Cristiano Ronaldo, George Best, Gary Speed and the moral dilemma now confronting football

Despite his senior years in footballing terms, Cristiano Ronaldo remains not only one of the beautiful game’s most talented players, but also one of its highest earners. The charismatic 37-year-old had his Manchester United contract terminated earlier this month, following a tumultuous relationship with club chiefs that came to a head after he made a series of controversial statements in a TV interview with Piers Morgan.

Being cast off by Manchester united might have marked the start of the downslope for any lesser player, but in typically ebullient style Ronaldo bounced back within days, after it was rumoured that he was set to sign a bumper £172.9 million-a-year contract with the Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr. The two-and-a-half year deal will see Ronaldo playing top level soccer until the age of 40.

By contrast, George Best – the player whom most of my generation still regard as actually the best footballer of all time – had plummeted from Manchester United down through the lowly ranks of Nuneaton Borough and Tobermore United, having all but burnt out and left the game by the age of 38. Throughout my youth George Best posters adorned by bedroom wall, and he was still able to kick a mean ball in October 1984 when to our great surprise he turned out for Reading FC in a friendly match against New Zealand. But dulled by drink and his hedonistic lifestyle, nether money nor the good advice of friends could save poor George from a completely dreadful end.

These days some lessons have been learned from the Best tragedy – players are surrounded by a plethora of business and personal advisers, and a culture that has football clubs far more attuned to the commercial value of the human real estate they own.

Sadly, tragedies still happen – 41-year-old Welshman Gary Speed was one of the most consummately professional and well-loved of all premiership footballers. A man less affected by wealth and adulation, and more consistent and reliable, you couldn’t imagine – but still there were dark, unseen pressures that led to Gary being discovered dead at his Cheshire home 11 years ago. He left no note, and TV presenter and good friend Dan Walker said that all seemed well just the day before when Gary appeared on his football show. Footage of Gary chatting and joking with a cameraman who revealed he also came from the Welsh village of Hawarden gave little hint of what was to happen later that night.

Despite his fame and outrageous wealth, Cristiano Ronaldo has also had darkness to deal with. A devout Catholic, he was completely devastated by the death of his newborn son in April this year.

“It was probably the worst moment that I passed through in my life, since my father died,” Ronaldo told Piers Morgan in that controversial TV interview.

“When you have a kid, you expect that everything will be normal, and you have that problem, it’s hard…we had quite difficult moments because we don’t understand why it happened to us.

“It was very, very difficult to understand what’s going [on] in that period of our life.

“Passing through that moment was probably the most difficult moment that I had in my life; me and my family, especially [for] Gio [that] was so tough.”

Such a personal tragedy made for a few headlines, but stories of Ronaldo’s obvious raw grief gave way quickly to the more familiar stream of divisive narratives about his sporting ability, and the extreme wealth that surrounds him.

Although he’s one of the highest paid active players, Ronaldo is not a singular phenomenon, but just the primary manifestation of an industry that idolises wealth. According to the highly reliable website, the 2022-23 salary bill for active players at Manchester United runs to a staggering £277m. Ronaldo currently earns an annual salary of £26.8m, which is £515,385 a week. He’s followed by David de Gea on £375,000 per week, and then down a sliding scale through Marcus Rashford (£200k per week), Harry Maguire (£189k per week) on down to Brandon Williams on a ‘modest’ £65k per week.

Of itself this is just a ‘baseline’ figure, and excludes all the luctative sponsorship and promotional earnings that players enjoy. Not at all bad for a few days of physical training and 90 minutes kicking a ball around a field.

As it happens even these figures fade into insignificance against the numbers being thrown around this week, as discussions took place about the future of Manchester United’s iconic Old Trafford stadium.

Thanks to the lack of investment from its Glazer brother owners over the past decade, the world famous Theatre of Dreams is in bad shape. Many experts have said that the ground is realistically beyond saving, and should be flattened and replaced with a completely new stadium. Tottenham Hotspur did just that in 2019 at cost of more than £1 billion so, given the soaring costs or raw materials since, a new Theatre of Dreams is going to cost Manchester United a great deal more than that. No wonder the Glazer Brothers have finally conceded disinterest and have placed the world famous club on the market.

Trouble is, even disregarding the cost, a new stadium is expected to take 8-10 years to build, and will absorb eye-watering build costs long before revenues start flowing back in. Such long-term returns are hugely unattractive to the kind of sharkish investors the project will need.

The alternative is to hack out and redevelop the existing stadium, but this could actually prove more costly than a new build, and would be incredibly damaging to revenues as sections are closed off and rebuilt.

The Theatre of Dreams conundrum is fast developing into a parable for the ills that have beset the sport for decades, as spiralling player wages, TV sponsorship deals and the extravagance of footballer’s lives are fundamentally dependant on how much ticket revenue you can squeeze out of a stadium.

The historical irony is that football has its roots firmly in social poverty, a politically useful and relatively harmless pastime that was linked profoundly to working class and industrial communities. How times have changed.

There are close parallels between the structures of society and football, and society and government. Just as football relies on a delicate balance between ticket pricing and mass participation (charge too much and attendances plummet), governments rely on a similar delicate balance between raising taxes and mass employment (tax too much and unemployment soars.)

In the kind of deep recession, indeed depression, we’re heading into, the disparity between those protected by their extreme wealth and those becoming increasingly vulnerable to poverty, deepens significantly.

In football in particular it does actually look as if the long era of golden growth is coming to an end. Broadcasting fees have peaked, wages have flatlined and the pandemic has shot a huge hole in many club’s fragile finances – it’s estimated (Deloitte Review of Football Finance) that the big five European leagues saw their income decline last year by a catastrophic 11 per cent, and many UK Premiership clubs are now in increasing financial trouble.

Whether or not this will shake up the sport to any meaningful degree is uncertain, but falling profits do seem to be impacting on some club’s business models. The current controversies surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup has also swung a spotlight onto some of the fundamental moral problems affecting the sport. Money has not so far been not among them, but questions surrounding the role of the sport, the state, morals and the public space have bubbled up in a number of contexts, which at least has begun a narrative about the nature of the sport and its place in contemporary society.

It remains one of the curious contradictions of football that, whereas the excessive accumulation of personal wealth is derided elsewhere, it has gained a tacit acceptance in the sport, if not become a fundamental requirement of the sector. It remains a mystery to me how faithful fans who all too often sacrifice basic family needs to finance their support of their club seem to have no qualms about their hard-earned income supporting some of the most decadent lifestyles on the planet.

That said, there are increasing signs that the outrageous salaries and lifestyles of many modern-day footballers is becoming morally unsustainable in a society where so many are struggling to pay for even the most basic essentials.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian, and founder of