For Luis Alegria, it was never a comfortable situation. Regardless of how much he complained, he had to go through it before nearly every game. He would prepare the Sporting B team the whole week, only to be told on the eve of the match that he needed to make room for three players from the senior squad to help them maintain their form.
It was just how things worked at the Lisbon giants in the 2002-03 season.
“You usually see athletes going from the reserves to the first team, not the opposite,” Alegria tells Bleacher Report.
“At the time, the B side was still used as a place to accommodate those returning from injuries, who had been left out of the matchday roster, which naturally affected the playing minutes of some young footballers. They watched guys who had never trained with us come down on weekends and get straight in the starting lineup. It was really tricky.”
That Sporting B group had the likes of Lille centre-back Jose Fonte, former Portugal international Custodio and ex-national team under-21 left-back Hugo Valdir, who is now the right-hand man of the country’s most powerful agent, Jorge Mendes.
In early February 2003, they saw a skinny boy who had just turned 18 and was already making waves in the Portuguese league join them for the second time that campaign. He was no stranger to any of them, though.
Widely tipped as Sporting’s next big thing, Cristiano Ronaldo had not been included in the first team’s trip to visit Varzim. He was dropped after failing to make an impact when coming off the bench in the previous match—a 1-0 win against Academica—when replacing another rising star, Ricardo Quaresma.
So the following weekend, he ended up being sent to the reserves, playing for 89 minutes in a 1-0 win over Lusitania, an outfit from the Azores. That match was held at the club’s Alcochete training ground, and while it may be barely remembered these days, it was the last time Ronaldo featured outside the top flight in his career.
Back then, Sporting B found themselves in Portugal’s third tier, battling against relegation and struggling to cope with the high number of senior footballers coming in and out every week but never truly delivering.
“It wasn’t actually that simple,” Luis Lourenco, a former member of that side and currently working as Al Wehda youth coach in Saudi Arabia, recalls to B/R.
“The third division was very competitive, much more than we assumed. Our team was essentially made up of teenagers, most of them who had grown up with Ronaldo and also wanted a chance to impress. We worked hard for that, gave our best in training, but then we had to accept that first-team footballers would eventually come and start ahead of us.
“It was like this every weekend—Mr Alegria would have to leave out at least three kids that were supposed to play to make way for the dropped first-team players.
“We tried to understand it, but that was a very difficult situation, especially to the coach, who received orders from above and was almost forced to find a way to play them. In the end, no one was happy with that. Fortunately, I was able to keep my place in the team and scored around 10 goals that season.”
Lourenco and Ronaldo are longtime pals. They rose together through the youth ranks at Sporting, but at some point, the boy from Madeira put aside any dressing room rivalry he had with other gems like Fabio Ferreira, Paulo Sergio and Edgar Marcelino and set his sights on much bigger challenges.
It didn’t mean, however, that everyone at the club anticipated such a bright future for him.
“I would be lying if I said that I expected him to become a five-time Ballon d’Or winner. It would be very easy for me to come here and claim that now. The truth is that he managed to get this far by his own merit,” Alegria says.
“He was never afraid of anything. When we played Lusitania, he was just a 18-year-old teen facing much older athletes in a competitive environment that could be intimidating for some. Any player of his age might have gone shy in those circumstances, but not Ronaldo.”
The Portuguese superstar failed to find the net in the low echelons, but he still played a minor role in helping Sporting B avoid relegation that season. They were unable to retain their place in the following campaign, though, resulting in a board decision to end the team.
When Ronaldo celebrated reaching the 1,000-game milestone in March, he strangely ignored his two games in the third tier, even though they count as senior football.
At the beginning of this journey, it wasn’t obvious straight away that the forward would be the one prospect from the academy to become a superstar.
Instead, many felt that Quaresma, a year-and-a-half older, was the most likely of the pair to push on and dominate. Continue reading…