Manchester United had never signed a Portuguese player before Cristiano Ronaldo, but that skinny 18-year-old from the island of Madeira changed football history the day he arrived at Old Trafford.
United had been introduced to Ronaldo in the days prior to his £12.24m transfer on 12 August 2003. The reigning Premier League champions were the chosen guests as Sporting CP opened their new Estadio Jose Alvalade, built in preparation to host games at Euro 2004.
The teenager, unknown to fans outside Portugal and with less than a full season of first-team football under his belt, gave John O’Shea the run-around that evening. United were already aware of him, as were several other clubs in England thanks to agents trying to drum up hype among Premier League sides, but that performance accelerated his move to Manchester.
Liverpool were on the scene, as were Arsenal. Liverpool’s then assistant manager Phil Thompson even flew to Lisbon and was presented with the proposed terms of the deal, he revealed in a January 2020 interview with The Athletic. Thompson returned to Liverpool to discuss it with manager Gerard Houllier and club officials, but within a few days saw news Ronaldo had joined United.
United paid just over three times the £4m fee that Thompson was initially quoted. Any doubts about spending more than £12m on an untested 18-year-old were soon quashed by his early promise, and later completely obliterated within a couple of years.
Already with one eye on signing Ronaldo prior to the Sporting friendly, Sir Alex Ferguson’s initial intention was for the player to spend the 2003/04 on loan with his former club. As soon as the game happened and a number of United players clamoured to sign him, that plan changed.
When the Ronaldo deal was announced, Ferguson revealed the agreement had been in place for ‘months’. It was only the rival interest that forced United into action faster.
“We have been negotiating for Cristiano for quite some time, but the interest in him from other clubs accelerated in the last few weeks so we had to move quickly to get him,” the boss said.
When he arrived, Ronaldo was presented with the number seven shirt that had been recently vacated by David Beckham and was made famous at Old Trafford by the likes of George Best, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona before that. At first, he had requested the number 28 shirt he wore at Sporting, but seeing his potential, Ferguson insisted the raw talent take seven instead.
Ronaldo himself said at the time, “I am very happy to be signing for the best team in the world, and especially proud to be the first Portuguese player to join Manchester United.
“I look forward to helping the team achieve even more success in the years to come.”
He delivered on that spectacularly. Given the bulletproof self-confidence that has driven his career he probably expected everything that happened, even if the scale of his feats surprised others.
Ronaldo made his United debut four days after his arrival when he came off the bench in a 4-0 win against Bolton on the opening day of the new Premier League season. Instantly fans were treated to his sensationally quick feet and trickery, with any supporters who weren’t fully aware of his performance against the club in Lisbon suddenly wowed by the prodigious talent in front of them.
Even then, few might have expected Ronaldo to be a regular straightaway, especially as such a young player in a foreign country. But his talent was such that Ferguson couldn’t ignore him. It also helped that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had started to keep Beckham out of the team towards the end of the previous season, suffered a long-term injury early in the campaign.
Ronaldo played 40 times in all competitions in that first season. Playing more as a traditional winger than the prolific wide forward he could become, he only scored six goals, but the campaign ended with a flourish when he starred against Millwall in the FA Cup final in Cardiff.
With a breakout at international level in Euro 2004 also under his belt, each season thereafter marked significant improvements for Ronaldo as he matured and honed his talent. The real breakthrough came in 2006 when his lightbulb moment came and he shifted from inconsistent trickster to lethal and efficient game-winner.
You all already know what happened next.