Cristiano Ronaldo is returning to Manchester United following a dramatic transfer pursuit. (Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United: What Just Happened?

Never to be outdone by Lionel Messi, CR7’s shock return to Manchester United turns soccer on its head and creates a huge shift in its balance of power.

Turns out Lionel Messi wasn’t the only man in soccer’s GOAT conversation to switch clubs this summer. In an absolute stunner, Juventus and Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo went from imminently joining Premier League champions Manchester City to a gobsmacking return to the club that first helped him find global stardom:

City’s crosstown rivals, Manchester United.

ESPN’s Gab Marcotti and Rodrigo Fáez were first to report Thursday that a deal was close with Man City. But barely 12 hours later, CR7’s return to Old Trafford to rejoin a Manchester United squad coached by his former teammate, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, was official.

To say the very least, this whole saga has seismic, titanic effects on the landscape of world football.

Despite his 36 years of age, the Portuguese powerhouse remains one of the Beautiful Game’s very best. He’s fresh off winning the Golden Boot at EURO 2020 as the tournament’s top goal-scorer despite playing just 391 minutes, Transfermarkt still estimates Ronaldo’s market value at $49.5 million, and he’s an even more valuable commodity off the field.

Such is the case when you’re the single most popular figure in global sports — and perhaps all of pop culture in general.

On Thursday, Marcotti and Fáez also reported that Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola spoke on the phone with CR7, stirring rumors of Ronaldo leaving the Serie A titans for the northwest of England.

And leave for Manchester is exactly what he did, closing his Juve account with 101 goals in 134 games, two league titles, one Coppa Italia, and two Supercoppa Italiana crowns.

But the blue side of the city was ultimately not the one to win the race.

Interestingly, ESPN’s sources said that Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri was “relaxed” about potentially losing Ronaldo — the club paid $118 million to Real Madrid for his services in 2018 and stood nearly no chance of recouping the sum — but he now needs to replace a serious void at forward.

And with the summer transfer window closing on Aug. 31, there’s not much time to slap together a plan.

Meanwhile, on the Man United side, the improbable return of the world’s most popular athlete will have every fan buzzing, though there is also a question to be asked about where the player’s priorities more generally lie. It’s not clear how many more years CR7 has as a world-beating superstar who can put entire teams on his back.

That’s a sticking point that mitigates transfer fees and contract figures no matter who the suitor happened to be.

But with a club as wealthy as Man United officially winning the CR7 sweepstakes — Forbes values the Red Devils at $4.2 billion, No. 4 among global soccer clubs — the financial questions won’t be keeping anyone at Old Trafford awake at night.

And aside from the money, the whole narrative is just incredibly poetic.

Ronaldo first became a true global superstar while donning a Manchester United shirt. They were the club that plucked the young attacking man out of his home country, paying £12 million ($19 million) to acquire him from Lisbon’s Sporting CP. He starred there for six years, winning three league titles, one Champions League, and the first of five Ballon d’Or trophies for the world’s best men’s player before relocating to Real Madrid.

Seeing the man don City’s sky blue for the first time against his former Red Devils would have been truly surreal.

Instead, he’s back at the Theatre of Dreams for what could very well be the final stop of his record-breaking career.

Soccer is a different sport than it was when we woke up this morning. And we shouldn’t be surprised — for years, whenever Messi pulled off a coup de grâce, his sole opponent in the modern GOAT conversation has never gone without a spirited response.