The former Manchester United manager is the one who guided the “kid” to the top during their six years spent together. Here, he recounts the rise in a very detailed and touching manner.
Speaking exclusively to France Football, Sir Alex Ferguson lifted the lid on the 5-time Ballon D’Or winner.
Do you remember the first time you saw Cristiano [Ronaldo]?
One of the reasons why I wanted to meet him was because Carlos Queiroz, who was a part of my staff, had very close ties with Sporting, of which he used to be the coach. We had a coaching exchange program with them, and one of my assistants, Jimmy Ryan, went to Lisbon. When he came back, he told me, “I saw an incredible player!” He was talking about Cristiano. He was sixteen at the time.
Consequently, Carlos and Sporting came to agreement for Cristiano to join us. Of course, we thought he was too young, and that he needed a couple more years to toughen up before coming here. But in August 2003, Sporting unveiled their new stadium. We were on preseason in the United States before arriving straight to Lisbon to play an inaugural match. Cristiano was on the left, and was incredible.
At half time, I sent my team manager to the stands to notify our executive director Peter Kenyon to come. Peter came and asked me, “Something wrong?”
I told him, “We can not leave without signing that kid!” to which he responded, “Which kid?” I could not believe that he did not notice him.
After the game, I spoke with Cristiano and his agent Jorge Mendes. He told me that I would have to act quickly because other clubs like Real Madrid and Arsenal were already on the case. I told Cristiano that I wanted him to come to Manchester with us. Cristiano asked me to speak to his mother. The next day, I chartered a private jet for his brother, sister, mother, Jorge Mendes and his agent to come.
One of his concerns during our conversation was about the fact that he would not make the first team right away, seeing as that is how we prepared our youngsters to become great players. We had done the same with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham…
He said yes and agreed to sign. I think that his mother and Jorge Mendes were impressed in the sense that there was no promise to make him a great player in the first team right away, but to let him adapt to a club where the young players were valued, could work comfortably with other youngsters, and grow with them. That is why he signed.
Tell us about his beginnings in Manchester. In your book, you said he was a bit of a showoff…
I think he was the kind of boy who always wants to prove something. That is also part of his footballing culture, as well as Portugal’s. He loved doing stepovers but still had the same shortcomings in making the right passes, behaving like a man on the pitch, as well as crossing. Things that he has learned and refined today, even if those remain part of his game.
What also helped him was the behavior of the older peers – the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville… Every time he dived, they would bug him about. His reputation at the time was that of a diver, which was not entirely justified. It angered him to be labelled as such, but he worked on that, and after a year, he had gotten rid of that quirk.
I always found it slightly unwarranted that he was criticised for that, because if there is one aspect of Cristiano’s game that you need to take into consideration, it’s his speed. When you run as fast as he does, and a defender tackles you or throws your off balance, it is normal to see him fall. It did not prevent him from being the attacker who goes in, provokes the opponents, and creates chances. That is what made him a great player.
Is that how he gained the respect of his older peers?
Absolutely. He was very popular in the dressing room. The older ones can recognize a great player, as was the case with [Ryan] Giggs. And there were quite a few veterans in the squad: Gaby Heinze was great, [Rio] Ferdinand, [Nemanja] Vidic, [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes, Gary Neville… They all helped because they knew they were dealing with a great player, but also a great person with a great mentality, with whom it is impossible to not get along with.
Were you harsh with him?
Didn’t have to be, I had the veterans in the squad! Nowadays, if you want to develop a player, you need to work on his personality. You have to do it with all youngsters. Playing for Manchester United leads to expectations. You have to be ready and face them, regardless of the opponent. He was no different from the others.
So he was not entitled to any privileges or favours?
There was the period where his father was sick at the hospital in London. I told him to not worry about training and to take two days off and come back. I think his father was hospitalised for around six months before passing away. But, sometimes, we need to remember that football is not what is most important. When your father or mother is in the hospital, you have to be by their side.
In 2008, when you came to Paris for his first Ballon D’Or, you alluded to him by calling him, “my boy.” What kind of relationship do you have with him?
My greatest satisfaction is having seen a player arrive from Madeira, go through Sporting to join my club, and become the player he is today. It is very glorifying You can spend a hundred million on a player, but nothing beats having a player join your team at the age of 17 or 18, and seeing them flourish. A special link is created, which is also shared with his staff. The difference with a youngster is that desire, that determination, that courage he shows as a footballer. Knowing that I have had a role in his development is magnificent. I believe that Cristiano has always been grateful for the important part that Manchester United played in his career.
How did you get him to become the player is he today?
Obviously, the daily routine in training sessions, intensity training, speed, concentration. But sometimes, a player has something more in his insatiable desire to train. In that respect, Cristiano was the best. After training, he always had something else to work on: free kicks, crossing, finishing…
I recall one Friday when it was pouring and we were playing Arsenal the next day. I had asked him to not go on the pitch because it was waterlogged. He said, “Ok boss” So, he resumed training on the artificial pitch… Obviously, this is not a form of criticism. What do you want me to say? It shows his perseverance and desire to never stop working.
You have often said that his main quality was his courage. How much courage does one need to become Cristiano Ronaldo?
All the great players had courage. They say, “Give me the ball. Regardless of the player marking me, I will step up and show who I am.” Pele, [Diego] Maradona, [Johan] Cruyff, [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [George] Best as well. That is courage: being ready to always have the ball at your feet, despite the physical contact that goes along with it. And that – is what all great players have.
Where does Ronaldo rank on the list of all the great players you have had?
After leaving, he reached incredible heights during his career. We always knew he would be a great player at Real Madrid. He left us at the age of 23, at a period of his life when he reached maturity. And Real Madrid is benefiting from it. We had the young Ronaldo who was already fantastic. When you look at the great Manchester United players like [Eric] Cantona, [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes, he is, without a doubt, in the same category. With Real Madrid, he surpassed what he did with us in terms of performances, goals and European honors. It is phenomenal. And we are proud because we contributed to this. Eric Cantona arrived here at the age of 27, 28 and had five great years with us. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are eternal. Along with them, Cristiano is part of the greatest players we have had.
Is it fair to compare him to Cantona? They did not arrive at the club at the same age…
Exactly. Eric was mature; he was our catalyst. With him, the team instantly became better. Cristiano was a kid when he arrived. As players, there is no comparing them. Their similarities lie in their immense charisma. Cantona was fantastic, all Manchester United supporters know that. But Cristiano’s list of honors is greater .Over the last 20 years, the only player you can really compare him to is Messi.
In 2008, Cristiano wanted to leave Manchester United for Real Madrid, which you opposed. How did you manage the situation after this?
It actually all started during the 2006 World Cup when Rooney was sent off against Portugal and the press and critics accused Cristiano of having contributed to that. It was unfair. But I have to say that on that occasion, Rooney was fantastic and managed the situation very well. He came to me and asked if he and Cristiano should do an interview together to silence all the critics before the start of season. I told him that the idea did not seem wise. I thought that it was some sort of gimmick, and I do not like gimmicks.
Through Jorge Mendes, we were informed that Cristiano was unhappy. He told Jorge that he would not come back to United and that he wanted to go to Real Madrid. At the time [Ramon] Calderon was running for Real Madrid’s presidency and used Cristiano as a reason to vote for him, which was unseemly of him.
I took the plane to Lisbon to meet Cristiano in Carlos Queiroz’s house. I told him, “You are not leaving this year. I do not want to sell you to Calderon. But if you play well, you will leave later.” Jorge Mendes was amazing. He did not want Cristiano to leave. He felt that he was not ready.
He put his financial interests aside as well as those of the player – all that money he could have won – for Cristiano’s career, including that amazing 2008-2009 season. He knew that I would not go back on my promise. His concentration and work ethic were marvellous. In 2009, Florentino Perez became president of Real, which made it easier for us to work with him concerning his transfer.
What is the most emotional memory you have of Cristiano?
There are a few… I remember his match against Fulham in 2007, which is a difficult place to win: small pitch, full stadium, lively atmosphere. Eight minutes from the end (editor’s note: three actually) Cristiano got the ball near the halfway line. He skipped past three players and went on to score. That was quite special because seeing as the pitch is quite narrow, you are automatically close to the touchline. Cristiano ran into Gaby Heinze’s arms and towards the rest of the staff who fell down.
We were all there, but I did not jump. I am too old for that! (laughing) But it was an important moment because we were getting close to the end of the league (late February). The 3000 fans who were packed into the away stand in this small, special stadium, went absolutely wild after Ronaldo had scored. It was absolute madness!
What was his greatest match you witnessed?
Every time he would go to Newcastle, a difficult place to play, he was exceptional. I saw him manage incredible feats there. There was also the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow against Chelsea (1-1 after extra time; 6-5 on penalties), apart from the missed penalty during the shootout, which is very usually for him, seeing as he has missed very few for us (three to be exact). When he missed that penalty, he broke down on the pitch.
By the time he made it back to the centre circle, he was devastated. But when we won, he was relieved. He was very good during that match. He must have played left wing, but when you look at the Chelsea lineup, with Essien going from midfield to right back, we repositioned him down the middle. There was also the cup final against Arsenal in 2005, when we lost on penalties (0-0 after extra time; 5-4 on penalties).
He was excellent. He had so many good games. It is difficult to say that he has had bad games, considering how influential he is, even as a substitute. I remember a match against Everton at Goodison Park where we were winning 3-0 (2003-2004 season). They came back to make it 3-3. I put Cristiano on 10 minutes from the end, and he put in a cross for Van Nistelrooy, who scored the winning goal on a header at the last minute. His impact on that game was fantastic. With him, choosing one good game over another is really difficult.