Cristiano Ronaldo began to test his club's patience severely last night when he suggested, for the third time in nine days, that Real Madrid's overtures are of interest to him and hinted at a significant development within two weeks.
Real's public flirtation with Ronaldo – which included suggestions through the Spanish media yesterday morning that they are ready to offer Manchester United £63.5m plus Brazilian striker Robinho in return for the player – earlier led Sir Alex Ferguson to launch an attack on the club, accusing it and its president of moral bankruptcy.
But Ronaldo's failure to quash the Real rumours and pledge his future to United is beginning to make a fool out of his manager and though the club said last night that there were no plans to pull him into line, Ferguson will surely not accept this kind of conduct for much longer.
Arriving at Lisbon airport before meeting up with the Portuguese squad ahead of the European Championship, Ronaldo employed his now familiar strategy of first refusing to discuss Real; then adding fuel to the fire. "I don't want to talk about my future now," he said at first. "I don't have anything with Real Madrid at the moment. I've a contract with Manchester." Then, for the first time, he suggested there was something he might have to say. "We will speak about that in the next two weeks," he said.
The "we" seemed to be himself and agent Jorge Mendes, rather than a sign that he and Real would be meeting to talk. But the ambiguity ran counter to United's insistence, throughout yesterday, that there has been no contact from Real and that, as chief executive David Gill affirmed in Moscow, Ronaldo would be "in a United shirt next season".
Ronaldo would appear to be pushing for an increase on the £120,000-a-week contract he signed 13 months ago. Though United again reiterated suggestions of a new contract yesterday, all parties are aware that under the recent Webster ruling Ronaldo will effectively be a free agent by 2010 if not signed up to a new deal.
With customary self-confidence Ronaldo added, before he was driven to join his team-mates at Viseu, east of Porto: "Next season I can... do better because in all the years I've spent in Manchester I have always improved. I will try to be equal or better." Ferguson reserved his wrath for Real, rather than his player, at a gathering that was supposed to have been a celebration of United's success this week.
Holding on to Ronaldo, Ferguson admitted, would not be easy. "The ones you want to keep you have to work hard to keep. In the modern day that's a fact," he said, conceding that the player's Old Trafford longevity is dependent on United winning the Champions League again and becoming the continent's dominant force. "It is how big we are in terms of European championships that will resonate with him."
Ferguson spoke a few hours after Spanish media suggested that Real were ready to smash the £46m world record fee they paid Juventus for Zinedine Zidane seven years ago if Ronaldo committed before the European Championship. Ferguson believes this is precisely the kind of "marker" designed by the club to turn his player's head – to his mind a craven act which shows a lack of the "moral issues" that Barcelona possess.
"Barcelona have far better moral issues than Real Madrid will ever have," Ferguson claimed, pointedly acknowledging Real's detested rivals. "They're not the only club with interest in Ronaldo. Do you not think we've have many interests from the best clubs in Europe about our best players? Of course. But they don't get into the nonsense that [Real] get into. They have no moral issues at all. They think they can ride roughshod over everyone but they won't do it with us."
Real president Ramon Calderon's suggestion that "slavery was abolished a long time ago; nobody can prevent a player from moving" prompted Ferguson to abandon his acute sense of international diplomacy.
"Calderon makes that great statement, 'slavery was abolished many, many years ago,'" he declared. "Did they tell Franco that? Jesus Christ eh? Give me a break? We sold them [Ruud] van Nistelrooy, we sold them [David] Beckham because we wanted to."