“You see Ronaldo get the ball, and you see him turn John O'Shea inside out, and you're having a little giggle to yourself.”
Ryan Giggs, no stranger to twisted blood and turning defenders inside and out, said this of a certain winger who tormented Manchester United in a pre-season friendly in 2003. A shy 17-year old who even then had been on the radar of both Real Madrid and Barcelona had lined up to face the Red Devils, directly up against O’Shea, and promptly stole the show, providing an audition that was irrepressible and irresistible.
“We were on the bus afterwards waiting for chief executive David Gill and the boss Alex Ferguson,” Rio Ferdinand had said. "We were just willing them to sign Ronaldo. Within a week he was our player.”
That summer saw an influx of players to Old Trafford, including the likes of David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, and one Cristiano Ronaldo. Some fans had even been disappointed when they realized that United had not signed the Brazilian striker Ronaldo.
Inheriting the iconic number 7 shirt made as many headlines as the deal itself, a British record for a teenager at the time. With some wondering if it was fair to burden the youngster with the responsibility of replacing the recently-departed David Beckham as well as the echoes of talismanic Eric Cantona, Ronaldo soon made the shirt his own, and then some.
While not immediately a starter for United, Ronaldo was often mesmerizing against tiring or unprepared defenders throughout the season. The sight of a bewildered Ashley Cole, or the entire Bolton Wanderers defence, will live long in the memory of Red Devils fans of the era, some of which still thought he was merely a pretender to the crown, a stepover showboat who flattered to deceive, a one-trick pony (with admittedly a very good trick), even with a goal in the FA Cup Final at the end of the season.
The turning point for Ronaldo at United seemed to be the 2006 World Cup, where the winger drew the ire of English fans by being involved in an altercation with United team-mate Wayne Rooney, leading to Rooney being sent off. On his return to England and the Premier League, Ronaldo was targeted by fans, booing the man they saw as responsible for the downfall of England’s “Golden Generation.”
Then he started scoring.
Hitting the 20-goal mark in 2006-07, the season that followed was even more breathtaking, Ronaldo single-handedly winning games. A winner in the Manchester derby, decisive Champions League knockout goals, a hattrick against Newcastle, that freekick against Portsmouth.
The awards came and records tumbled, culminating in the Champions League Final in Moscow, against Chelsea, where he opened the scoring, and watched as United secured a shootout victory to spark wild scenes.
By this time, however, Real Madrid had begun to circle, with Los Blancos aiming to bag the 2007 Ballon d’Or runner up Ronaldo as well as the winner Kaka. With vehement befiance, Sir Alex Ferguson refused to allow his crown jewel to leave, even with Ronaldo sidelined for over two months with an ankle injury at the start of the 2008-09 season. Upon his return, however, the Portuguese maestro was able to record his 100th goal for United, help them to the FIFA Club World Cup, win the FIFA Puskas Award, and finally secure the Ballon d’Or.
It seems ludicrous now, looking back at those who thought Cristiano Ronaldo would amount to little more than another flash in the pan, given all he has achieved (and has continued to achieve).
Where once it was asked if he could live up to the legacy of Beckham and Cantona, fans now wonder who the next Ronaldo will be, and running down the list of United 7s since then (Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay, Alexis Sanchez) suggests that Ronaldo more than repaid the faith that Ferguson and United showed in him, a belief sparked on that night in Lisbon in 2003.
"This kid nobody knew tore us apart for the whole game,” Mikael Silvestre later said, “No one could get near him; he was amazing. At the start, no one had even heard of Ronaldo, but by the end, everyone knew about him."