“At that age, he is not just a footballer. He is waiting to be an icon.”
Eusebio’s words after Man United made Cristiano Ronaldo the most expensive teenager in British football history.
Much of the Portuguese superstar’s origin story has passed from legend into mythology.
Let’s set the record straight.
For the latest in our HISTORY LESSONS series, I re-watched all of Sporting CP’s 3-1 pre-season friendly win over Man United in 2003…
Why this game?
The romantic version of this fairytale describes how an unsuspecting Man United were ravaged in Lisbon by a skinny 18-year-old with blonde highlights.
Such was the thrilling nature of the young winger’s performance, the helpless United players begged Alex Ferguson to sign him.
And Fergie, having been just as wowed as his players, decided he would do whatever necessary to sign Ronaldo before Europe’s best kept secret was out.
While this isn’t quite the reality, there’s no doubt this game is among the most important friendlies of all time.
After all, it was the catalyst for a legacy that redefined excellence.
As the game kicks off, I’m focusing on nothing other than the blurry figure (it’s hard to find crystal clear footage of a 16-year-old friendly) lingering by Sporting’s left wing.
Within 20 seconds, he picks up the ball by the touchline and drives 30, 35, 40 yards.
In the 15th minute, he backheels a pass to an overlapping runner and a minute later he collects deep in his own half and performs a devastating stepover to leave Eric Djemba-Djemba tackling ghosts.
What’s most noticeable is his directness, something that’s always been one of his greatest strengths.
Many players, even super-talented ones, are guilty of over-complicating football at times.
Young Ronaldo has a penchant for flicks and tricks, but his overriding mission is wonderfully simple: get the ball towards goal as quick as possible.
Midway through the first half, he receives the ball with his feet on the paint, skips inside away from two players before unleashing a shot from 25 yards.
It’s a familiar sequence, one he initiated for dozens of goals during his inside forward era for the first two thirds of his Real Madrid career.
The primary victim of Ronaldo’s threat is John O’Shea.
Roy Keane later said his compatriot played ‘like a f**king clown’ because he was suffering from jet lag.
United had flown to Lisbon from New York the night before the game and the team’s overall performance was lethargic as a result.
Keane said of O’Shea’s problems: “Sheasy ended up seeing the doctor at half time because he was actually having dizzy spells.”
United’s captain also joked his fellow Republic of Ireland international’s horror show aided Ronaldo’s Old Trafford switch.
It’s since been proven not even a perfect night’s sleep can suitably prepare a defender for the task of defending against Ronaldo.
Just before the half-hour mark, Sporting’s No28 (CR28 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?) leaps to win a header seven yards out.
His effort skews wide and he lambastes himself for the miss, smacking his forehead in frustration.
Just like the long-range shot, it’s the kind of chance he has now become accustomed to converting.
His reaction says a lot too.
A game against Man United is something to be taken seriously in any situation but ultimately this was a friendly conceived to celebrate the opening of Sporting’s new stadium.
Of all his elite attributes, Ronaldo’s mentality is perhaps his most significant.
His desire to improve and eviscerate minute flaws is borderline obsessive — glimpses of this mindset are visible during the 2003 friendly.
Either side of half time, he casually lifts the ball over O’Shea’s jetlagged head — the substitution the Irishman must have been praying for comes soon after the second humiliation.
An injured Gary Neville watches on from home via MUTV and says ‘bloody hell’ when Ronaldo makes a run in between right-back and centre-back.
“When you’re watching a player who you would usually play against,” he told the Independent, “you look much more closely and it’s very rare to see that level of movement and speed.
“Only a few people are capable of timing a run like that.”
As the clock ticks past an hour, it appears Ronaldo has bought a cheap free-kick by the touchline — a dive to cover his poor control?
No! The replay unveils three rapid touches that form a brilliant piece of singular skill to lure a clear foul.
“Feet!” I say out loud watching the second replay — it’s a half-moment that shines a flash of light on the deepest depths of the boy’s talent.
Sporting’s second goal comes from the resulting free-kick.
And the hosts’ third also owes its life to their wonderkid’s synaptic feet.
Having switched to the right wing with 20 minutes remaining, he is trapped near the corner by Phil Neville and Mark Lynch (a name more familiar to Rotherham and Stockport fans than the Old Trafford faithful) when he drags the ball close only to snap it out and stab it down the line with the outside of his right boot.
With two United defenders now lost at sea, Sporting score four seconds later.
There’s more to admire, not least a time-stopping first touch over his shoulder to create a one-on-one which he slams at Fabian Barthez’s gloves.
But this is not the faultless performance some would have you believe.
Not long after the restart, he is put in behind and sits Barthez down with a fake, only to squander a simple pullback after overplaying.
His team-mate drops his his knees, pained at missing out on the chance to score a tap-in against Man United.
Some of Ronaldo’s stepovers are easy to read and his weight of pass is yet to be honed.
There’s no doubt about it though, it’s an exhilarating performance of mass potential.
But was it really the reason Ronaldo signed for Man United?
The truth is United were already favourites to sign a player highly rated by several of Europe’s top clubs.
Ronaldo had even been given a tour of Arsenal’s training ground by Arsene Wenger a few months previous.
“United would never have signed a player because of 90 minutes in a pre-season friendly,” Neville said.
Rather than an eye-opening revelation, Ronaldo’s performance against United in Lisbon was confirmation of what Ferguson already suspected.
He even warned his players before kick-off.
Lynch relayed his manager’s words to Bleacher Report years later: “They have a talented young winger. Look out for him, okay?
“He’s strong and agile. He’s quite good.”
United had an official/unofficial (depends who you ask) association with Sporting CP at the time.
The two clubs agreed to share scouting advice and training techniques, as well as organising a certain friendly.
United’s major benefit of the partnership was a priority fast track to Sporting’s blooming talent — the Portuguese club’s academy has long been recognised for its prolific output.
What’s often cited a spontaneous, reactive transfer was actually methodically cultivated.
“We have been negotiating for Cristiano for quite some time,” Ferguson said when the transfer was confirmed two days after the friendly.
“But the interest in him from other clubs accelerated in the last few weeks so we had to move quickly to get him.”
While the concept of striking unexpected gold has been invented, the part of the fairy tale that is true is the United players’ excitement.
Rio Ferdinand, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville pestered Ferguson for more details after the game, encouraging their gaffer to finalise the deal.
“After we played last week,” Ferguson added, “the lads talked about him constantly and, on the plane back from the game, urged me to sign him.”
So while his pre-season talents didn’t earn Ronaldo the transfer entirely, the friendly did ensure he arrived in Manchester with the admiration of the dressing room.
We don’t need to recap all that’s happened since then; we’ll just say he’s been central to some of the most compelling narratives in world sport for a period of time that defies belief.
Most friendlies are designed to hone fitness, increase the club’s reputation in growing markets, bed in new signings, etc.
Sporting v Man United in August 2003 was supposed to break in a new stadium.
Instead, it propelled a generational talent on the path to a new kind of greatness.
READ MORE FROM OUR HISTORY LESSONS SERIES:
- The night Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona became the greatest club side of all time
- How Roy Keane’s bittersweet ‘finest hour’ helped Man United achieve the impossible
- Who actually scored the £1billion goal that changed the Premier League forever?