He was still only 22 years of age – though only for one more week – but Cristiano Ronaldo was beginning to sense that there might be something special in his boots.
As this is Cristiano Ronaldo we’re talking about, he probably always sensed that. But as a young player at Manchester United, he was wet behind the ears for quite a long time.
When he arrived, he was more interested in trickery than impact, more likely to try to beat his man a superfluous second time than attempt a cross or a pass. Ronaldo seemed to portray many of the characteristics of what was wrong with the influx of foreign players in the Premier League, the opposite of many of the Invincibles in the Arsenal team of 2004; he certainly wasn’t Patrick Vieira nor would you mistake him for Gilberto Silva. Ronaldo was showy, his hair highlighted and gelled, he was weak, he dived, he was style over substance.
It’s interesting, though, to look back on that period of time – Ronaldo’s first few seasons in England. All of those things that irked many in the stands in Britain are now completely the opposite of what Ronaldo is known for now. No one would call him weak (in fact, if you were going to draw the pinnacle of human form, you’d probably draw Cristiano Ronaldo and his Action Man physique), no one would call him showy and no one could call him out for favouring style over substance. Not really, anyway. Not in the same way. These days, Ronaldo is a goalscoring cyborg, a man who seemingly possesses an inbuilt, GPS powered rocket for placing footballs out of the reach of goalkeepers and into the corners of the net. He is a frighteningly efficient finisher.
If you were interested in criticising Ronaldo on the style over substance rap these days, you couldn’t point to over-the-top tricks and flicks: you’d probably point to his free kicks, though. That is, his penchant for thwacking a 40-yarder into the wall or even the stand behind the goal. It’s wasteful and indulgent, but when it comes off, it’s also spectacular.
And in a way, it’s this skill where the change solidified in the minds of the public for a young Cristiano Ronaldo – in the very last week of his 22nd year on the planet.
At the very end of January 2008, Manchester United were top of the table and Ronaldo was beginning to climb a curve that would bring him to the peak of his powers. The season had started slowly for both United and the young Portuguese star – he didn’t score in the league until September 29th in an away victory over Birmingham City. But by the time Portsmouth came to Old Trafford on January 30th, Ronaldo had bagged 17 goals – matching his total for the entirety of the previous season. And it was only January. He would go on to win the Golden Boot with 31 that year; only Luis Suarez has matched that total since. By then, Ronaldo was becoming unstoppable.
The Portsmouth game started brightly for United. Ronaldo scored his 18th of the Premier League campaign after just 10 minutes, and then two minutes later, United were awarded a free kick.
It looked far, but it looked like a nice distance, too. On the edge of the territory where you think shooting is acceptable, but far enough away from the goal that you don’t think ‘it’s too close, there’s no way he’ll get enough dip on it’: the usual cliches for free kicks.
But what happened next didn’t fit the cliches. It was a hit so sweet that just thinking about what it must feel like when a shot like that leaves your foot is enough to understand why Ronaldo takes so many free kicks, even when there seems to be no chance of scoring. It was one of those free kicks that takes your breath away in the moment and stays with you afterwards.
After placing the ball, you knew that a shot was coming, and while Wayne Rooney whispered something into Ronaldo’s ear, you also knew that it wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome. The Portuguese star is so headstrong – not to mention self-indulgent – that it wouldn’t have mattered. His head fixed, it was clear Rooney’s last-minute reminders had no effect whatsoever.
And then the goal, searing, searching into the top corner past David James who did nothing about it. He could do nothing about it.
And yet it’s not the goal that matters. Not really, anyway. Ronaldo has scored plenty of free kicks, plenty of top corner screamers: he has plenty of highlights for the reel.
This one was about the technique. The power behind the ball was immense, but it wasn’t a simple hit and hope. It was something new, a different way of striking the dead ball. Something we took, hideously enough, to calling ‘knuckleball’ – striking the dead ball with the knuckles of the feet, rather than the instep itself. It started a craze.
United would win the game 2-0, but fell off the top of the table thanks to their next two games, drawing away at Tottenham and losing at home to Manchester City. But in the six Premier League games immediately following those two disappointments, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won six in a row, scoring 18 goals and conceding just one in the process. Ronaldo hit six in six, and he has never looked back. His form has never really dropped from there – not for very long, anyway. An average of a goal every game might even be considered tame for Ronaldo.
If you’re not a Manchester United fan, though, it can sometimes be hard to remember his contribution at Old Trafford. He will always be a Premier League legend, he won the Player of the Year award, he finished as top scorer that year, and won the Champions League at United, too, scoring in the final.
But since his 2009 move to Real Madrid, Ronaldo has won three more Champions League titles and matched Lionel Messi for goals in La Liga. It’s fair to say that he’ll always be a United legend, but although it may be unfair to say it, he’ll probably be remembered more for his peak years at Real Madrid, even though he won the Ballon d’Or for the first time while playing his football in Manchester.
But 2008 was the breakthrough year. He threatened the season previous, when United were knocked out of the Champions League by eventual champions AC Milan and Kaka won the Ballon d’Or ahead of Ronaldo because of it. It was 2008, as a 23 year-old, when he won the competition, won the Ballon d’Or, and almost doubled his Premier League goal tally in the process.
That free kick against Portsmouth was right at the start of the year. It may have been the start of the calendar year, but it came right at the end of his 22nd year. A signal of the beginning of the breakthrough. If you want to trace Cristiano Ronaldo’s greatness back to one goal, it would surely be that. Before it, he was a man who came second to Kaka – a wonderful player, but not of the very top tier. After it, his career trajectory changed.
Now he’ll never be put in the same bracket as Kaka.