At the end of January 2020, Bruno Fernandes became the sixth Portuguese player to sign for Manchester United and the seventh to sign from the Portuguese Liga NOS. United not only hold close relationships with clubs from Portugal in terms of transfers but also in terms of historic matches.
In 2003, United visited Fernandes’ old club Sporting Clube de Portugal, for a friendly match at the Jose Alvalade Stadium, built for the European Championships hosted in Portugal the next summer. It was here that Alex Ferguson found his next star in Cristiano Ronaldo, who as a skinny 18-year-old tore John O’Shea apart. It was almost a farewell match for Ronaldo, similar to what Fernandes has been experiencing with Sporting’s fans, who for weeks have seemed inclined to lose him to a European powerhouse just as they were with Ronaldo 17 years ago.
“We were on the bus for ages afterwards waiting for the chief executive David Gill and the boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
“We were just willing them to sign Ronaldo.”
Whether Fernandes will have a similar impact at United as Ronaldo is doubtful, but he will hope to avoid the injury woes of the recently departed Argentine Marcos Rojo and the inconsistency of Nani. Nani was another hot talent, tipped as the ‘next Ronaldo’ and that expectation weighted heavily. Spectacular goals and spectacular celebrations were frequent in his seven years at the club but he never hit the heights expected regularly. Nani returned to face Sporting a few months after joining United, for the first match on the club’s road to glory in the 2007/08 UEFA Champions League group stage.
Before that meeting, United had not played Sporting since the 1960s in the old Cup Winner’s Cup. The Portuguese team that United have most history with is actually Sporting’s great Lisbon rivals Benfica. The first ever meeting occurred in 1966, when George Best starred, scoring twice in a 5-1 away success. Two years later United became the first English team to win the European Cup with a 4-1 victory over Benfica at Wembley, against a team featuring the late great Eusebio. During the game Eusebio stood and applauded goalkeeping legend Alex Stepney for saving one of his shots.
“I saw it on telly afterwards and what had happened was that Eusebio had stood there applauding. Well, that’s the kind of man he was: the respect he gave to me and to football was tremendous.”
– Stepney speaking about the moment after Eusebio passed away in 2014.
After the 1960s United did not face Benfica again until being draw against the Eagles in the Champions League group stages two years in a row in 2005 and 2006, as well as later group stage matches in 2011 and 2017. Interestingly, Benfica were in two of only four groups that United have been knocked out of since the format began in 1994. There isn’t much transfer history between the two, with United only signing Swedish centre half Victor Lindelöf, and Benfica taking two Old Trafford flops in Bebe and Karel Poborsky.
Despite not having much of a relationship in the market, United always seem to be linked with Benfica players. Mention the names of Nicolas Gaitan and Ezequiel Garay to any United fan and they will probably still be convinced they will rock up in Manchester one day with how much constant speculation surrounded them. Renato Sanches and Joao Felix were two wonderkids who in recent years were heavily linked before making big moves to Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid respectively. There are notable former United players who do have ties however, such as Nemanja Matic and Angel Di Maria.
Besides the two Lisbon clubs, United have had run ins with Porto in Europe, a 4-0 win in 1997 was one of the finest European nights at Old Trafford while a 1-1 draw in 2004 which infamously saw future manager Jose Mourinho sprint down the touchline, knocked United out at the Round of 16 stage. An even quarter-final tie in 2009 was settled by a Ronaldo thunderbolt on United’s last visit to the Estadio do Dragao. In terms of transfers, as recently as 2018 United signed youngster Diogo Dalot while in 2007 Anderson joined on the same day as Nani in a double swoop.
Outside the big three, the only other Portuguese teams United have faced are Bovista in 2001/02 and Braga in 2012/13. United have a mixed history against Portugal’s powerhouses, both in terms of results and in terms of transfer record, but all United fans will hope Bruno Fernandes from Sporting can be the next Ronaldo and not the next Rojo.