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Cristiano Ronaldo, the legal position and whether Manchester United could terminate his contract

The Athletic

As the dust settles at Old Trafford following the first shockwaves of Cristiano Ronaldo’s highly-critical interview, club executives have been busy examining their options for the next step in resolving an increasingly toxic situation.

On the day the first installment of the Talk TV interview with presenter Piers Morgan is broadcast, Manchester United’s owners the Glazer family, chief executive Richard Arnold and director of football John Murtough, along with manager Erik ten Hag, will be in dialogue with their lawyers as they wait to see the full extent of the player’s comments over the next 24 hours.

So far, in extracts also published by the Sun newspaper and video clips watched over 11 million times on social media, Ronaldo has accused his employers of betrayal and disrespect, taking swipes at Ten Hag and the club’s hierarchy. Here’s what we know so far.

But what options are available to the club? How might they go about making a constructive step forward in the wake of the embarrassing polemic from the 37-year-old superstar?

What is the biggest consideration for United based on what they know?

The most important thing for United is to establish to what extent Ronaldo is in breach of his contract through his comments and what they are then able to do as a result.

All top-flight players sign a Premier League employment contract with their clubs.

Under that agreement, they are obliged to “comply with and act in accordance with all lawful instructions of any authorised official of the club” and are not allowed to “write or say anything which is likely to bring the club… into disrepute… or cause damage to the club”.

Jamie Singer, a partner at sports law specialists Onside Law, feels Ronaldo may already be in breach of his standard contract.

“Under the contract, there’s a specific provision that talks about not saying anything which brings the club into disrepute or damages the club’s reputation,” he says. “The content of the interview immediately puts him in breach.

“The standard terms also cover, wherever possible, informing the club about interviews you’re doing in advance. He could have informed the club so I would think that was probably another breach.”

It is understood United were made aware of the interview by Ronaldo’s camp on Sunday, shortly before Morgan’s first tweet to publicise it, so it could be open to interpretation whether that qualifies as reasonable notice in advance.

“As I understand it, the standard contract doesn’t prohibit players from doing interviews,” adds Singer. “But it obliges them to try and help the club by telling them they’re doing it in advance and making sure they’re joined up.”

In this case, Ronaldo is no different from any of his team-mates, or players at the Premier League’s 19 other clubs.

“It’s a standard Premier League contract that every Manchester United player will have signed and every club is obliged to use,” says Singer. “He (Ronaldo) will have signed up to those provisions.

“That includes implied terms about confidence, loyalty and obeying reasonable instructions.

“There can be little doubt that what he’s done puts him in breach of the standard contract. From what I’ve seen, accusing the club of betrayal, not honouring commitments, it’s pretty easy to say he’s brought the club into disrepute and damaged the interests of the club.”

What might happen if United decide Ronaldo has breached his contract?

Ultimately, the club could terminate the Portuguese’s deal.

Having initially re-joined United in August 2021 on a two-year contract with an option for an extra year, his current terms would be due to expire in August 2023 — assuming that extra year was not agreed.

However, if United’s hierarchy feel the player remaining at the club is impossible and want to try and get rid of him even in the face of appeals or further damaging publicity, there is a process they can follow.

The most important thing for United is to establish to what extent Ronaldo is in breach of his contract through his comments (Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“If he’s in breach of contract, it’s one thing,” adds Singer. “But if it’s such a fundamental breach of contract that can bring termination, that’s another level.

“You can’t prejudge from a few clips and out-of-context snippets so it makes sense for United and their legal team to know exactly what is said and then take a judgement call.”

United may be best advised to follow the set process as they would with any potential breach of contract, and consider all their options.

“There’s a disciplinary process and if someone is in breach of contract by doing something they shouldn’t have done, the club has the scope to fine the player and impose a penalty,” explains Singer.

One high-profile precedent is former United forward Romelu Lukaku.

The striker gave an explosive interview to Sky Italia last season, lambasting Chelsea’s behaviour when failing to play regularly. Thomas Tuchel, then Chelsea head coach, said Lukaku would face “some discipline action” for the interview but, unlike Ronaldo, this was a player signed for £90million just a few months earlier.

Lukaku, who also apologised for his interview, is now on a season-long loan back at Inter Milan, the club he had left for Chelsea.

“If it’s serious or the player disagrees, you go into the disciplinary procedure where the player has the opportunity to defend themselves,” says Singer. “The club will say what it is they think he’s done wrong, he can argue he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong and then it goes up to the board of the club to decide what the penalty should be or if there’s a penalty at all.

“In this situation, it would be an internal hearing and potentially get to a situation where he’s committed gross misconduct and they can terminate the contract.

“Or if they believe there’s so much here, they could shortcut it and say they don’t need a disciplinary process. They might argue it’s so clear and obvious it’s gross misconduct that they’d go straight for termination with a 14-day notice.”

Are there any examples of players having their contracts terminated?

In August 2011, Hull City terminated the contract of record signing Jimmy Bullard following an incident on a pre-season trip to Slovenia.

Bullard had a lucrative deal until the end of the 2012-13 season and it led to a legal dispute between him and the club. The former midfielder was eventually reported to have accepted a settlement and both parties signed confidentiality agreements.

In 2014, Nicolas Anelka was sacked by West Bromwich Albion for gross misconduct. Anelka — who was given a five-match ban and an £80,000 fine by the Football Association for the quenelle gesture he made at West Ham — had announced via Twitter that he was terminating his playing contract, which had three and half months to run.

Anelka was sacked by West Brom in 2014 for gross misconduct (Photo: John Walton – PA Images via Getty Images)

The club had suspended the Frenchman on full pay following the FA’s verdict and were planning to complete their own investigation. West Brom had initially said his Twitter statement was “highly unprofessional”.

Three hours later, the club revealed they had written to Anelka giving him 14 days notice of termination as required under his contract. They said Anelka had failed to apologise for “the impact and consequences of his (quenelle) gesture” or accept a substantial fine, which would have resulted in his suspension being lifted.

Singer believes United would be best advised to go through the full process, however angry they might feel about the interview.

“The safer route is to go through the process of a disciplinary hearing, we’ll set it out and you can defend yourself,” he says. “Then we decide on the sanction.

“If they do find him guilty of gross misconduct, which is very rare, the player can still appeal that to the Premier League. What makes it unusual is that typically the value of a player’s registration is so significant. It’s unusual that a club would terminate the contract of a player’s registration because of the value of his registration.

“But here they’re paying him however many hundreds of thousands a week and they’ll be unable to sell him for a big transfer fee. That does change the dynamic quite a lot.

“To save themselves £400,000 a week, it might be worth going down that route. There’s enough incendiary stuff in what we’ve seen that probably does justify gross misconduct.

“They’d probably want to go through a disciplinary process to protect themselves against any claims it hadn’t been a due and fair process. Knowing that Ronaldo would probably challenge them, they’ve got another layer of protection then.”

So what might the eventual outcome be?

Despite the possibility of tearing up his contract, United may opt to do things amicably and on the quiet.

Along with criticising the facilities at United’s training ground and a string of other damaging observations about its culture, Ronaldo has accused the club of showing a lack of “empathy” when his young daughter was hospitalised in July.

Simon Leaf, head of sport at law firm Mishcon de Reya, believes that settling the matter privately could be the best way for the club to limit any more embarrassment.

“The club are caught between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “(A) termination right is subject to Ronaldo’s right to appeal — especially as he seems to be suggesting that United are in breach of its own duties to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of its employees, which may extend to allowing Ronaldo time off in such difficult circumstances.

“There is no easy answer to this particular legal wrangle, and, from experience, one suspects, that given the sums involved in terms of wages and a potential transfer fee that may be forgone, both Ronaldo and the club will now try to resolve the issues as amicably as possible in private with a view to both parties saving face.”

(Top Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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