Portugal head coach and former Sporting Lisbon manager Fernando Santos has said he has regrets about playing Cristiano Ronaldo in that friendly against Manchester United in 2003, which ultimately led to his move to Old Trafford.
Ronaldo’s display was that good, that members of United’s squad for that friendly urged Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him up after the game. United had been scouting Ronaldo but didn’t expect to make a move for him so early. Just six days after the friendly, Ronaldo was unveiled as a United player, a great piece of business in retrospect. The Daily Mail reports Santos as saying;
“I was the coach when Sporting played United. I played Cristiano Ronaldo and later wished I hadn’t.
“A week after [Ricardo] Quaresma left to join Barcelona, then two days later Cristiano Ronaldo was on his way to Manchester.
“Back in those days, I could never have imagined that 13 years on, both of them would be crowned European champions with the national team.”
Ronaldo turned out to be a bargain for United, winning numerous Premier League titles and a Champions League, after signing for around £12 million in 2003.
During that friendly against United, Ronaldo came up against versatile defender, John O’Shea, and Gary Neville recalled watching the game and feeling sorry for the Irishman. Neville told Sky Sports;
“He was up against John O’Shea, who was obviously a good defender; he was strong, he was quick and he knew where to position himself.
“Sheasy was playing in the position I would normally play – right-back – but I was injured and I was watching the game at home on MUTV.
“Like Sheasy, I’m very aware of how difficult it is to play against certain types of movement. I specifically remember Cristiano making a certain move where he cut inside and ran between O’Shea and our centre-half. He made this double movement and I remember thinking ‘oh my God’.
“I remember watching Cristiano make that run between the full-back and centre-back and thinking ‘wow, you don’t normally see that from experienced players, never mind a young kid’.
“What a player, I thought. After the match I remember sending a text to my brother, saying ‘we need to sign him’ and apparently there was a lot of talk about him on the coach after the game.
“Obviously players should never be involved in signings, but he certainly made everyone sit up and take notice. I’d never heard of him and I’d never seen him before that night, but there was a huge excitement among the players afterwards.”
The account that Neville gave after watching Ronaldo that first time shows the impact he had, if players sat up and took notice. Going even further than that, and urging the manager to sign him is something that happens very rarely. The buzz about him after the game shows how much he impressed the players, too.
However, just imagine if Fernando Santos hadn’t played Ronaldo in that friendly, and imagine if that meant he never came to Old Trafford in 2003. Would United have been as successful without him? Would they have won the Champions League in 2008 when Cristiano was considered the best player in the world? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, that 2007/08 team was special but so was Ronaldo. That season he scored 42 goals in all competitions, from the wing as well no less. Since that stellar season, his goalscoring form hasn’t looked back and now he scored more goals than games played for Real Madrid. I think United would have been a lot worse off had Ronaldo never graced the Old Trafford pitch.
Lucky for us United fans however, he did play for our club and to this day his name is still sung around Old Trafford, which suggests how much he is held in high regards around the red half of Manchester.