Year Zero: The making of Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, 2006/07)
“Look at that. Has he just winked then?!”
It’s July 1, 2006 and Ian Wright is spitting feathers in the BBC World Cup studio.
There’s every chance Wayne Rooney could go back to the Manchester United training ground and stick one on Ronaldo
“Please tell me no,” sighs a weary Alan Hansen.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s crime? Winking at the Portugal bench shortly after Wayne Rooney’s red card for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s meat and two veg, 62 minutes into the World Cup quarter-final with England.
“I think there’s every chance Wayne Rooney could go back to the Manchester United training ground and stick one on Ronaldo,” huffs Alan Shearer, visibly stiffening in his seat.
True, the United winger had ensured referee Horacio Elizondo saw more than what was probably an accidental meeting of studs and balls, but Ronaldo had only done something beyond most England players’ naivety. Cursèd moral fortitude.
When Ronaldo went on to score the winning penalty in the shoot-out, the fallout was predictable in its bombast.
The Sun quoted an unnamed, definitely not made-up source saying Rooney would “split him in two” when they next met. The same paragon of journalistic integrity also released a Ronaldo dartboard so England fans “could get revenge on football’s biggest winker”. The bullseye was CR7’s right peeper. Obviously.
Three promising-if-unspectacular Old Trafford seasons were characterised by showy step-overs and a frustrating lack of end product
A week-and-a-half later, Ronaldo had had enough. He'd scored 27 goals in 137 games and won an FA Cup and League Cup from three promising-if-unspectacular Old Trafford seasons characterised by showy step-overs and a frustrating lack of end product. It had been three seasons since United had won the league; Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea juggernaut was the dominant force having won two titles in a row.
“I'm not going to stay at Manchester United,” Ronaldo reportedly huffed to a Portuguese newspaper. “After what happened with Rooney I can't remain there. In a couple of days I will have my future sorted out. I don't want to stay in England.”
Twelve months later, Cristiano Ronaldo had won the Premier League, the PFA Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year, the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and Fans’ Player of the Year. Manchester United had a worldwide star.
From boy to man
That summer of 2006, the media vultures circled, not only for a 21-year-old Ronaldo in the press, but for manager Alex Ferguson too.
It had been three seasons since United had won the league; Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea juggernaut was the dominant force
"This summer they have been like a pathetic drunk lumbering across a dancefloor at 1.45am, trying to get off with everything that moves," wrote Rob Smyth in The Guardian. "Damien Duff was allowed to slip into the arms of Newcastle for less than United paid for Patrice Evra. You couldn't make it up. You don't have to.
"Take the Cristiano Ronaldo situation: Ferguson said recently that he had not even spoken to Ronaldo since the World Cup, a dereliction of duty that is in total contrast to the us-against-the-world protection that he gave to David Beckham – and for which, for a time, he was so thrillingly rewarded – in 1998."
Yet, Ferguson didn’t need to, because Rooney – possibly at his manager’s behest – had already done so. After speaking to Ronaldo in the tunnel in Gelsenkirchen, Rooney rang his club team-mate repeatedly over the summer to confirm there would be no hard feelings come pre-season. The future Manchester United and England captain even suggested a joint interview.
The biggest surprise on the first day of training was less whether Ronaldo would show up – he had, after all, swapped shirts with Gary Neville at the World Cup – but the state he was in at Carrington.
“Physically, he changed from a boy to a man,” Neville later recalled. “He left as a featherweight and returned as a light-heavyweight. That brought him a level of power he didn’t have before.”
Rooney agreed, noting that Ronaldo came back looking like “he’d been on the weights all summer”. The difference between how Rooney himself frequently returned from the off-season – overweight and out of shape, much to Ferguson’s eternal frustration – couldn’t be starker.
Until they tell us no several times, we won’t give up
Rumours of Ronaldo’s exit persisted – Valencia president Juan Soler at one point said, “until they tell us no several times, we won’t give up” – as did opposition supporter antipathy to the Portuguese. Yet the season began well for Manchester United with a 5-1 home shellacking of Chris Coleman’s Fulham.
From a right-wing starting position, Ronaldo scored a fine back-post half-volley and was a constant menace to Cottager left-back Franck Queudrue.
“You could tell he and Wayne are the best of pals,” beamed Fergie at full-time. “People always look for scapegoats but we have a great spirit here and we will not let that be affected by what people say outside the club. The Fulham fans did boo Cristiano a bit at the start but in the end, even they were acknowledging what a great footballer the boy is.”
Ferguson may have been playing fast and loose with the truth – any boos were restricted mainly to set-pieces, the final-whistle cheers barely registering – but the United boss was determined to ensure that Ronaldo knew the club wanted him.
For the following month, the boos were more audible, especially away from Old Trafford. By September 23, Ronaldo had only flickered, the constant jeers seemingly weighing him down, but that changed in a 1-1 draw at Reading.
United’s relentless attacks to cancel out Kevin Doyle’s 48th-minute penalty were met with doughty resistance until Ronaldo – having switched wings to the left – picked up the ball. Then, cutting inside Reading right-back Graeme Murty, he smashed a shot past Marcus Hahnemann to secure a draw.
"You've got no chance because he can go both ways, flick it over your head, nutmeg you and just start laughing," captain Murty said.
"You can't get too close, because he's so rapid. All I could feel was the wind as he rushed past. And he's a brute, as well. He's big and strong, and tackling him is like running into a brick wall."