“There have been a few players described as the new George Best over the years, but this is the first time it has been a compliment to me” – George Best
The likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Roy Keane, who each won the Champions League, multiple Premier League titles and several domestic cup competitions in their careers, knew a good player when they saw one. Manchester United’s game with Sporting Clube de Portugal in Lisbon in August 2003 was supposed to be a routine friendly, but the performance of one man meant it instead went down as one of the most iconic moments in the English giants’ recent history. So impressed were the United players by a skinny teenage winger wearing the No.28 shirt that night, they spent the whole journey back to Manchester urging manager Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him.
Cristiano Ronaldo was born on the island of Madeira in February 1985. He began playing football not long after he had learned to walk, before joining amateur outfit Andorinha at the age of seven and then spending two years with Nacional, one of the biggest clubs in Madeira, between 1995 and 1997. Ronaldo’s talent was noticeable to all who witnessed it, and Sporting wasted little time in snapping him up after being made aware of his extraordinary potential. The capital club offered him a three-day trial when he was 12, and some eye-catching displays in training convinced them to give the youngster a contract and fund his relocation to Lisbon.
Ronaldo joined Sporting’s first-team ranks as a 16-year-old, but his debut did not arrive until a year later, when he scored twice in a 3-0 win over Moreirense. He made 31 appearances in all competitions in the 2002/03 season, finding the back of the net on five occasions, before capturing the attention of United just prior to the following campaign’s kick-off. The Red Devils paid £12.2m to bring him to Old Trafford, where Ronaldo was handed the club’s iconic No.7 shirt previously worn by Best, Eric Cantona and David Beckham. The fresh-faced 18-year-old did not disappoint.
His first appearance for United came in a 4-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers, with his showing described by Best as “undoubtedly the most exciting debut [I’ve ever seen]”. Ronaldo made 15 Premier League appearances in his first year at Old Trafford, before becoming more of a regular in his second and third seasons at the club – he began 25 top-flight matches in 2004/05 and 24 in 2005/06.
It was in the 2006/07 campaign that Ronaldo really marked himself out as a potential great, however. The Portuguese scored 23 goals in all competitions as United won the Premier League and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, with the then-22-year-old scooping both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year prizes at the end of the season. Things got even better for Ronaldo the following year: opposition goalkeepers were beaten 42 times by the forward, whose incredible year – which also included Premier League and Champions League winner’s medals – was recognised with the Ballon d’Or.
It was at that point that Ronaldo began to be heavily linked with a switch to Real Madrid, but Ferguson persuaded him to stay in England for another 12 months. United again triumphed in the Premier League, with Ronaldo contributing 21 goals in domestic competition and four in Europe, but he clearly had his heart set on a move to the Spanish capital, which materialised when Madrid offered United a world-record fee of £80m.
The excitement over his acquisition was evidenced by the 80,000 supporters who attended Ronaldo’s unveiling in the summer of 2009. Those fans were not let down by his performances in his debut season: Ronaldo scored in each of his first four outings for Los Blancos and went on to make the net rippled on 33 occasions in all competitions, although Madrid ultimately fell short in their pursuit of silverware under the guidance of Manuel Pellegrini. 2010/11 was slightly more successful, with Jose Mourinho guiding the club to success in the Copa del Rey, before Madrid got their hands on the La Liga title the following campaign.
Ronaldo has gone from strength to strength in the five full seasons since then, scoring a total of 278 goals and helping his side to win the Champions League in 2014 and 2016. His game has evolved in that period, too, with Ronaldo becoming less of a dribbling winger and more of a penalty-box poacher, with his strength in the air and tremendous finishing ability allowing him to remain a world-class performer in spite of his increasing years and decreasing mobility. He is now far more muscular than he was at United, and his overall attacking output has seen consecutive managers grant him the freedom to remain high up the pitch in the defensive phase of play.
While Ronaldo has won everything there is to win at club level, he had not tasted success in the international game before this summer. When Greece beat Portugal in the final of Euro 2004 on the home soil of the latter, the then-United man pledged to his team-mates that he would avenge the painful loss at some point in the future. That promise came to pass at the European Championship in France earlier this year, when a dogged and determined Portugal outfit defeated Les Bleus in the final despite the fact that Ronaldo had been taken off midway through the first half with a knee injury.
It has long been established that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the two best footballers on the planet today, but it is also increasingly difficult to dispute the argument that he is also one of the greatest in the history of the sport. His incredible goalscoring record speaks for itself, but even those sensational raw figures do not do justice to the impact he has made with Sporting Clube de Portugal, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal. Ronaldo is quite simply one of a kind.