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The Emergence of the Megastar Cristiano Ronaldo

The trajectory of a young player’s career is often a result of potential and determination, and sometimes it is at the mercy of pure luck. When Cristiano Ronaldo was part of Sporting’s youth system, it was obvious that he had talent, but nobody, not even his coach, could have foreseen him developing into a living legend.

Overshadowed by His Peers

During the 2001/02 season, a young Cristiano made his first tentative steps into first-team football with the Lisbon outfit. Although never featuring in a competitive game, the teenager appeared in exhibition matches for Sporting and displayed some of his raw potential.

Lanky, fast, and a good dribbler with an eye for goal, Ronaldo made a name for himself in the youth system, yet it wasn’t enough to steal the spotlight from first-team regular Ricardo Quaresma and Sporting B teammate Luís Lourenço. The talent was there. Coach László Bölöni knew it, but wasn’t convinced by Ronaldo’s work ethic.

Steely Determination

The youngster vowed to turn his potential into consistent performances at the top level and he did just that. Ronaldo’s competitive edge drove him to become as fast and as strong as his body would allow him to, and he soon got his chance to impress.

In a preseason friendly with Lyon, a team that would later pass up the opportunity to sign him, Ronaldo put on a remarkable showing and should have been rewarded with a goal. He continued to dazzle against the likes of PSG and Real Betis and was repaid with a place on the side for the upcoming campaign, making 31 appearances and scoring five times.

Rise to Stardom

Already a well-known commodity by the end of the 2002/03 season, Ronaldo started preseason as the heir apparent to Quaresma, but when Sporting faced Manchester United in a friendly, everything changed rapidly.

The attacker was up against a completely overwhelmed United defense and had the game of his still-young career. Sir Alex Ferguson was so impressed with Ronaldo that Manchester United moved quickly and secured the young striker before the start of the upcoming season.

The legendary United manager gave Ronaldo the famous #7 jersey (worn by George Best, Eric Cantona, and David Beckham) even though the youngster wanted to keep the #28 he used at Sporting. Ronaldo later admitted that this gesture fueled his motivation to become the best and live up to expectations.

Cristiano would go on to become a Manchester United legend, winning three Premier League titles and a Champions League, before moving to Real Madrid for a world-record fee of €94 million in 2009.

Had it not been for a friendly against United in the summer of 2003, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s career could have looked very different.


Illustration by @inakivector.

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