Cristiano Ronaldo’s potential Real Madrid exit could pave the way for Marco Asensio’s reign
Marco Asensio was 9 years old when he bumped into Florentino Perez in the Port de Mallorca. With his son posing next to the Madrid president’s boat, Asensio’s father introduced himself and said: “This is Marco. Someday he’ll play at Real Madrid.”
When that prophecy was realised in December 2014, Perez said he remembered that day. Asensio has often recounted the story of Rafa Nadal’s involvement in the affair, but Perez was always one step ahead.
Asensio’s agent, Horacio Gaggioli, recently revealed that several clubs were scrambling for the youngster’s signature, including Barcelona: “Time passed, and Florentino moved faster.”
If the Madrid president was wearing a particularly broad smile when Asensio arrived at the Bernabeu, it was because he knew what a bargain he had just acquired. Real paid Mallorca €3.9 million for a player who was the subject of two bids of €150 million before the World Cup and a reported €180 million offer from Liverpool last week.
All suitors have been rejected. If destiny brought the 22-year-old to Madrid, it will take a king’s ransom to prise him away. It is a matter of course to set ridiculously high buyout clauses at the Bernabeu and no coincidence that Asensio’s is among the very highest at €700 million. The bidding for interested parties begins there: Real will not part with Asensio at any price.
Perez is a businessman and knows the value he represents in the long term on and off the pitch. One of few players to escape Spain’s World Cup inquest unscathed, there was a symbolic passing of the torch in Russia when Andres Iniesta was benched for the round-of-16 game against the hosts in favour of Asensio, the maestro handing the brush to his precocious student.
At the same time, Perez might have decided that it is finally time to call Cristiano Ronaldo’s bluff. The Portuguese’s star cannot wax indefinitely, and rumours of a move to Juventus are gathering pace. The relationship between player and president has been fractious for some time, and while the club has moved swiftly in recent days to rubbish reports of moves for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, the silence surrounding Ronaldo’s future speaks volumes.
If Perez is presented with the opportunity to pocket more than €100 million for a 33-year-old who is never satisfied with his lot and land the France forward, he will consider it excellent business.
Julen Lopetegui is likely to agree. The new Real boss is a firm believer in youth development and nurtured Asensio through the junior Spain ranks, providing him with the platform to emerge as player of the tournament at the 2015 Under-19 European Championships under his successor, Albert Celades.
Asensio is widely regarded as a contender to fill the void when Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s Ballon d’Or hegemony comes to an end. Neymar might be the heir apparent to the golden duo, but suggestions that the Brazilian’s driving force is the advancement of his own brand above all else should give Perez pause for thought.
Mbappe represents a less risky strategy, an investment with longer-term potential and none of the circus that accompanies Neymar’s every move. If Madrid take advantage of Paris Saint-Germain’s financial predicament this summer, the 19-year-old is the more likely target.
But if no major signings materialise, Real’s 2014 coup will be enough to assuage socios for now. At a club with such demands as Madrid, Asensio stands out precisely because he has made none. Last season, he chalked up 53 appearances and was the 13th-most used player under Zinedine Zidane.
He can expect his status to improve under Lopetegui, and he already has two Champions League titles and a Liga to his name as well as 15 senior international caps. It is a considerable return at a club not noted for investment in youth.
“It is something which has come out. When this World Cup is over, we will talk about these type of things,” Asensio said when asked about interest in his services.
There will be talk, but most of it will come from Lopetegui and Perez. The kid who used to stare up from his bed at an image of his idol Zidane is on the verge of becoming the poster boy for a revamped Madrid, despite the Frenchman’s departure.
If it proves to be at the expense of Ronaldo, there will be recriminations, but recovery time from the breakup will be swift: The Portuguese has done little to paper over the cracks in recent months, and Perez might feel that the time is ripe to steer Madrid into a post-Ronaldo era that began with that chance encounter on the stern of his yacht.
“He has all the quality to succeed. He is humble, hard-working, smart, a team player and has a tremendous quality,” Perez said last summer. “He can become a Ballon d’Or winner.”
The path to that goal might be about to open up sooner than even Asensio anticipated.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.