Ronaldo was born in Santo António, a neighbourhood of Funchal, Madeira, the youngest child of Maria Dolores dos Santos Aveiro, a cook, and José Dinis Aveiro, a municipal gardener. His second given name, “Ronaldo”, was chosen after then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who was his father’s favourite actor. He has one older brother, Hugo, and two older sisters, Elma and Liliana Cátia. His great-grandmother Isabel da Piedade was from Cape Verde.
The family was staunchly Catholic. Ronaldo later claimed that he lived in poverty, sharing a room with his brother and sisters. Ronaldo was popular with other students at school, but he was expelled after he threw a chair at his teacher. Ronaldo later said of the incident, “He disrespected me”. At age 14, Ronaldo agreed with his mother to focus entirely on football. He states, “When I got to 14 I felt I had the potential. I thought I was maybe good enough at that time to play semi-professionally”. Ronaldo had started playing for amateur team Andorinha at age 8, where his father was the kit man. In 1995, Ronaldo, aged 10, signed with local club Nacional, and, after a title-winning campaign, he went on a three-day trial with Sporting CP, who subsequently signed him for an undisclosed sum.
Ronaldo joined Sporting’s other youth players who trained at the Academia Sporting, the club’s football academy, in Alcochete. He became the only player ever to play for Sporting’s under-16, under-17, under-18, B-team, and the first team, all within one season. He scored two goals in his league debut on 7 October 2002, which Sporting CP won 3–0 against Moreirense, while featuring for Portugal in the 2002 European Under-17 Championship.
At the age of 15, Ronaldo was diagnosed with a racing heart, a condition that might have forced him to give up playing football. The Sporting staff were made aware of the condition and Ronaldo’s mother gave her authorisation for him to go into hospital. While there, he had an operation in which a laser was used to cauterise the area of his heart that was causing the problem. The surgery took place in the morning and Ronaldo was discharged from hospital by the end of the afternoon; he resumed training only a few days later.
In November 2002, Ronaldo was invited to Arsenal‘s training ground, London Colney to meet manager Arsène Wenger and his coaching staff. Wenger, who was interested in signing the midfielder, had arranged to meet Ronaldo’s representatives, Formation (who suggested the player originally to Gérard Houllier, then Liverpool manager, and Joan Laporta, then Barcelona president) in the subsequent months to discuss a transfer arrangement. Of a possible move to Liverpool, Ronaldo said “Liverpool are one of the best clubs in England and it would be a dream for any player to represent a club of such traditions”. However, he came to the attention of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in the middle of 2003, when Sporting defeated United 3–1 in the inauguration of the Estádio José Alvalade in Lisbon. Ronaldo’s performance impressed the Manchester United players, who urged Ferguson to sign him. In April 2013, Sporting honoured Ronaldo by selecting him to become the 100,000th member of the club.
Ronaldo became Manchester United’s first-ever Portuguese player when he signed for £12.24 million before the 2003–04 season. He was given the number 7 shirt by Alex Ferguson, who said that after a friendly with Sporting, United’s players “talked about him constantly, and on the plane back from the game they urged me to sign him” and that “he is one of the most exciting young players I’ve ever seen”. Ronaldo later revealed that he had requested the number 28 (his number at Sporting), as he did not want the pressure of living up to the expectation linked to the number 7 shirt, which had previously been worn by United legends such as George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona and David Beckham. “After I joined, the manager asked me what number I’d like. I said 28. But Ferguson said ‘No, you’re going to have No. 7,’ and the famous shirt was an extra source of motivation. I was forced to live up to such an honour”.
Ronaldo made his team debut to a standing ovation as a 60th-minute substitute for Nicky Butt in a 4–0 home victory over Bolton Wanderers on 16 August, and produced a performance hailed by Alex Ferguson as “marvellous”. His early form earned high praise from United legend George Best, who said that Ronaldo was “special”, while former manager Ron Atkinson effused about his “pace and quick thinking” and how it meant United could “spring very quickly from defence into attack”.
“I want to be one of the best players around in two or three years’ time. I would be very proud if, one day, I’m held in the same esteem as George Best or David Beckham.” — Cristiano Ronaldo in 2004.
He scored his first goal for Manchester United with a free kick in a 3–0 win over Portsmouth on 1 November 2003. His only other league goals in the season all came in 2004; he scored the second in a 3–0 win against Tottenham Hotspur on 20 March, the equalising goal in a 2–1 victory away to Birmingham City on 10 April, and the opener in a 2–0 victory over Aston Villa on the final day of the season in a game in which he also received his first red card. Ronaldo also scored in the fifth round of the 2003–04 FA Cup in a 4–2 Manchester derby against Manchester City. Ronaldo ended his first season in English football by scoring the opening goal in United’s 3–0 FA Cup Final victory over Millwall, with his performance receiving praise from Gary Neville who said “I think Ronaldo can be one of the top footballers in the world”.