Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring against West Ham United in the English Premier League in 2008. Photo: Reuters
The East Stand
by Jonathan White
The East Stand
by Jonathan White

Cristiano Ronaldo’s return a boost to Manchester United in China if not the English Premier League

  • Deal, which could rise to US$125 million over three years, is money well spent if suits can leverage superstar for commercial return
  • Portugal striker, who is bigger than the club itself across social media, as important off the pitch as he is on it for Old Trafford giants

From the away fans at Wolverhampton Wanderers that held a cardboard cut-out of their soon to be second coming aloft at Molyneux to social media, Manchester United re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo some 12 years after he left the club for Real Madrid has been celebrated the world over.

The news “broke the internet” as they say. The Manchester United official website went down as did its ticketing site for those who want to see the resurrection in the flesh.

Social media exploded with Ronaldo, whose own post on Instagram after his return had more than 17 million likes.

Ronaldo’s former – Patrice Evra, Edwin Van der Sar – and now current teammates – Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford – also welcomed him on social media.


One former teammate, now boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also expressed his delight but nowhere will have been happier more than in the boardroom of Old Trafford.

More accurately the club’s London offices where their global partner deals are done should have been rubbing their hands with glee.

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Despite shelling out a record fee for a 36-year-old – and one who is going to turn 37 long before the season’s end, at that – the feeling is that it is money well spent on signing Ronaldo from Juventus and paying him more money than any player in the English Premier League has ever been paid.

For the owners, the ill will surrounding the breakaway European Super League last season that saw fans take to the Old Trafford pitch and get the English Premier League game against Liverpool called off, has gone.

Only the staunchest of the anti-Glazer brigade will maintain anything like the same fury after United “won the transfer window,” as they say on social media.

Beyond that benefit, the unexpected return has given the fans a lift, just as it has done everyone else at the club, but there is a bigger reason: money.

United, just like almost all other teams bar those who are funded by oil-rich states, need the cash. That reality has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and was one of the main thrusts of the now aborted European Super League, which United’s owners backed.

Given those circumstances, spending what could amount to US$125 million on a 36-year-old should make no sense but the number crunchers will be happy with the “reach” so far and the second coming should be good for business.

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The most marketable footballer in the world will be wearing that famous red No 7 shirt once more – though no matter what your mate down the pub has told you, it is not because of the number of those shirts that they will sell.

Adidas will be happy with that, as they get that money, but there plenty of other reasons for the club to delight – not least the 5.8 per cent jump in the share price on announcing the transfer.

His social media presence is phenomenal. He is in the Guinness World Record Book of 2021 as the most liked person on Facebook, with 124,726,150 likes, and he is the most followed man on Instagram – with 336 million followers.

Manchester United fans celebrate with a cardboard cut out of Cristiano Ronaldo after the English Premier League match against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Photo: Reuters

He is also the most popular athlete on Twitter, his almost 94 million followers only fewer than former US president Barack Obama and pop stars Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Rihanna.

The club Instagram following has jumped 3.3 million since the deal was announced – with one million following in the first two hours. The club’s post announcing him was the most liked by a sports team – with more than 13.5 million likes so far.

On social media Ronaldo is bigger than United, who claim over 500m followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, with his 600 million – double the US and bigger than every population bar India and China.


‘A missed opportunity?’ How the European Super League could have impacted China

‘A missed opportunity?’ How the European Super League could have impacted China

It is China, United’s biggest potential market, where Ronaldo’s signing can really come into its own.

United now claim to have 253 million followers, an increase on 108 million in 2012 – or more than one in five of China’s vast population – but the returning Ronaldo will only make them more popular.

Ronaldo joined Sina Weibo in 2016 and has more than 7.66 million fans on China’s Twitter-like social media site, where he is the most popular footballer. United have more than 10 million followers on the platform, the first of any club to reach that number.

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He has long been conducting his own summer tours for his own commercial interests, outside those with clubs Manchester United, Real Madrid and most recently Juventus.

Just this summer Ronaldo’s popularity was proved once more. With Euro 2020 ending, the topic “Cristiano Ronaldo is the star of most concern among Chinese football fans” was trending on Sina Weibo.

Some 36 million fans had shared it in the hours after several of his new Man United teammates had been among the England team beaten by Italy in the final, the most popular Euro 2020-related topic.

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Ronaldo is the most popular player in an age where many fans follow players over clubs.

Expect his return to be leveraged to the hilt by the club’s commercial arm, the best in the business and one that has led the way with mattress partners, experience centres and the like.

We might well have seen the best of Ronaldo on the pitch, but if the club can build on their recent China growth, off it the best is yet to come.