Opinion

From penalty box to director's box: Ronaldo's big ownership gamble

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With more riches than they know what to do with, retiring players are starting to eye a different piece of the game when their playing days are done. An increasing number want go from scoring shots to calling the shots.

This week, Brazilian icon Ronaldo announced that he had purchased a controlling stake in Real Valladolid for the tidy sum of €30 million (A$48.7 million)

Now this is a moment in football history. I can’t recall an elite player actually buying a controlling stake in an elite club – competing in one of Europe’s top five leagues – ever before.

Valladolid are no mug’s club, either. Back in La Liga for the first time since 2013-14, they’ve put a difficult few years behind them after a long and energetic spell in the top flights in the 1990s. The stadium – the horseshoe-shaped Estadio José Zorrilla, built for the 1982 World Cup – is a classic.

It’s wonderful that Ronaldo sees fit to put his hard-earned money back into football, but how his tenure is remembered will probably come down to what he learns from other players who thought they were suited to the big chair.

But it doesn’t always come with a happy ending. In Australia, the case of Northern Spirit leaves a bitter taste in all those players and coaches who invested, in good faith, and were left with nothing.

It can happen to the best of them. Even Gianluigi Buffon went into – and out of – club ownership before his playing career had been completed.

The champion goalkeeper purchased 50 per cent of his favourite childhood club, Carrarese Calcio, in 2010 and gradually increased his stake in the subsequent years until he owned the whole club.

Yet things went awry quickly, primarily the relationship with the fans who once stood alongside Buffon on the same terraces. Sick of losing money, and feeling that he was not appreciated, Buffon sold out by 2015. The club was declared bankrupt a year later.

The most high profile example is David Beckham, despite his team never having kicked a ball. Last month, they finally unveiled their logo. But it has been a brutal period for Beckham, who has suffered a torrid time securing land for a stadium among several other hurdles since his ownership group came to life in 2013. They still don’t get to join the MLS until 2020.

There must be times he looks wistfully at his pals from the “Class of 92” - Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt – who have been an example of getting things right, albeit at the other end of the football pyramid.

Their investment into Salford City FC has yielded staggering results, with three promotions in four years taking them to the brink of the Football League. They’re currently four points off first-placed Harrogate Town and look every chance of playing in League Two next season.

Another example of starting small and building up belongs to the legendary Romanian Gheorge Hagi, who may well be the model ex-player-cum-owner. He started Viitorul Constanța from scratch in 2009 as a third-tier team. In the next eight years, they won the third division title, the second division title and, in 2016-17, the Romanian League Title.

This was done almost entirely on the back of young players, who were scouted relentlessly by Hagi’s personal team and then developed by the best youth coaches in the country. It certainly had a happier ending than George Weah’s “Junior Professionals” in Liberia, quietly dissolved in 2000, six years after he took over.

The slow burn, at the right level with the right people, still looks the safest play for ex-players. And choosing the right market at the right time is critical, too. But even that’s tricky.

Demba Ba, Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sow have gathered together to buy North American Soccer League side San Diego 04, but that league has been postponed after losing its second-tier status, and what happens next is unclear. That’s also proven a headache for Paulo Maldini, a part-owner of Miami FC from the same league.

They’d be looking on rather enviously at Didier Drogba, whose Phoenix Rising currently sit third in the Western Conference of the United Soccer League – now the league officially sanctioned as the USA’s second tier. Not only does Drogba part-own the club, he plays for the club and is their co-captain.

Stars from other sports have had an equally mixed bag. While Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli all have stakes in the highly-successful Indian Super League, ex-MLB All-Star Mike Piazza’s stint in charge of AC Reggiana ended in disaster when they were excluded the Italian league system for financial irregularities.

Either way, as Ronaldo sets to dominate the game for a second time, judging by his peers, it’s unlikely that off-field success will come quite so easily as it did during his playing days.