No surprise, then, that his name was cheered when the teams were announced, or that one or two flashes of that platinum brilliance were greeted by the crowd with wistful delight, or that there were those who waited until the last — and it was the very last: Ronaldo was never going to depart in a group — to show their appreciation.
But for all the mutual admiration, this should not be read as a feel-good story, a blissful trip down memory lane. This was a far more complex evening than Ronaldo, and his fans, would have envisaged when United was drawn to face Juventus in the Champions League group stage in August.
Since then, the German magazine Der Spiegel has published the account of Kathryn Mayorga, who has said that Ronaldo raped her in a Las Vegas hotel in June 2009. She has filed a lawsuit in Nevada against him; her legal team says that a nondisclosure agreement she signed nine years ago is not valid because of the stress she was under at the time. Ronaldo has strongly denied the allegations; he said, before this game, that he was confident that the “truth” would come out. The Las Vegas Police Department has reopened a sexual assault case from 2009.
That is the unavoidable backdrop against which Ronaldo, the adored hero, returned to Old Trafford; those were the circumstances under which his name was cheered by both sets of fans, under which he selflessly gave the pitch invaders a photograph to treasure as they take their inevitable bans from the stadium, under which he was serenaded after he left the field, smiling and winking to the camera.
He has not been charged with any crime, of course, let alone convicted. But the allegation is serious enough that it is impossible not to reflect, after an evening of such ardent worship, on the nature of support, of fandom, and to ask how far that bond should stretch.
The language of sports, in these cases, is insufficient. Sports tend toward easy narratives, a simplistic causality. A player who has been embroiled in some sporting controversy, angered by an opponent or criticized by a coach, responds through performance: They battle back, they silence the doubters, they put all that behind them thanks to a goal, a win, a triumph. Off field — but in-world — issues can be settled, or redressed, on it.