Super League rage, Ronaldo mania and the fight for the soul of Manchester United

Four months after Man United fans stormed Old Trafford in protest of the European Super League, they cheered and celebrated Cristiano Ronaldo's first game back in red, against Newcastle. Peter Powell Powell/EPA

ON THE MORNING of Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester, a small crowd filtered into an enormous stone and marble church for Mass. Most were old. A few still spoke with a faded Irish lilt. The priest read from the gospel about the folly of building on a foundation of sand. Once there were enough sinners in this parish, as many as 50,000, to need all six of the confessionals. Now only a few thousand remain. Few things feel more melancholy than a huge beautiful house of worship left without worshipers, a dying parish hanging on after the neighborhood it was built to serve has vanished.

The neighborhood is Collyhurst, a name which evokes for Mancunians a black-and-white movie reel of a bygone way of life. Two players on Manchester United's 1968 European Cup-winning team went to church here, Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles. The mailing address for the church is 2 Nobby Stiles Drive. Stiles also won the 1966 World Cup with England. His teammate, Sir Bobby Charlton, called him "a dog of war," by which he meant a fierce, often brutal defender whose tenacity and violence made possible the beauty of Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. He's my favorite old United player, and after Mass, his boyhood friend and teammate Brian Kidd met me for tea.

Kidd told me a story about being 15 and a youth player for Man United, assigned the job of cleaning the boots of the main squad players. All these muddy spikes would get tossed in a wicker basket and Kidd would drag it out the tunnel at Old Trafford to the maroon wooden benches, and he'd sit there and clean and look around at the towering empty stands and terraces, dreaming of when his time would come. He laughs a bit at how silly all this sounds.

"I'm not being melodramatic," he insists.

He can still see the green grass and the rising tide of concrete seats, and he remembers imagining his own feet on that field, swelling with longing, with respect but most of all, with reverence.

"I'd be cleaning George Best's boots," he says. "Nobby Stiles' boots."

Nobby's father ran the Catholic funeral home around the corner from St. Patrick's Church. Whenever somebody would get shot on the screen down at the local theater, someone would call out from the seats in the dark, "Send for Charlie Stiles!"

Sometimes as a young boy Nobby would accompany his father to funerals and wakes. Once they walked into a house and Nobby realized he'd come face to face with the family of the great Jimmy Delaney, whose signing in 1946 made the city ripple in much the way Ronaldo's signing has in 2021. One of Jimmy's United jerseys hung on the wall. Nobby stared in awe. His father quietly asked Jimmy's niece if his son might, for just a moment, be able to wear it. The woman smiled, took the shirt off the wall and slipped it on young Nobby Stiles. He later said he could feel himself changing, a Bushido handshake, or as he put it, "a passage of the warrior robes of my tribe."

I LANDED IN Manchester on Thursday morning for Ronaldo's first match with United, here to document a new celebrity arrival in a booming, modern city, which is also a city that always feels old and unable to escape its history. I love Manchester. A visit to this place might mean a late-night club with post-punk on parade, or a pint of bitter at a dying pub, soaring glass architecture in the Northern Quarter or a barren lot in Collyhurst. There are dozens of cranes in the air. There are ground-level fields of blight. One of those cities has to be real, I often think, and one has to be an illusion, but both are on display when the place cracks open to welcome the arrival of the world's most famous athlete.

Digital road signs that normally update drivers about traffic and commute times said, "Welcome home CR7." The club sold $60 million worth of his jerseys in the 36 hours after his signing was announced, according to a rough estimate by a consumer website. Those sales came from more than 100 different countries, from Greenland to Fiji, according to Fanatics. The top five were England, America, Australia, China and Germany. Only Manchester's slums celebrated Jimmy Delaney. Only locals could point you to 2 Nobby Stiles Drive. The whole world knows Ronaldo. At the stadium on Thursday afternoon, as fans gathered to buy Ronaldo scarves and jerseys and pose for pictures, at least three different languages were being spoken.

One of the scarf vendors grinned at his own quick industry.

"We don't mess about," he joked. "I got me granny up all night."

It's been a wild six months for Manchester United supporters. In April, the owning Glazer family joined other elite clubs from England, Spain and Italy to form a so-called "Super League," patterned after the American franchise model. JP Morgan stage-managed the debacle, which died only two days after it was announced. The reason it only lasted two days was in part because fans, particularly blue-collar fans already angry at the changes brought to their lives by globalization, exploded in protest. Anything that diminishes the local in favor of wealthy internationals is the perceived enemy of the British working class, whether that is the European Union or a football league, and no supporters reacted with more anger or purpose than Man United supporters. A group of them stormed the gates of Old Trafford and forced a match against Liverpool to be postponed. One of those protesting fans carried a sign that read, "Football: created by the poor, stolen by the rich."

With all this roiling, Ronaldo came onto the market.

He first became a star at Man United nearly two decades ago, and has always professed his unending love and gratitude towards former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Just weeks ago, Manchester City looked like the favorites to sign the Portuguese star from Italian club Juventus, but neither United supporters nor the Glazer family could abide the idea of the superstar coming home to play for the other team in town. There was no choice. Manchester United outmuscled its cross-town rivals. Ronaldo credited Ferguson with convincing him to return to the Reds, the past forever prelude here.