To this day Cristiano Ronaldo is regarded as one of the greatest players ever to wear the red of Manchester United in a six-year career which saw him win three Premier League titles, two League Cups, the FA Cup and the Champions League; but on August 6, 2002, the roles were reversed as the young Portuguese winger announced himself to the world while tormenting the club where he would make his name.
Manchester United had arrived in Lisbon to open the new Estadio Jose Alvalade on the back of a gruelling pre-season trip to the USA which had seen them play four games in three weeks in two time-zones, and just a matter of days before the start of the Premier League season many of the players were weary and looking forward to what they thought would be a meaningless game ahead of a few days’ rest.
Unfortunately for them, however, they would come up against an 18-year-old bundle of energy who would go on to become one of the most exciting and successful players the game has seen who was in the mood for much more than merely a kick-about.
Ronaldo wasn’t a complete unknown, in fact, he had already been earmarked as one of the hottest prospects in Portuguese football; but while many hot, young, prospects had come and gone, Ronaldo took the opportunity to show everyone watching what he was capable of.
He was certainly familiar with the locals too as, when the stadium announcer roared: “RON-AL-DO!” ahead of the game, the teenager was greeted with a huge cheer as he confidently stepped forward to acknowledge the crowd – for most of the United side, the only Ronaldo they were aware of was the Brazilian World Cup winner who played for Real Madrid.
Although Ronaldo didn’t get on the scoresheet that night, he did pretty much everything else, tormenting the United defence at every possibility and forcing ‘keeper Fabien Barthez into a number of fine saves.
Whether he was plying his trade down the right flank or jinking down the left, his ability and confidence was there for all to see, while his pace was so blistering that it meant that almost every United defender who was nominated to try and stop him was run ragged.
With Gary Neville out injured, it was the unfortunate John O’Shea who was given the responsibility of stopping Ronaldo and to put it kindly, he was turned inside-out, with some of the Irishman’s team-mates even laughing out loud as Alex Ferguson instructed him to get tighter to the kid who was running riot.
“The joke for the next 12 months was that John O’Shea deserved a cut of the transfer fee,” United defender Phil Neville later joked.
“But if he had played against anyone that night he would have been just as special.”
Not surprisingly, his performance in Sporting’s 3-1 victory didn’t escape the gaze of United’s on looking manager, nor the players he was up against for that matter, many of whom pleaded with their boss to make a bid for the youngster.
“I remember at half-time the lads leading the charge for the gaffer to sign the kid,” recalled United’s Mikael Silvestre some years later. “It was surreal to see players saying, ‘Yeah, we need to sign him!”
But their manager was already one step ahead of his players and had already met with Sporting’s directors and Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, at the Quinta da Marinha Hotel in Cascais barely hours after landing the previous night.
The Portuguese starlet had been on his radar for some time following a recommendation by assistant Carlos Queiroz while scout Jim Ryan had been dispatched to watch him on a number of occasions – just a few days later and he was about to become the most expensive teenager in British football history.
On August 12th, Ronaldo signed for United for a record-breaking fee before going on to become a legend of the game at both club and international level while, for six years at least, United’s players could enjoy the fact that, during a time of almost unprecedented glory for the club, he was with them rather than against them.