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.
Ricardo became close friends with Ronaldo in Manchester. They were part of a Spanish-language speaking subgroup within the squad—that also included Diego Forlan and the South African Quinton Fortune, who had previously been a team-mate of Ricardo at Atletico Madrid in the late 1990s.
Ricardo and Ronaldo celebrated each other's birthdays. Ricardo remembers the family entourage Ronaldo lived with—including Ronaldo's mother, Dolores, and Ronaldo's cousin, Nuno—who helped create a family atmosphere for Ronaldo in the converted farmhouse they rented outside Manchester. Ronaldo thrived. There was no end to his ambition.
"Having all his family around helped him a lot," says Ricardo. "But even when he was that young, you could see he had a very strong personality. He was a fighter. He had real character—he was so independent-minded and always trying to improve himself.
"You could see he was very clear about what he wanted to achieve when he went to Manchester. He loved to train, to prepare himself as best he could so he could perform really well. He was very focused in that respect, and he had the ability to match his perfectionist streak. Nothing ever fazed him.
"He had such a gift for dominating the ball. He had this natural-born talent, this wonderful technique. You could see it. He could do things with the ball that would blow your mind. He could unsettle defenders. He was good one-on-one. He could score. He was a better player than anything I've ever seen."
The former U.S. international Jonathan Spector's first memory of watching live European club football was the historic 1999 UEFA Champions League final. It was in the days before internet streaming. He watched it on a television screen in a shoe store in Illinois. The 13-year-old was with his dad buying a pair of football boots. They lingered in the store until the game—in which Manchester United came from behind with two late goals to defeat Bayern Munich 2-1—was over.
Spector was hooked. Five years later, he made his debut for Manchester United against Bayern Munich in a pre-season tournament at Soldier Field in Chicago, his hometown stadium. It was the stuff of dreams. The 18-year-old got the loudest cheer from the 58,000 fans in the ground when the teams were announced. Spector recalls his old United team-mate Ronaldo being a workhorse.
"What I remember most about him was his incredible work rate," says Spector. "It might be a cliche, but it's true—he was one of the first to arrive at the training ground and the last to leave. He was always on the pitch working on his individual skills. He would spend 30-40 minutes with a ball on his own doing stepovers, dribbling, pretending to take players on, just being creative with the ball. He clearly had a joy and a passion for it.
"When he was practising his crossing, he'd have someone—a coach or another player—ping a ball out to him, and he'd pretend to take someone on and deliver a cross. He'd also work on his free-kicks, all those facets of his game. It's what I took away from playing with him—how incredibly hard he worked both on the pitch and in the gym. He was one of the most driven individuals I'd ever seen throughout my entire career."
Spector, who works as head of international player recruitment and development at Atlanta United, adds: "It's what is so interesting and difficult to relate to young players. They see Ronaldo now—he might get criticised for not defending enough, but they never saw him when he was their age and all the work that went into making him the player he is now. He worked so hard to polish himself.
"I couldn't have predicted he was going to win the Ballon d'Or award when we were 18, 19, but he had all the raw attributes—the speed, and he developed his strength. He wasn't the physical athlete he is now back then. He worked very hard in the gym to bulk up. When he first joined United, he was as skinny as a stick figure. He had that drive to work hard. You felt he was going to be a special player."
Later in his career when he was playing for West Ham, Spector came up against Ronaldo several times. He always knew he was in for a difficult shift when he had to mark him on a Saturday afternoon at either Old Trafford or the old Upton Park ground.
"I played at left-back and right-back at West Ham, so I came up against him quite a bit," says Spector. "He was so difficult to defend against. You just had to do your best and hope and pray for the best. He had everything.
"Most players who are good at taking you on one-to-one, you try to get tight to them so they don't have any space and they can't turn and start running at you. But he had the pace, so he could come short to receive the ball or, with United players like Paul Scholes in midfield, they had the ability to find him if he ran in behind our defence.
"To be honest, the key was having help from your team-mates to mark him—a midfielder sliding over or your winger dropping back so you could double down. If you were left one-on-one, you didn't stand much of a chance against a player like him."
Midfielder Alex Fernandez was called up to Real Madrid's first-team squad for a pre-season tour to the United States by then-manager Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2010. He couldn't believe his luck. His brother Nacho and Alvaro Morata were other Real Madrid youth academy players who graduated to the senior team during the same era.
Fernandez was still only 17 when he made his debut alongside Nacho during that summer tour—a few weeks after Spain won the 2010 FIFA World Cup—against Club America at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Real Madrid won 3-2 with a late winner scored by Ronaldo.
"The first few moments I was nervous to be playing alongside Cristiano because I was so young," says Fernandez. "I was only a kid, and here I was playing alongside one of the greatest players in the world of football, but I remember he made me feel really at home, just like I was any another player on the squad."
Fernandez, too, remembers Ronaldo's ferocious work ethic: "When Cristiano trained, it was always at 100 percent. He looked on training like it was a match. He never trained poorly or missed a session. He was never lazy where some players might slack off. He knew he had to work really hard to stay at the top. He's a bit like Rafa Nadal in tennis—they both love to work hard. You can see they enjoy it, the passion with which they approach it, and they know it's what makes them the best in the world.
"Cristiano has always been ultracompetitive. He was very demanding on himself. He drove himself really hard. Every weekend, he wanted to prove that he was the man. He needs to be in a great team because he wants to be the top goalscorer. It's true he's had his 'moments.' The odd time he'd lose his temper on the pitch, or he'd make a controversial comment off it. For example, after a game, if the team had lost or if he had a bad day, he'd be pissed off. Maybe other types of players aren't as emotional, but it's all part of football."
Fernandez also recalls a compassionate side to Ronaldo. On another pre-season training camp in Los Angeles a year or two after his Real Madrid debut, Fernandez suffered a knee injury. He hobbled off to the team's medical centre.
"I had to get some tests to assess the damage—to see if it was a serious injury," says Fernandez. "I was with the medical staff and Cristiano came into the room, and he put a tracksuit top on me and he helped me to take off my boots. He stayed, trying to cheer me up. ... I admired him a lot for it."
Ruben Yanez was part of the Real Madrid squad which won a league and UEFA Champions League double in 2017. He remembers when Mourinho called him up to train for the first time with Real Madrid's senior team in 2013. He almost had to blink when he looked across at Ronaldo on the training pitch.
"The first time I saw Cristiano in training was a little bit shocking because I'd never seen him close up before," says Yanez. "So for a young guy from the youth academy to be alongside him—and all the other players from the first team—with the reputation he had around the world by that time, as that year's Ballon d'Or winner, was a memory I will never forget."
As a goalkeeper, Yanez trained outside the main group with Ronaldo on his free-kicks twice a week. "He always wanted to score in the top corner," says Yanez. They also practiced together on Ronaldo's penalty-taking. Ronaldo was competitive in every aspect of training, remembers Yanez—even when it came to muscle dimensions.
"I remember, the fitness trainers used to regularly measure the fat in our bodies, our weight and measure our muscle mass," says Yanez. "Cristiano and myself both had big muscles in our arms. It was a running joke between us: 'I have more than you have.'
"So one time, Cristiano said: 'Let's do an arm wrestle to decide.' We have videos of it. We did two. The first one he cheated because he started before me—that's why he won! But the second time, I won. We laughed a lot about it. My father couldn't believe it until he saw the video of it.
"That's what I mean when I say that Cristiano is very competitive. He always wants to win, and he's always goading you that he's going to win. Even at an arm wrestle!"
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz