It has been two weeks since Cristiano Ronaldo bolted. Two weeks since the planet’s most popular athlete jetted 600 miles northeast, from Madrid to Turin, to plant his flag anew. And two weeks, therefore, since soccer’s global equilibrium was disrupted.
Few sportsmen carry enough weight to singlehandedly unbalance their industry. Ronaldo is one of them. And when he swapped Real Madrid for Juventus after nine years entrenched at the world’s biggest club, the market lurched. The first domino fell.
In a summer transfer window, actions often require reactions. Moves of Ronaldo-to-Juve magnitude, however, stimulate reaction chains. One deal demands several footballing and financial makeweights. The makeweights incite aftershocks of their own.
One transfer can kick-start everything. Juventus’ splash should do just that. It has been two weeks, and still we wait. But this is merely the calm in between the storms. Soon enough, the flurry of activity will commence. Ronaldo has necessitated it.
Real Madrid’s voids
Over in the Spanish capital, there is a void. Multiple voids, actually. One at the top of Real Madrid’s wage structure, another at the top of the pitch, and a third in a club ethos dependent on star power.
Madrid must replace Ronaldo in more ways than one. Fortunately, it has the money with which to do so. It’s not just Juventus’ $117 million. It’s not just Ronaldo’s annual $25 million off the books. Real hasn’t made anything remotely resembling a big-name signing since 2014. It also boasts annual revenue of around $800 million. There is no realistic asking price that Real can’t meet.
There’s a compelling argument to be made that all the money should be spent not on one player but on several. That it should be spread around to freshen up a squad with prominent figures creeping dangerously close to decline. Last year’s third-place finish and the arrival of new manager Julen Lopetegui amplify the case.
But this is Real Madrid. This is a club where Galactico-hunting often trumps rationality, even if the past few years suggest otherwise. Selling Ronaldo and failing to replace him would be unacceptable. Real, therefore, is in the market for a superstar.
The Ronaldo replacement market
There are, however, two problems. One: There are no obvious Ronaldo replacements. The two players who fit the bill, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, are likely unavailable. The former has said he is staying in Paris. The latter is the most valuable player in the world.
The third option seems to be Eden Hazard. But the Chelsea attacker and Ronaldo are in many ways polar opposites. One is an elite dribbler and provider, the other a world-class goalscorer. One is a ball-dominant winger, the other excels off the ball as a striker. Hazard is anything but a like-for-like replacement. He’s also 27, with a skill set prone to age regression. And Chelsea reportedly wants north of $200 million for him. Would Real really be willing to pay that?
The second problem, and the reason the Blues can hike up Hazard’s price, is that potential sellers recognize Madrid’s need and its spending power. They recognize that demand is high and supply low, and understand basic economics. Real can afford an expensive new toy, and likely can’t afford to reach Sept. 1 without one. Clubs will force them to overpay.
Where does that leave Madrid? Nobody really knows. It could go the quantity-over-quality route. Or it could (metaphorically) storm PSG’s offices and refuse to leave until it has Neymar or Mbappe in its clutches. If any club could pull off such a coup, it’s Real.
We shouldn’t rule out a surprise swoop, either. Mohamed Salah, perhaps? Harry Kane? Mauro Icardi? Paulo Dybala? Robert Lewandowski? Gabriel Jesus? There are either obvious drawbacks or massive roadblocks with each. Some don’t fit the megastar profile. Maybe the solution involves more than one of the names on that list
Real’s search could land anywhere. And that’s kind of the point here. Wherever it lands will chart the next month at the top of the food chain.
But the most likely scenario remains a club-record move for Hazard.
The secondary reactions
And if Hazard does go? Chelsea and new coach Maurizio Sarri need a replacement themselves. Meanwhile, Barcelona is on the other line, reportedly offering $85 million for 29-year-old Willian. Chelsea would surely love to accept the bid, but can’t feel comfortable doing so until there’s a Hazard resolution.
If Chelsea does lose one or both, Sarri’s winger-dependent system would be threadbare out wide. The Blues would need to draw up shortlists of their own. Their current rumor catalog is nonsensical. Sales will refine it. Aleksandr Golovin is reportedly on it. Could Anthony Martial, reportedly on the outs at Manchester United, join the Russian playmaker?
Thibaut Courtois is also expected to leave for Madrid, another action that requires reactions – both from Chelsea and, possibly, Keylor Navas and Real. Does Gianluigi Donnarumma become Chelsea’s top target? Does Navas become the top bargain of the window? Speaking of which …
Meanwhile, at Juventus …
Over in Italy, Juve is facing the Real Madrid corollary. Supply is high. Demand could (and should) be very low. The Serie A champs must sell to accommodate Ronaldo and meet Financial Fair Play requirements. Rivals know this, and therefore retain leverage.
Gonzalo Higuain is the foremost example. He is quite clearly surplus to requirements. He’s also eating into Juve’s budget. The Bianconeri want to and need to move on. But will any top club in its right mind take Higuain – a possibly-out-of-shape 30-year-old coming off an alarmingly underwhelming season – off their hands? Juve will likely want to recoup at least half of the $100-plus million fee it foolishly paid Napoli in 2016. But will anybody oblige?
An accomplished Champions League poacher could be available on the cheap. Elsewhere, buyers could use the Higuain option for leverage.
And if Juventus can’t offload Higuain, or if it only gets $30 million for him, other players might hit the market as well. Would offers for Dybala be entertained?
There are countless dominos here, and some will have to fall in due course. There are, of course, plenty other variables – potentially available players – to account for. But the Ronaldo-to-Juve aftershocks will frame the market.
Deadline day(s) dilemma
Oh, by the way: The deadline for a lot of this is Aug. 9.
Remember when the Premier League decided to shut its transfer window prior to the start of the season, without promises that the rest of Europe would fall in line? The Hazard situation was precisely the fear. With Spain’s deadline remaining at the end of August, Chelsea can sell to Real Madrid three weeks into the Premier League season. But if it waits, it can’t then buy a replacement.
For Chelsea, Aug. 9 should become the de facto deadline for a Hazard sale. The Blues should essentially tell Madrid, Our deadline is your deadline. But the urgency mismatch will be tricky to navigate. It’s yet another layer to what should be a fascinating few weeks.
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