. (Bruno joked later that he was now an "agent" after the news became public.

STREAM ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ Dan Thomas is joined with Craig Burley, Shaka Herlop, and other experts to bring you the most recent highlights and discuss the major storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S only).

It read, "Manchester United is pleased to confirm that we have reached an agreement for Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer to Juventus, subject to the agreement of personal terms and visa," "Everyone at Manchester United looks forward to Cristiano's return." The announcement post of United on Instagram was the most popular post ever by any sports team in any sport.

Although it seemed that City was destined to sign Ronaldo for United, Old Trafford knew that Ronaldo's deep-rooted love for United would allow them to convince him to go with red over blue. Ronaldo has kept in touch with many people from his time at United, primarily Ferdinand and Evra. But he has also maintained relationships with staff members behind the scenes. One staffer told ESPN about a moment in Turin after United's win against Juventus in November 2018 in the Champions League. It was then that his continued respect for United became evident.

According to a United source, Jose Mourinho, at that time the manager, went onto the pitch to start to goad Juventus fans by cupping his ears to the noise. "Mourinho seemed to be making the win about himself, rather than the team. Many of the players were furious with him.

"He walked by and said to me, "[Mourinho] doesn’t have the class or ability to manage Manchester United .'''."

"We knew that Ronaldo loved Old Trafford. But what people outside of the club don’t understand is how much he cares about what happens here.

play 1:46 What now for Man City after Kane and Ronaldo were missed? Craig Burley and Mark Ogden discuss Manchester City's lack a true No. 9 after Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane were not signed.

Woodward's factor

Woodward, who assumed his executive vice-chairman role in 2013 following the retirement David Gill as chief executive, has made it his business getting close to the game’s "super-agents" since then.

Perhaps inspired by Ferguson's deep-rooted dislike for player representatives, Gill kept them at arm’s length, treating all with suspicion, and only trusting those he had developed to respect over a decade of being in the job. Woodward was not afraid to show his emotions and worked hard at building relationships with people like Mino Raiola, Erling Haaland and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as Mendes, Ronaldo’s long-standing representative.

Woodward was having drinks with journalists in Athens before United's Champions League match against Olympiakos in February 2014. Woodward's phone rang with clearly visible details of the caller. Woodward didn't rush to divert the call or move away to answer it privately. Instead, he made sure that everyone knew who called him: "Ha!" He said, "It's Jorge Mendes."

Woodward is not without his critics, but his efforts in building relationships with soccer's power-brokers helped him to complete the transfer for the year. This was arguably a more dramatic outcome than the one that occurred with Messi. OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

Woodward was sometimes mocked for his desire to be close to powerful agents. However, he continued to see it as an essential element of his job. The hard work has paid off with Ronaldo's signing -- and it could still prove crucial to landing Erlinghaaland from Borussia Dortmund next year.

ESPN has been told by sources that Woodward and Mendes had been in touch about Ronaldo all summer and that Mendes kept the United director informed about Ronaldo's plans every step of the process. In June, United was informed of the "eye-watering” costs of a deal. However, those talks were halted when Ronaldo told Mendes to notify clubs that he was staying at Juventus.

Mendes informed Woodward that Ronaldo had changed his mind about Ronaldo earlier in the month. However, United had already done their business by signing Jadon Sáncho from Borussia Dortmund and a deal with Raphael Varane, Real Madrid's defender.

Play 1:09 Ronaldo at Juventus - Craig Burley Reflects on Cristiano Ronaldo’s legacy at Juventus, as he departs Italy without winning the Champions League title.

Woodward would have to find funds outside of the transfer budget. He would also need to convince Joel Glazer, Woodward's co-chairman, that the deal is financially and sportly sound. The deal, according sources, will likely cost at least 500,000 per week in wages over the next two year. Woodward only found the keys to the Glazer vault after City was identified as a possible destination for Ronaldo.

ESPN has been told by sources that Guardiola and other City officials were not impressed with Mendes' negotiation style. However, if City was trying to get United back to the table, the deal worked. The Glazers approved Woodward's offer to make a deal once it was clear that Ronaldo would be moving to City, not United.

A United source said that "It couldn’t have been acceptable for any of us if Ronaldo wore skyblue." "When he decided to leave Juventus and City offered the deal again, City was the best option."

Woodward had a long list of goals when he took over Gill's place in June 2013. One was to sign Pogba back from Juventus, the other was Ronaldo to Old Trafford. Pogba was back in 2016, and Ronaldo is back 12 years after he left for Real Madrid.

A United source said to ESPN that it was a shame that the process took so long.

Ronaldo (right) and Mendes (left), were still in touch with Ferguson, middle who mentored Ronaldo at Man United, until he left in 2009. According to reports, their connection was instrumental in Ronaldo's return to United after he moved to City. Alexander Hassenstein - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Why was he allowed by Juventus to leave?

Juventus had told Mendes in the spring that they were facing severe losses. They would be thrilled if Ronaldo could stay for his final season. However, they wouldn't stand in his path if he decided to leave. To avoid losing capital on Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid in 2018, the club wanted to recoup around 28 million. However, they only asked that business be done quickly.

Despite Mendes' best efforts, there was no interest in Ronaldo throughout Europe. Real Madrid was not a possibility, United rejected him, Paris Saint-Germain focused on Kylian Mbappe’s contract extension, City were interested in Kane, Chelsea were considering Erling Haaland, and then Romelu Lukaku. Juve believed Ronaldo preferred destinations were Real Madrid and PSG, and Chelsea in that order because he wanted to win another Champions League.

Juve approached Ronaldo and Mendes when Ronaldo was heavily linked to Real Madrid in mid August. However, the forward did not indicate that he wanted to leave. Mendes stated that there was interest from other clubs but it would depend upon movement elsewhere, especially with Mbappe. Juve also spoke with Massimiliano Allegri, coach. He stated that he would follow the club's wishes, but that Ronaldo would be needed if he left. He wasn't worried about anything else.

Ronaldo's main criticism at Juventus was that three managers failed to find the right fit for him and surround him with the best people. His departure should open the door to Juve's desperately needed rebuild. Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Allegri faced a problem that his predecessors, Maurizio Sanrio and Andrea Pirlo, couldn't solve: how to fit Ronaldo into the team. They both realized Ronaldo could not play at the front on his own (he has some of the most pressing stats in Serie A), or on wing (because he doesn’t like tracking back), so they decided to play 4-2-2 and pair him up with another forward. This was not a good system for the rest of their players.

City was in pole position by Thursday morning. Mendes informed Juventus that City had been in touch with them and that the prospects looked good. City had not been in touch with Juventus at that time. Although they informed them that they expected a formal bid from City, they only received a verbal offer. United then moved in.

Ronaldo arrived at Juve’s Continassa Training Ground on Friday morning and spent 40 minutes saying goodbye. Although they gave Ronaldo permission to leave, the club excused him from all weekend's games. However, they weren't 100% certain that he would be leaving. Guardiola had not been sold on Guardiola and they were told that United had entered the picture the night before, but they didn't take that seriously.

They believed that if the City deal was canceled, it was more likely that he would go to PSG if Mbappe was sold, or return to Turin. The lure of United winning was too appealing.

Play 1:30 Is Ronaldo a regular in Man United XI's XI? Mark Ogden gives his opinion on Cristiano Ronaldo's playing times as he returns home to Manchester United.

What does Ronaldo look like at Old Trafford now?

Although it seems unlikely that Ronaldo would end up at City after Sergio Aguero's departure to Barcelona, it is possible that he will be needed more at Etihad than at Old Trafford. Guardiola is looking for a striker following Sergio Aguero's departure from Barcelona. United's transfer window deadline needs were for a holding midfielder as well as cover at right-back.

Ronaldo is still a goal scorer for United, and he continues to score goals well into his 30s. He scored 101 goals and assisted 22 times in 134 games over two years at Juventus. He was the top scorer for Serie A in both seasons.

Ronaldo was initially a winger when he arrived at United. However, he has evolved into a striker throughout his career. Solskjaer will be playing in that position. One source said that he "fits with Ole's fast, attacking style" of play. However, it is likely that the pace and energy will be provided by those around Ronaldo like Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho. Dan James, who was the star of Sunday's 1-0 victory over Wolves, could be leaving on loan to Leeds United.

Ronaldo at Juventus was often used in a two man attack and it is possible that he could play alongside Cavani, Greenwood Rashford, Martial or Rashford at United depending on the opposition. Solskjaer says there will be plenty of games for everyone, even with another attacker joining the team. As it stands, Edinson Cavani will be competing for the position at centre forward.

United believes Ronaldo is equally at home off the pitch. Solskjaer felt his team had been a little naive last season against Paris Saint-Germain, both at home and away at RB Leipzig. They were then knocked out. Ronaldo Varane and Raphael Varane, who were winners of the competition four times at Real Madrid, should correct that.

Solskjaer had this plan in mind to add experience to a core group young players by bringing in Varane, Cavani, Ronaldo and Tom Heaton. There is hope that Ronaldo's off-pitch conduct, as well as the way he trains, looks after his body, will be reflected on Greenwood and Sancho.

When Ronaldo was last at Old Trafford, United were Europe's leading force. He is back to test his skills.