FourFourTwo's 100 best foreign Premier League players ever: No.1, Cristiano Ronaldo

From boy to man, the Portuguese’s Old Trafford transformation was nothing short of extraordinary. Former United skipper Rio Ferdinand explains the ascent of a footballing android  

Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand

We 100% thought Cristiano was going to be a world superstar – it was just a case of when and how quickly he was going to get there.

World Player of the Year? There was never a doubt, even when he’d only just come to us from Sporting in 2003. You can see a lot of players with potential; it’s when they realise decision-making at key moments in games that you know they’re special – when to pass, and how they live their life.

It all just fell into place for him through hard work.

A lot of the time, especially in his early years, Cristiano was quite shy in terms of doing extra work though. He’d grab a bag of balls and go over to a different field, start doing some stepovers and shooting on either foot, wearing weights on his ankles.

He used to get the mick taken out of him every now and again – “Ronaldo is going off there with all his own balls again” and that – but he had a vision, he had a pathway where he saw himself going. There’s no luck to him being where he is right now.

Showman to superstar

When he first signed it was all about showmanship, listening to the roar of the fans when he did that little bit of skill – ‘I’ll just do that step-over’

He liked taking liberties when he first came; taking people on, making people look silly, doing skills, coming back to beat them again – Gary Neville was probably the butt of them, and Phil too. He would do that continuously.

Sometimes it was about tough love – kick him, make him feel it, make him understand that sometimes you’ve got to release the ball at the right times. The best players get that quicker than others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo was a very different player during his first season at United in 2003/04

The turning point for him probably came around the 2005/06 season. When he first signed it was all about showmanship, listening to the roar of the fans when he did that little bit of skill – ‘I’ll just do that step-over’ and whatnot.

But there was definitely that turning point where it became about goals and assists, and from then he became the game-changer. Rather than being that showman, he was deciding matches – big ones – for us on a regular basis. That’s when the maturity came and the penny dropped.

At that point you were just happy he was on your team. He took Manchester United over the line a couple of times in big games – Fulham away in 2006/07 I remember, where he ran from the halfway line and scored a late winner.

He does it when it matters – he scores in Champions League finals, he scores the penalties that need to be scored to win a game. You don’t become regarded as one of the best ever to play a sport without having the balls to step up in these situations.