Ronaldo came to the attention of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in August 2003, when Sporting defeated United 3–1 at the inauguration of the Estádio José Alvalade in Lisbon. His performance impressed the Manchester United players, who urged Ferguson to sign him. Ferguson himself considered the 18-year-old “one of the most exciting young players” he had ever seen. A decade after his departure from the club, in April 2013, Sporting honoured Ronaldo by selecting him to become their 100,000th member.
Ronaldo became Manchester United’s first-ever Portuguese player when he signed before the 2003–04 season. His transfer fee of £12.24 million made him, at the time, the most expensive teenager in English football history. Although he requested the number 28, his number at Sporting, he received the number 7 shirt, which had previously been worn by such United legends as George Best, Eric Cantona, and David Beckham. Wearing the number 7 became an extra source of motivation for Ronaldo, who stated that his goal was to establish himself among the world’s best players within the next three years. A key element in his development during his time in England proved to be his manager, Alex Ferguson, of whom he later said, “He’s been my father in sport, one of the most important and influential factors in my career“.
Ronaldo made his debut in the Premier League in a 4–0 home victory over Bolton Wanderers on 16 August 2003, receiving a standing ovation when he came on as a 60th-minute substitute for Nicky Butt. His performance earned praise from George Best, who hailed it as “undoubtedly the most exciting debut” he had ever seen. Ronaldo scored his first goal for Manchester United with a free kick in a 3–0 win over Portsmouth on 1 November. Three other league goals followed in the second half of the campaign, the last of which came against Aston Villa on the final day of the season, a game in which he also received his first red card. Ronaldo ended his first season in English football by scoring the opening goal in United’s 3–0 victory over Millwall in the FA Cup final, earning his first trophy.
Ronaldo, with his funny broken English, hung around with the group of Manchester United’s Spanish-speaking players when he first arrived – Quinton Fortune, Diego Forlán and Ruud Van Nistelrooy with whom he enjoyed a positive initial relationship; and later goalkeeper Ricardo, fitness coach Valter di Salvo, Gerard Piqué and Gabriel Heinze. But everyone ‘got’ him straight away. “He walked with his chest out. He was so confident. His eyes looking straight into yours,” recalled Phil Neville.
Many youngsters had passed through that dressing room without daring so much as to look up at Roy Keane, Gary Neville or Ryan Giggs. “Bloody hell, this lad,” thought Neville when he saw how Ronaldo looked him straight in the eye. “I likened him to Cantona. Cristiano arrived here saying, ‘This isn’t big, this is just where I belong.’”
Of course, such behaviour comes at a cost. The new boys usually dress discreetly, for example. Not Ronaldo. His dress sense, with very visible branding, did not seem to fit in. The jokes were flooding in from day one.
After sobbing at Portugal’s shock Euro 2004 final defeat to Greece on home soil, Ronaldo started to become a more regular feature in United’s starting line-up.
Along with a minor toning down of the showboating and tendency to hit the deck, evidence of his future goal scoring prowess started to show, as did the burgeoning partnership with Wayne Rooney.
As the maturing continued, the goal tally increased, and comparisons with United legend George Best also began to surface.
Ronaldo enjoyed the dubious honour of being sent off in the derby against Manchester City for a lunge on Andy Cole, his first straight red in United colours, while there was also a training ground bust-up with Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Ronaldo’s United career descended into turmoil following that infamous ‘wink’ after getting teammate Rooney sent off in the World Cup while talk of a move to Real Madrid went into overdrive.
Instead it turned out to be the year Ronaldo came of age and thrived on the boos despite continued diving accusations. Gary Neville later said Ronaldo had ‘left as a featherweight and returned as a light heavyweight’ after the World Cup and that development was reflected in the 20 goals he bagged for his team as United won the Premier League for the first time in four years.
During the season Ronaldo penned yet another deal designed to keep him out of the clutches of Real worth a cool £120,000-a-week. The recognition of is achievements was also demonstrated by the fact he picked up the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year awards.
Ronaldo started the 2007-08 season in ignominious fashion by getting sent off for head butting Portsmouth’s Richard Hughes. If he learned a lesson from that occasion then it was his stunning free-kick against Pompey which will live longer in the memory, one of his best goals for United in surely his finest campaign at Old Trafford.
His tally of 42 goals saw him crowned Europe’s top scorer in a season where he captain United for the first time and bagged his first hat-trick.
With a second league title to his name, Ronaldo endured a roller-coaster Champions League final against Chelsea, scoring United’s opener but missing his shoot-out spot kick in Moscow. He has John Terry and Nicolas Anelka to thank for sparring much more than his blushes.
2008-09. Another summer, another Ronaldo to Real transfer saga. He remained but sat out the early encounters after ankle surgery. The goals soon began to flow however as he notched up his 100th for United in a 5-0 win over Stoke.
The awards came thick and fast too with Ronaldo becoming the first United Ballon d’Or winner since Best before picking up the FIFA World Player of the Year crown – shortly after writing off his Ferrari.
A hat-trick of Premier League titles was pocketed but Barcelona proved too much in the Champions League Final, although his 40-yard thunderbolt against Porto was subsequently voted the best goal of the year. In the end a world record £80million offer from Real proved too enticing for United to resist.
Ahead of the 2009–10 season, Ronaldo joined Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee of £80 million (€94 million). His contract, which ran until 2015, was worth €11 million per year and contained a €1 billion buy-out clause. At least 80,000 fans attended his presentation at theSantiago Bernabéu, surpassing the 25-year record of 75,000 fans who had welcomed Diego Maradona at Napoli. Since club captain Raúl already wore the number 7, Ronaldo received the number 9 shirt, which was presented to him by Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano.