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.

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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Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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