So the countdown has begun. On June 4, Cristiano Ronaldo joins up with the Portugal national team ahead of the World Cup and he'll tell us his plans. And at least as of Saturday night at Kiev's Olympic Stadium, he "could not guarantee" that he'd be staying at Real Madrid.
Because he is who he is, it ended up overshadowing Zinedine Zidane's post-game press conference (he was asked about it three times) and also some of the coverage of Real's historic victory. That's a shame -- Ronaldo himself later admitted it wasn't the best timing -- and it's probably a reflection of the times that speculation over his future would generate as much interest among some as a dramatic, history-making final.
How to read this? If he really is plotting a departure, he's done a great job of keeping it under wraps. And frankly, given the money involved (Ronaldo's deal runs through 2021, with wages of around $50 million a year), there are very few landing spots that don't involve some kind of lifestyle choice and a massive pay cut. It's really difficult to see him at another big European club mainly because most of the ones who could, theoretically, afford him would not provide a great fit.
A return to Manchester United might be a romantic solution but it would also reunite him with Jose Mourinho, and the two have often failed to see eye-to-eye. Paris Saint-Germain could have serious Financial Fair Play restrictions real soon and, in any case, they have a decent front three already.
Could there be some mega-move to China or Major League Soccer in the works? Again, theoretically MLS could construct some sort of complicated David Beckham-type deal where he ends up getting a future franchise, a share of league revenues and the keys to Don Garber's Volvo, but it feels pie-in-the-sky. As for China, there are now pretty stiff limits on foreign signings and on capital flight in general.
Most of all, it's hard to see Ronaldo want to leave the big stage after the sort of season he's had. The impression is that it's more about his contract, particularly after the mega-deals signed by Neymar and Lionel Messi, both of which dwarf his salary. Not because he's greedy but because, like most, he wants to be paid at market rate. And, unlike most of us, he has the leverage to do it.
Is Bale a year too late on forcing a move?
In that sense, it was a bit of a double-whammy for Zidane as Gareth Bale also announced he'd consider leaving if he didn't get more playing time. Framed like that, it's perhaps understandable: Nobody wants to spend the prime of their career on the bench, and even if Karim Benzema leaves in the summer, odds are that another high-end forward will come in.
This ought to be a little more straightforward than Ronaldo. Bale earns close to $40m a season and Real Madrid are on the hook for him through 2022. In the past three seasons, he has started roughly half of the club's Liga games and has been slowed by injuries while others, like Isco and Marco Asensio, have emerged.
Again though, it's hard to see who would match those wages and financial commitment while also coming up with the sort of transfer fee that would suit Real. The obvious choice, for many reasons, would have been Man United last summer, but Bale insisted on wanting to stay at Real, and now that Alexis Sanchez (another high-priced veteran) is at Old Trafford, it's hard to see that working.
With hindsight, you wonder if Bale wishes he'd tried to engineer his move a year ago.
What's next for Karius?
Loris Karius' blunders against Real Madrid are the kind that will live on for many years. My colleague Shaka Hislop, as a former goalkeeper, gave one of the more cogent explanations for Karius' mistakes. It's not an excuse; it's an explanation and it's worth hearing.
Another point worth making, also from an ex-keeper, is the fact that maybe his teammates should not be lambasted for failing to rush over to console him. Massimo Taibi (who knows a thing or two about making high-profile goalkeeping errors) said: "It wouldn't have made any difference. When you screw up, you know you've screwed up and you know you're alone in ways that only a keeper can be. A kind word from a teammate isn't going to make you feel better."
Indeed, it probably depends on the personality. Some like to be left alone while some are better off with the immediate comfort. I think you have to defer to his teammates here. They know Karius better than we do and since they've seen him make howlers before, they know the best way to react. What is a lot more significant, I think, is what happens post-match.
Finally, I don't think Karius is a particularly good goalkeeper but whether or not Liverpool choose somebody else ought not to depend on the mistakes in the final. Those were mental errors; they have nothing to do with his agility or his technique. If he has the mental strength to bounce back from this, they will have no impact whatsoever.
Ramos didn't intend to injure Salah
We're getting different information seemingly every hour but every indication thus far is that Mohamed Salah will be going to the World Cup and might even be ready for the first match. It's really difficult to dislike the guy, and his injury was heart-breaking to most neutrals.
The fact that nearly 400,000 people (and it could be far more by the time you read this) have signed a petition asking that Sergio Ramos be punished for "intentionally hurting" him, however, is a joke. It was a coming together, it was a foul, and hooking the arm was Ramos' way of guaranteeing that Salah didn't somehow regain his balance and stay on his feet. But Salah hurt himself because he landed awkwardly after being pulled down, not because Ramos did some sort of covert half-nelson on his arm. (You only need to note that Ramos hooks his right arm, whereas the damage was done to his left shoulder.)
Ramos will rub many the wrong way as uncompromising players often do. He's a competitor and a winner who will grab an edge where he can find it, sometimes breaking the Laws of the Game or, more generally, those of good sportsmanship. Not every competitor and winner is like that; many manage to be successful without the so-called "dark arts."
I think my old friend Tony Barrett (and before you accuse him of being anti-Liverpool, consider the fact that he's the head of Club and Supporter Liaison at Anfield) put it best with this tweet:
I go the other way to most on Ramos. I've always thought blurring the boundaries and sometimes obliterating them is part of football. You love players like that when they're on your team and hate them when they're on the opposition. His playacting is grim though.— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarrett) May 27, 2018
If that's still not enough to convince you, consider Luis Suarez in his time at Liverpool as Exhibit A, B and C...
Zidane deserves all the credit
As I mentioned before, overshadowed in all this is the manager who now has won as many European Cups as Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti in under 30 months of management. Few think of Zinedine Zidane as being among the greats for the simple reason that he has arguably the greatest squad in world football. Add the resentment that he didn't work his way up via the lower ranks and it's a classic case to some of the guy having been born on third base gloating about his triple.
Maybe so. We don't know how Zidane would operate if he worked with lesser clubs and tight budgets (Castilla isn't much of an indication). Maybe he would have been relegated at Levante or Stoke. But what we do know and what, I think, we can marvel at is how well he has managed this particular club.
Think back over his tenure. Consider the egos in the dressing room and potentially explosive flash-points over the season, from managing playing time to disappointing Liga results. And then consider how little controversy there has been compared with the tenures of past coaches, from Manuel Pellegrini and Fabio Capello to Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez.
Real Madrid have appeared to the outside world like a monolithically united club, with everyone pulling in the same direction. Even when they were playing poorly. Even when they weren't getting results. Even if, behind the scenes, there might have been grumbles and grievances.
Heck, even Bale and Ronaldo managed to keep their gripes to themselves until the season ended. That's a credit to the players and their team ethic, of course, but it's also down to the man who created the environment for them to work together. That man is Zidane, whose personality, history as a footballer and man-management skills make him ideal for the job he currently holds.