The game which made Cristiano Ronaldo: Manchester United’s greatest ever loss

Okay, true. It’s not like people don’t pretty much know what happened during this game already. It’s like the end of a really, really, really good movie, you just can’t really forget. But it was just over 18 years ago, so here’s a refresher on why Manchester United signed Cristiano Ronaldo the first time.

A 90 Minute Audition

Everyone knows the famous story of how Ronaldo showcased himself to United. To set the scene, it was pre-season in 2003, and United had a friendly arranged against Sporting Lisbon.

United were preparing to head in to the Premier League season with the aspiration to win it, and therefore the players were getting themselves back in to tip-top shape, however what they did not know is that they were about to be completely destroyed by an 18-year-old kid from Madeira, Portugal.

Ronaldo twisted O’Shea inside and out while playing against Manchester United

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 recalled in 2016. Rio Ferdinand detailed that the United team “were on the bus afterwards waiting for chief executive David Gill and the boss Alex Ferguson. We were just willing them to sign Ronaldo. Within a week he was our player.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Ronaldo remembers the moments after the game well. “After the game some of my team-mates said: ‘Listen, you’re going to go to Manchester, trust me!’ Sir Alex Ferguson was there, and [they said] he wants to speak with you. I go to the dressing room, he introduced me to the players.

Ronaldo was only 18 when he signed for Manchester United

For me, I was a little bit shy. And Sir Alex Ferguson said to me: ‘Listen, I want you now.’ Everything came so fast, and two days after I speak to the coach and they take me to England, and I was in Manchester, and I signed.

The game: What actually happened?

Manchester United XI: Barthez; O’Shea, Silvestre, Ferdinand, Richardson; Fortune, Bellion, Scholes, Butt; Solskjær, Djemba-Djemba.

Sporting Lisbon XI: Ricardo; Garcia, Beto, Hugo, Rui Jorge; Custodio, Rochemback, Filipe, Pinto; Silva, Ronaldo.

Before the game, many United fans (and subsequently players) voiced their concerns about playing the game. United played this game after a long and extended tour of the USA, and several players were rested for this fixture including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher.

The match started slowly, with neither side really having a solid chance in the opening 15 minutes. However, that changed with the emergence of a young Cristiano Ronaldo, who took a blistering shot that required a diving save from Barthez to parry it away.

Summer signing Eric Djemba-Djemba had a good chance to give United the lead just after 20 minutes (and turned out to be United’s best chance of the game), but his shot from 20-yards out flew inches wide of the post.

Sporting struck first, with Filipe latching on to Rui Jorge‘s pretty much perfect pass before slotting it neatly past Barthez. The first half ended 1-0 to the men in green and white (although not for long, because they actually changed kits at half time to show off their new away kit!), but what sitcks in memory for everyone during this game was what Ronaldo did to John O’Shea.

Ronaldo had great heading ability even as a young winger

Although it was never actually proven (it was more than likely tounge-in-cheek), Rio Ferdinand claimed that O’Shea needed an oxygen mask at half time and could barely talk to anyone because he was so out of breath trying to catch up to the Poruguese starlet.

I had never heard of Ronaldo, but as soon as he got the ball, he was beating players with ease on the left or the right,Mikaël Silvestre detailed. “He was so quick and skillful; we were all a bit shocked. I remember thinking ‘thank God I was playing in the centre and not at full-back’.

Coming on in their away kit for the second half (something that United fans are not unfamiliar with… Southampton away, anyone?), Lisbon flew out the blocks to attack United some more. Mark Lynch was brought on to replace the confused and dizzy O’Shea shortly after the match resumed, and Ronaldo swapped wings.

A match report published in 2003 detailed that at this point in the match “the Portuguese Under-21 international, who is tipped to one-day be as good as the Brazilian striker he shares a name with, latched onto a Pinto pass, but his shot was smothered by Barthez“.

18 years later, after Ronaldo has just broken the world record for most goals scored at the Men’s international level, this description somehow feels underwhelming.

Ronaldo at Madrid was not the first time he had sported his now iconic “noddle” haircut

Phil Neville, Fletcher, and Pugh were brought on by Sir Alex in an attempt to revitalise a tiring and drained United team, but this was to no avail. Lisbon added a second to their collection, this time Pinto the man coming up with the goods, as he leaped to score a well-connected header from a free kick.

After going a second goal down, the Scotsman decided it was time to bring on the big guns, and sent Dutch master Ruud van Nistelrooy into the heat of battle in an attempt to turn the game on it’s head, but almost poeticly, Pinto struck again. He scored a sweet goal, striking the ball in a way that left Barthez with no choice but to concede.

United did actually get one back, with defender Hugo turning in Ole Gunnar Solskjær‘s cross, but it meant little.

United’s greatest ever loss

It’s a bit of a bold and weird statement to make, but I would like to present the argument that this is the best loss that United has ever suffered. I don’t mean in terms of it’s the worst they’ve ever been beaten or the best they’ve ever played while losing, but how the loss impacted the club.

His display during the match is no doubt the primary reason why Sir Alex Ferguson signed Cristiano Ronaldo. This is not to say that United would have never signed Ronaldo if it weren’t for this game though, as he was already gaining attention of many clubs, especially in Spain.

He was also on Arsene Wenger’s rader at Arsenal (imagine that alternate reality… eugh!). United may have bid for him the season after or signed him from a different club a few years down the line, but thankfully we never had to get to that scenario.

Embed from Getty Images

A post-match report from the Guardian made a passing comment that 18-year-old Ronaldo was “one of the hottest prospects in Portuguese football”, which is solid evidence that he wasn’t quite as unknown as the fairytale says, however for the sake of football story I think we can let that one slide.

6 years after that match, Ronaldo left United with:

  • 3 Premier League titles
  • 2 League Cups
  • 1 FA Cup
  • 1 Community Shield
  • 1 Club World Cup
  • 1 Champions League

Beyond that, he also scored 118 goals during that time.

So, 12 years after he left the club, Cristano Ronaldo has finally re-signed for Manchester United – something a lot of fans (including me) dreamed would happen, but deep down never quite believed it. Ronaldo’s benefit will be immense for the club, and I’m particularly excited about how it will further along the development of Mason Greenwod.

But mainly, I just want to see Ronaldo hit his signature “SIUUUUU” celebration in front of 75,000 fans. It’s going to be one hell of a rush!

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