Juventus and project CR7

SOMEWHAT grim news from Turin has given the first indications of the massive financial loss suffered by Juventus in the 2020-21 season. It coincided with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo from the club and a lack-lustre start to the new campaign for the bianconeri.

The jury is still out on whether the Ronaldo era at Juve was a success. In some ways, the club benefitted, but the objective of signing a 30-something striker on huge money was to win the UEFA Champions League. Given Juventus reached two finals in a three-year period (2015 and 2017) without him, two last 16 exits and a quarter final defeat (all against teams with lower budgets and squad values) represented failure. Furthermore, Juve’s run at the top came to an end after nine consecutive scudettos. Ronaldo scored 81 goals in his three years, so from a personal perspective, he kept his side of the bargain, but Juve’s team has been in decline.

Financially, Juve’s total losses in the past three years amount to € 320 million, the 2020-21 figures, thought to be € 190.7 million, are more than double the previous season. Little wonder the club’s president, Andrea Agnelli, was one of the leading advocates of the European Super League project. 

There can be no denying that Cristiano Ronaldo, notably in the last pre-lockdown season, 2018-19, was the catalyst for revenue growth at Juve. In 2018-19, matchday revenues (which were wiped out in lockdown) grew by 25% and merchandise income went up by 58%. As for the value of the club’s jersey, the total income rose from € 40 million to € 101 million over the course of the Ronaldo years.

Was it realistic to expect that the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo was the final piece in the jigsaw for Juve? Most people are not too surprised that he did not inspire them to the biggest prize as they simply did not have enough top players to achieve their goal. They also had an ageing squad, which they have, admittedly, tried to remedy. But it was too much to believe CR7 would catapult the club over Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Chelsea.

One player who was on fire before Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival was Pablo Dybala, who netted 22 goals in 2017-18, but in three years, he scored 20 in 83 games. He was 24 when CR7 joined and still had his best years ahead of him. He’s now 27 and at his peak, but his stock has fallen since 2018 as he was pushed, to a certain extent, into the shadow of his legendary team-mate. Cristiano Ronaldo is a corporate brand, hence he has swiped the number seven shirt of Edinson Cavani at Manchester United. Even at 35, Juve were tailoring their game around him.

In 2018, Juve had, in their ranks, around seven or eight players who would gain entry to anyone’s top 100 footballers in the world. By the end of Ronaldo’s stint at the club, probably only three – CR7 himself, Dybala and Ligt – could be considered that highly. Some have aged, some have departed, but mostly, Juve have been victims of old father time.

Juventus were unlucky in that Ronaldo’s three years were blighted by covid-19 as the club lost substantial sums around matchday income. In order for the transaction to work, Juventus needed to build a team around him rather than hope that their existing set-up could accommodate him. 

Manchester United may find they have the same problem, although they have bought well in the summer transfer window. Juve, by contrast, are suffering from their financial problems and their new arrivals are predominantly frees. While Juventus were hoping that Cristiano Ronaldo would win them the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain’s squad is far better equipped to achieve that goal with Lionel Messi in their line-up.

Investing in long-in-the-tooth players doesn’t always work out, although there is no doubt that both Ronaldo and Messi are exceptional and extraordinary. It is tempting to suggest buying a player of their age group is a little like acquiring a vintage car – great when they perform but vulnerable to break-down costs. Sometimes, great players arrive too late for some clubs – when Chelsea signed Andrei Shevchenko in 2016, for example, he was approaching 30 and his golden years were behind him. You could also argue that Fernando Torres was also past his best when Chelsea paid £ 50 million for him in 2011. Both players were coveted by the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich but both failed to live up to their billing.

Superstar players cannot do it on their own, though. George Best is a good example, his last medal was won in 1968 with Manchester United, while Bobby Moore never got near a league title when he played for West Ham. Pelé’s last major club honour with Santos was in 1968 when he was 27. Johan Cruyff won La Liga with Barcelona in 1974 but his only other medal with the club was the Copa del Rey in 1978.

Nobody is suggesting Ronaldo or Messi will be flops at their new clubs, but there is a high risk factor involved. No matter how fit and agile they may be, age has a habit of creeping up on a player. A bad injury could derail the project, and in their mid-30s, recovery times can be prolonged. 

The way heaven and earth has been moved to make these transfers work is a little demeaning for the clubs involved. Would in their pomp Manchester United have gone all out to sign a 36 year-old? PSG is slightly different given they are a club in a weaker league with a burning desire to create credibility and power for themselves. Not everyone agrees, however. La Liga’s president, Javier Tebas, unimpressed by the club’s soft power plays, has called PSG the “enemy” and “as dangerous as the super league”. 

The media and fans want to see Ronaldo and Messi continue for as long as possible. As well as being good copy for journalists, they are the digital age’s first superstars, two giant brands that people identify with. Life without them will seem strange, but new stars will come along. To expect their effectiveness to continue is unreasonable, though, and especially in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s playing in a tougher league in his autumn years. It will be a challenge for both player and employer. Juventus, meanwhile, after spending well over € 250 million on the CR7 saga, will probably welcome the relief on their balance sheet.

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