Manchester United flew into Lisbon at the end of a three-week pre-season tour of the United States in early August 2003. The English club landed in the Portuguese capital to play Sporting Lisbon in a match to inaugurate the new Jose Alvalade Stadium. Unbeknown to the United squad, their club was also in town to conclude one of the most important transfers in its history.
As United’s players settled in their hotel to get in a broken night’s sleep before the game, their manager Alex Ferguson went for dinner in a restaurant outside Lisbon with a couple of Sporting’s directors and Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes. After the meal, Ferguson met privately with Mendes, and they made a gentlemen’s agreement that Ronaldo—who was also being chased by several of Europe’s top clubs, including Arsenal, Barcelona and Real Madrid—would join United.
The following day, Ronaldo torched United’s defence. John O’Shea—who was filling in for the injured Gary Neville at right-back—had to mark him. The Irish defender was run ragged in the first half. Ronaldo tormented him. O’Shea spent his time chasing his tail, constantly half a pace behind the winger, who skipped over his challenges and drew several free-kicks because of O’Shea’s late, despairing tackles.
It was the first time Ferguson had seen the 18-year-old Ronaldo play in the flesh. He couldn’t believe his eyes. According to Ferguson’s autobiography, he ordered his kit man Albert Morgan to go up to the director’s box to fetch the club’s CEO, Peter Kenyon, so he could speak with him at half-time.
Ferguson didn’t want to leave the stadium—where Barcelona’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain was also present scouting Ronaldo—until the deal with Ronaldo was sealed. Kenyon was hesitant asking “is he that good?” Ferguson replied: “John O’Shea’s ended up with a migraine. Get him signed!”
After the game, which Sporting won 3-1, United’s team bus stalled outside the stadium until United wrapped up the transfer. Ronaldo was signed for a reported fee of €19 million, which smashed the world-record transfer fee for a teenager.
“John O’Shea got the runaround that night,” remembers Ricardo, a former Spain international goalkeeper who was on the bench for United, deputising for FIFA World Cup winner Fabien Barthez. “He had a torrid time trying to contain him. Cristiano was just incredible in that game. He was out of this world.
“When we were in the bus afterwards waiting to take us to the airport, the joke was that Ferguson was busy buying someone from Sevilla. Of course, it was actually Cristiano. He started training with us at Carrington [Manchester United’s training centre] when we got back to Manchester. It all happened within a couple of days.”
Ten days after the friendly at Jose Alvalade Stadium, Ronaldo made his league debut with United in a 4-0 win against Bolton Wanderers. Ferguson gave him the iconic No. 7 jersey, previously worn by club legends George Best, Eric Cantona and David Beckham, who had been sold to Real Madrid earlier that summer.