Cristiano Ronaldo’s Farewell Could Take Him From the World Cup to Obscurity | Kanebridge News
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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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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


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