From the B Team to Man United: How Cristiano Ronaldo Broke Through at Sporting

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IMay 14, 2020

B/R

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.

Videos you might like

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.

And, in fact, for a short time, the winger justified that assumption, as he broke into the first team and immediately grabbed the headlines after a 1-0 victory over rivals Porto in the opening game of 2001-02 Portuguese league season.

Following the derby, Sporting coach Laszlo Boloni highlighted Quaresma as "a good example" to other graduates.

Coincidentally, Ronaldo made his first appearance with the senior side the same week, away from the spotlight, bagging a goal during a practice match against Atletico, a small Lisbon outlet.

The meeting took place on a sunny morning during a holiday in which the main focus was a friendly between Portugal and Moldova to be played later that day. Nevertheless, Sporting won 7-1, with Lourenco scoring a hat-trick in 45 minutes and emerging as the best player at Alvalade.

"We were brought in after half-time and managed to change the game. The fans were very excited about that new crop of youngsters. It was from that moment on that they actually started talking about Ronaldo, they got to know him," Lourenco recalls.

Despite that, Ronaldo spent the rest of the season in the youth ranks and didn't play any part in winning what remains Sporting's last league title.

Quaresma, on the other hand, featured 28 times during the run to the trophy and was widely considered as the breakout star of that campaign.

Until the end of that term, Ronaldo starred in four more friendlies under Boloni's watch, against Academica, Romania national team B, Deportivo La Coruna and Alverca.

While these were mostly under-the-radar games, they did enough to get his name buzzing around Sporting's headquarters.

At that point, Boloni had already made his mind up and decided to fast-track Ronaldo to the first team the next season but that also meant Ronaldo had to leave the youth teams and go straight to holiday mode.

Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have 244 Portugal caps between them.
Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have 244 Portugal caps between them.MLADEN ANTONOV/Getty Images

Ronaldo was not particularly happy with that outcome. After all, it meant that he would miss the final stages of the youth tournaments he was involved in.

"Honestly, Ronaldo was quite disappointed. That's just how competitive he is. He had received the biggest news of his career so far, and yet he was kind of let down because he wouldn't be taking part in those last games," former Sporting's technical coordinator, Luis Martins, tells B/R.

"We had to send him to Madeira for a month, so he could get some rest and be prepared for what lay  ahead of him."

The 17-year-old reported back to pre-season on July 1, 2002, and although the major news that day had been the absence of Brazilian forward Jardel, he was not willing to let it affect him.

Ronaldo hit the ground running and didn't take too long to introduce himself to a big audience.

Later that month, when Sporting carried out their presentation match against Lyon, a fixture that traditionally introduces the new season's squad to the fans, he was already featuring in the starting team at a packed Alvalade stadium. The No. 28 impressed right away and thought he had bagged a goal, only to be left frustrated when the referee wrongly disallowed it.

His performance in the 1-1 draw still managed to catch the eyes of many. "Pay attention to this boy. He knows how to lose his opponent, he can dribble and has a nose for goal," Record wrote about his performance.

Lyon, on the other hand, didn't seem fully convinced about his potential, as they reportedly passed on the chance to sign Ronaldo, according to former striker Tony Vairelles. "Boloni wanted to sign me, but Sporting had no money, so they proposed a swap deal with two players: one of them was Ronaldo. But Lyon refused it," Vairelles revealed to Canal + afterwards (h/t Mais Futebol).

Lyon's loss was Sporting's gain.

Ronaldo was back in action the following week to face a PSG side that had Mauricio Pochettino and Gabriel Heinze in defence.

The hype around Ronaldo had escalated to such a point that he was referred during the local broadcast of the match as "the new Sporting sensation."

At the same time, the boy with blonde highlights in his hair was starting to show glimpses of the self-confidence that oozes out of everything he does nowadays. "The fans have yet to see the real Ronaldo. This is just the beginning," he said after the 2-2 draw in Lisbon.

However, at this stage, his growing reputation had not yet crossed borders.

Sporting met Betis towards the end of pre-season in northern Portugal and saw their new starlet coming off the bench to secure a 3-2 victory in the final minutes.

"What a goal from Custodio to seal the game," a Spanish commentator said, mistaking Ronaldo for his team-mate who is now in charge of Braga. "A splendid goal from Custodio," he repeated.

That was Sporting's first win over a top-flight club during what had been a much-criticized warm-up to their title defence.

However, Ronaldo had done enough to cement his place in the squad, and he finally made his official senior debut in a UEFA Champions League qualifier against Inter Milan on August 14, replacing Spanish midfielder Tonito in the second half.

His first league start came a while later, on October 7, and it couldn't have been more impactful.

He scored twice and went straight to the front cover of Record newspaper the following morning. "Phenomenon," it read. The day after that, the hype continued as the same newspaper featured an interview with his father Jose Dinis.

Ronaldo-mania was already in full swing.

There was a point, though, when those inside Sporting assumed this day may never have come under Boloni's guidance.

That impression was due to reservations made by the Romanian coach about Ronaldo's potential during a meeting with the club's coaches. Youth team coach Jean Paul dismissed his concerns however and told him to write down that the youngster was among the best players in the world at his age.

"Boloni wasn't properly convinced about Ronaldo. He thought he was too immature, individualist and didn't contribute much defensively," Martins recalls.

"Despite that, his talent was no secret to any of us. We had no doubt he was ready for the first team. There are things that you can't control, the talent was there. We kept repeating that even though he [Boloni] struggled to see that Ronaldo's potential was huge. He just needed the right conditions to develop it. Talent without opportunity is of no use, obviously.

"I think that Fernando Santos [Portugal's current boss and who succeeded Boloni at Alvalade] did more for Ronaldo in a pre-season than Boloni did in a year-and-a-half."

Regardless of that skepticism, Ronaldo's mentality made sure he found his way to the top.

Blessed with natural physical ability, he had his own role models that inspired him and also challenged him to work even harder.

"I used to spend vacation with him every year⁠—I travelled to Funchal and stayed there for two-and-a-half months, but not even then would he stop training," Hugo Pina, one of his best friends and a former team-mate, tells B/R.

"He used to put weights on his ankles and run uphill. If you have ever been to Funchal, you know how the streets are there.

"He once watched Thierry Henry playing for Arsenal and said that he wanted to be faster than him. The same happened when he saw Andre Cruz's legs in a training session and couldn't believe how strong they were. He promised that he would lift as much weight as Andre in the gym to get like that. After all, his mind works like this, 'If he can do that, why would that be impossible for me?'"

A former Brazil international who represented Napoli, Sporting and AC Milan, among other sides, Cruz was a technical centre-back widely recognized as one of the best free-kick takers in the world at the time.

Although he didn't get to talk much with Ronaldo, whom he describes as "very quiet" in the dressing room, he pushed for him to move to Serie A.

"I had suggested the signings of Ronaldo, Quaresma and Hugo Viana to friends that worked at Milan [Ariedo Braida] and Napoli [Filippo Fusco]. I told them at the time that Ronaldo was a bit skinny, and if you looked very quickly, he reminded you of [the original] Ronaldo, El Phenomenon, when he was the same age," Cruz tells B/R.

"I warned them, 'Don't forget it. His name is Ronaldo. Remember it.'"

None of them listened to Cruz's advice, and Ronaldo remained at Alvalade until the end of a season marked by Jardel's problems and a dressing room split by Boloni's lack of ability to handle the players.

By the end of that campaign, Ronaldo had made 33 appearances with the first team, scoring five times.

With Quaresma's move to Barcelona, he was supposed to remain around for at least one more season. 

For weeks, Sporting's new coach Fernando Santos insisted Ronaldo was not for sale, but then the kid from Madeira decided to put on a show in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United at Alvalade and had the game of his life.

"It was a perfect night for him. He did whatever he wanted with [John] O'Shea. After the game, he asked me if I wanted to have dinner, and we went to this Italian restaurant in Rossio [a Lisbon neighborhood]. He didn't want to confirm the deal with United, but we all knew he wouldn't be wearing the Sporting shirt again," Lourenco says.

"It had been a great ride for all of us."