Cristiano Ronaldo (Man United)
"I put him in the team and now I regret it," Portugal boss Fernando Santos told the Lisbon Web Summit in November 2016, fresh off winning the Euros. Santos was talking about Ronaldo, and the game in 2003 that sealed the 18-year-old's £12.2m transfer to Manchester United.
Santos was Sporting manager at the time, and his teenage protégé had just torn John O'Shea apart in a 3-1 pre-season victory over the Red Devils. "That night, I played unbelievable. I played so good," Ronaldo later admitted.
United's players were certainly impressed, with Rio Ferdinand urging Sir Alex Ferguson to sign the youngster after the game. Of course, wily old Fergie was already aware of Ronaldo, but this performance made his mind up. The Scot sealed the deal that day – and Santos would go on to reap the benefits 13 years later.
Alfredo Di Stefano (Real Madrid)
In 1952 the performance of one player in one match led to Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid going head-to-head – and the course of football history being changed. That player was Di Stefano, and the match was a surprise 4-2 victory for Colombian side Millonarios over los Blancos, in which the Blond Arrow scored twice.
Barça made the first move, negotiating with Di Stefano's previous side River Plate (the club who owned his rights – the striker had moved to Colombia in 1949 during a strike by Argentine players). Madrid, meanwhile, had agreed a deal with Millonarios (who he played for at the time).
Stuck in the middle, the Spanish Football Federation turned to FIFA, and it was decided the forward would play alternate seasons with each club, starting in Madrid. Barcelona walked away from the deal, and Di Stefano would go on to win eight La Liga titles and five European Cups during 11 years in the Spanish capital.
Willian actually joined another club in between arriving at Chelsea for £30m in summer 2013, but that half-year stint at Anzhi Makhachkala came shortly after two terrific displays against the Blues for Shakhtar in the Champions League. Chelsea were beaten 2-1 by the Ukrainians in October 2012, with Willian assisting Fernandinho’s match-clinching goal, then bagging a brace at Stamford Bridge two weeks later in a thrilling game won by Victor Moses’s last-gasp effort.
When abandoned Anzhi sold off all their stars the following summer – Willian had joined them for €35m on January deadline day – the Brazilian was hot property. For a while it looked like Tottenham would be the Premier League club to take him, but Chelsea’s late intervention hauled the fleet-footed speedster to Stamford Bridge.
Liam Brady (Juventus)
In 1980, a 16-year ban on Italian clubs signing foreign players was lifted by the country's football federation. So, after two years without a Serie A title, Juventus manager Giovanni Trapattoni turned to Arsenal's Irish midfielder Brady for £500,000.
After coming through the youth ranks at Highbury and winning the FA Cup in 1979, it was Brady's performance against the Old Lady in the 1979/80 European Cup Winners' Cup Semi-Finals that really caught Trapattoni's eye.
Brady starred in Turin as Arsenal won 1-0, and the Bianconeri were convinced enough to bring him to Italy where his elegant style helped them secure back-to-back titles. He left for Sampdoria in 1982 to make way for another foreigner – one Michel Platini.
Chris Waddle (Tottenham)
In late 1984, fresly-promoted Newcastle were aiming to impress in their first top-flight season for seven years – nobody more so than former sausage factor worker Waddle. The Magpies lost at White Hart Lane in early December, but their magnificently mulleted winger did enough to change the course of his career that day.
As Waddle regaled to FFT recently: “The game really changed things for me. It was our first season after promotion and we lost 3-1 but played really well, and I put us 1-0 up. I sent Paul Miller the wrong way, then bent it into the bottom corner past Ray Clemence. It got highlighted on Match of the Day and within days the newspapers were saying Tottenham wanted to sign me. It turned out the stories were true and they signed me at the end of the season. When I was working in a sausage factory I was watching Glenn Hoddle play for Tottenham on Match of the Day and thinking, ‘Wow, what a team they are’. Then five or six years later I was running out of the tunnel with them.”
Ryan Giggs (Man United)
One-club man Giggs made a record record 963 appearances over 24 glorious years at Manchester United – yet it could have all been so different.
Aged 13, the Welshman was on the books at Manchester City. Identified by Citizens scout Dennis Schofield as a potential star, the club was waiting until the schoolboy turned 14 to sign him on a youth contract. Unfortunately for City, Giggs was also spotted by newsagent Harold Wood – a steward at Old Trafford who informed Alex Ferguson about the talented teenager.
The future Wales international was invited for a trial and played for Salford Boys against United's U15s, scoring a hat-trick. Ferguson was later quoted in the Telegraph as saying he felt like a “gold miner staring at a nugget”.
On Giggs's 14th birthday, the Scot went to his house with a contract. Well done that steward.
Mohamed Salah (Chelsea)
How do you stop a player repeatedly scoring against your team? Sign him of course. Chelsea were at it again in January 2014 when they acquired Salah from Basel for £11m.
The previous summer, Stamford Bridge was buzzing with Jose Mourinho’s return as manager. But in the Portuguese’s first Champions League game back in west London, Salah helped ensure Mourinho was was on the end of a 2-1 home defeat. Just over a month later the Egyptian would repeat the feat, scoring a late winner back in Switzerland.
Mourinho had seen enough – less than two months later, Salah was a Blue. "First of all, he won't score against Chelsea – which is a good thing," the Portuguese quipped. As it turned out, he wouldn't play much for them either.
Danny Drinkwater (Leicester)
You had to believe then-Leicester manager Nigel Pearson when he said that his Foxes had monitored Drinkwater for a "long time" before snapping him up in January 2012 – but the timing was a little fishy.
The midfielder, 21 back then, had been excelling on loan at Barnsley from Manchester United and even extended his loan at Oakwell to the end of the season on January 6. But a mere six days after Drinkwater's virtuoso display against Leicester at the King Power Stadium on January 14 – he grabbed two assists in the Tykes' humbling 2-1 win – the East Midlanders made him theirs for around £1 million.
Barnsley boss Keith Hill was none too impressed, huffing: "We live in this football food chain that we can't compete with Leicester and they've nicked a player we've been developing. I believe one day he will be a Premier League player. It's football, it's a shame, but we move on."
Suffice to say, his faith wasn't misplace.
Before he was winning Bundesliga, Serie A and Champions League titles in Europe with the likes of Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, Lucio was given his big break in Brazil in slightly unusual circumstances.
Aged 18, the centre-back was playing on loan at Guara from his hometown club in Planaltina. In the preliminary round of the 1997 Copa do Brasil, his adopted side lost to heavyweights Internacional in a 90 minutes that most defenders would like to forget.
"I was observed in a game which we lost to Inter 7-0," Lucio told Brazilian sports magazine Placar. "Still, I appreciated it."
No wonder: Internacional signed the teenager after that performance, and his career – which included 105 caps for Brazil and a World Cup triumph in 2002 – took off.
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