Cristiano Ronaldo’s Farewell Could Take Him From the World Cup to Obscurity
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Cristiano Ronaldo’s Farewell Could Take Him From the World Cup to Obscurity

The 37-year-old Portuguese star was hoping for a move to a major European club this winter. Instead, he may settle for riches—and irrelevance—in Saudi Arabia.

By JONATHAN CLEGG
Wed, Dec 7, 2022 9:12amGrey Clock 5 min

LUSAIL, Qatar—Cristiano Ronaldo has made the point, over and over, that he isn’t done with top-level soccer. But the reality emerging at this World Cup is that top-level soccer may be done with him.

Ronaldo, technically the most famous unemployed person currently in Qatar, was let go by Manchester United last month and cuts an increasingly peripheral figure for the Portuguese national team. On Tuesday, he was benched for the team’s 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16, the first time he didn’t start a major-tournament match for his country since 2008.

This tournament no longer seems like just the final World Cup of a glittering career. It could mark Ronaldo’s de facto exit from the global stage altogether.

The most alarming part for him on Tuesday was that Portugal looked substantially better and more fluid without him. His replacement, the 21-year-old striker Gonçalo Ramos, scored a hat trick, overtaking Ronaldo’s tally for the tournament in the space of an hour. And still, fans inside Lusail Iconic Stadium chanted Ronaldo’s name, urging the manager to send him on.

When Ronaldo finally entered the game, met with the biggest roar of the night in the 73rd minute, it was in an unfamiliar new role for Portugal: luxury substitute. The closest he came to scoring was a late strike that ended up in the net, only to be ruled out for offside.

Now, even after the World Cup, his prospects for relevance are dimming.

Though Ronaldo desperately wants to continue playing, the list of places willing to pay him to do that is currently the shortest it’s ever been. As he took his place on the bench against Switzerland, he was mulling a contract offer not from a top team in Spain or Italy or even Major League Soccer, but from the Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr.

Unless another suitor emerges, just three months after a summer transfer window in which Ronaldo and his agent Jorge Mendes were unable to find a landing spot at a major club, Al Nassr appears to be in the lead for his signature. The switch would reportedly make Ronaldo the highest paid athlete in the world. It would also erase him from the top level of the game.

“What the press keep saying, the garbage, is that nobody wants me, which is completely wrong,” Ronaldo said in an explosive interview on British television on the eve of the tournament. “They continue to repeat that nobody wants Cristiano. How they don’t want a player who scored 32 goals last year, [including] with the national team?”

Somebody does want Cristiano. They just happen to play in a league few people pay any attention outside the Gulf—and Cristiano isn’t used to being ignored.

The only human with more than 500 million Instagram followers, he has spent two decades building himself into one of the most recognisable athletes ever to compete. But even his global appeal and immense marketing power no longer seem enough for major European clubs to justify the salary and special treatment demanded by a wilting 37-year-old. By the end of Ronaldo’s time in Manchester, United coach Erik ten Hag saw him only as a late-game option off the bench.

“The coach didn’t have respect for me,” Ronaldo said in the TV interview. “If you don’t have respect for me, I’m never going to have respect for you.”

In Saudi soccer, money and adulation were never going to be a problem. Al Nassr isn’t bound by the financial structures of European teams. The club’s longtime president was a grandson of the Kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud. And the league, where foreign players are mostly unheralded journeymen, is prepared to roll out the red carpet for Ronaldo as if he were a visiting head of state.

The problem for Ronaldo is that Saudi soccer is basically invisible outside of the Gulf. While Manchester United might be the most famous team in any sport in the world, matches in Ronaldo’s potential new home garner no global attention. Plenty of superstars have made late-career stops in leagues outside the European heartland on their way to retirement, but the MLS and Japan’s J-League still generate more highlights than any soccer ever played in the Kingdom.

“I’ve worked in a lot of countries and everywhere you go, you see that in the youth, the quality is the same—in Holland, in Spain,” said Marco Koorman, a Dutch coach who works as a technical director in Saudi Arabia. “But the older they get, you see the level go down—especially in Saudi.”

Meanwhile, in Qatar, Ronaldo is less the inspirational leader of the Portuguese team, and more like a passenger. He scored once here against Ghana and then tried to claim another goal against Serbia, only for replays to show that the ball didn’t actually graze his hair. It was telling that when Portugal coach Fernando Santos fielded a second-choice lineup for the team’s final group-stage match and Ronaldo wasn’t one of the key players he rested.

He was, however, substituted. When Santos decided to remove him after 65 minutes, the Portuguese captain looked visibly frustrated, and then got into a spat with South Korea defender Cho Gue-Sung as he left the field. Cho told Ronaldo to get a move on. Ronaldo told Cho to be quiet.

Santos took a dim view of Ronaldo’s annoyance about being taken out of the game.

“I didn’t like it,” he said on Monday. “I really didn’t like it. But from that moment onwards everything is finished regarding that issue. These matters are resolved behind closed doors. It’s resolved.”

The bizarre sequence of events that put Ronaldo at odds with his own national team and on the road to soccer obscurity began with the best of intentions. When he moved to Manchester United from Juventus last year, it was billed as an emotional homecoming. The club that had first propelled him to superstardom during an unstoppable spell from 2003 to 2009 was bringing him back for a Michael Jordan-style last dance—one more shot at glory before calling it a career.

Instead, it wound up looking more like Jordan’s forgettable spell on the Washington Wizards.

Though Ronaldo was United’s top scorer last season, he was clearly diminished. The turn of pace was gone. He no longer marauded through defences the way United fans remembered. Even his touch was beginning to let him down.

This wasn’t the Ronaldo he wanted people to remember. Perhaps no player in soccer history has been as acutely aware of his own legacy during his own career. This is a man who built a museum in his hometown on Madeira to memorialise his accomplishments, and then built a new one because he decided the first wasn’t big enough. Even seemingly arcane records are deeply important to Ronaldo.

But he’s also aware of his own worth. And that is at the heart the dilemma facing Ronaldo as he maps out the coda to his career: Will he choose a club befitting his status as one of the best players in history—if he can find one—or will he pick a club matching his status as one of the best-paid athletes in history?

“Let’s be honest, [in] the last years, football changed,” Ronaldo said in the British TV interview. “I see football now as a business to be honest.”



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A Killer Golf Swing Is a Hot Job Skill Now

Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

By CALLUM BORCHERS
Fri, Jun 14, 2024 5 min

Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.

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This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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