On 7 August 2003, a jet lagged Manchester United squad wearied from an extended pre-season tour of America stumbled off a plane in Lisbon.
They were in the Portuguese capital to take part in a commemorative friendly against Sporting CP, who were marking the opening of their new stadium with a visit from the Premier League champions.
The game itself should have been a fairly inconsequential affair but it has gained legendary status thanks to the performance of a 18-year-old winger with frosted tips, socks pulled over his ankles and an irresistible arrogant swagger.
Yes, this was the game that kick-started Cristiano Ronaldo’s ascension to the pinnacle of modern football.
Well, that’s how it’s viewed nowadays anyway. A contemporary match report from the Guardian instead focused on the future of an entirely different young prospect.
Eric Djemba-Djemba looked the part following his summer move from Nantes. The Cameroon international linked up in midfield with Nicky Butt, who captained the side in this friendly. With Juan Sebastian Veron poised to join Chelsea, Djemba-Djemba could find himself thrust into the spotlight when the season opens for real.
– The Guardian
In the same match report CR7 is afforded only a cursory mention as one of the “most exciting prospects in Portuguese football”. High praise indeed, but still somewhat of an understatement considering the record shattering career that the winger has go on to enjoy.
Do not let the Guardian’s report fool you, though. United’s discovery of the young talent really was one of the most significant moments in the club’s recent history. Right from the outset against the depleted Red Devils, it was clear that Sporting’s gangly number 28 was a very special player indeed.
With a plaster covering a garish diamond earring, it took Ronaldo a matter of minutes to acquaint himself to United’s back four.
First, he fired a warning shot at Mikael Silvestre with a clever feint, before turning his attention to the hapless John O’Shea – turning him inside then out with hilarious consequences. It would not be the first time that Ronaldo would make the Irishman look a fool as United skipper Roy Keane recounted many years later.
“He was up against John O’Shea. Sheasy ended up seeing the doctor at half time because he was actually having dizzy spells,” the Sky Sports pundit revealed to the Telegraph in 2014 – in typically direct fashion.
It wasn’t just fancy flicks and tricks that Ronaldo caught the eye with that evening, either. There were glimpses of the freakish jumping reach that would help him tuck home a mountain of headers during his career, while he also stung the palms of Fabien Barthez with several long range blasters.
Although Ronaldo did not register a goal or any assists in the game, he played a decisive role in two of Sporting’s goals in a 3-1 victory. Most importantly though, he earned the fear and respect of his future teammates.
Several members of the Old Trafford dressing room pleaded with David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson to sign the forward after the game, as Rio Ferdinand recalled to the Sun in 2018.
“We were on the bus for ages afterwards waiting for chief executive David Gill and the boss Alex Ferguson,” Ferdinand wrote.
“We were just willing them to sign Ronaldo.”
Silverstre – the very first victim of CR7’s extensive box of tricks that evening – was another player to speak up in favour of signing Ronaldo.
“It was an incredible performance to watch that night,” the Frenchman told Bleacher Report.
“This kid nobody knew tore us apart for the whole game. No one could get near him; he was amazing. At the start, no one had even heard of Ronaldo, but by the end, everyone knew about him.
“As he got the ball, he was beating players with ease on the left or the right. 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.”
Just six days after his mouthwatering performance, Ronaldo would be announced as a United player. The rest, as they say, is history.