It felt like the old days when Cristiano Ronaldo rolled up to Manchester United this week in a Lamborghini.
Ronaldo, now 36 years old, is quite a different person than the Ronaldo who left United 12 year ago. Father of four, a five time winner of the Ballon d’Or, and a star even greater after conquering Europe with Real Madrid (and Portugal).
It was hard to forget that he had been a man for a while. He returned to Carrington looking like a million bucks: perfectly tanned, well-maintained, and able to pass for someone much younger.
Ronaldo will also find the familiarity of his surroundings very comforting. Ronaldo was always available to speak to United staff and was happy to see familiar faces on Tuesday when he arrived at the training ground.
He is currently staying in a seven-bedroom rental property with Georgina Rodriguez, his partner, and their young family. It is just a short drive from his Alderley Edge home.
After the 2006 World Cup, he moved to Woodford. He was in a national uproar about Wayne Rooney’s sending off against Portugal. He sold the house in 2019, almost ten years after he had moved to Spain.
It hasn’t seen much change in the upmarket village. It has been a popular spot for Premier League footballers. For the benefit of Ronaldo, his former United team-mate Carlos Tevez, the high-street butcher used to place steak ads in his front windows.
Anderson and Nani briefly lived in the five-bedroom, three storey home of the Portuguese star. It was also the location for the scandalous tale of five girls at a pool party that was published in the tabloids two months later.
He also crashed his PS200,000 Ferrari into the Manchester Airport Tunnel shortly before he left United in January 2009. This was after he had previously driven a Porsche Cayenne into someone’s front yard on the same stretch in Wilmslow.
Ronaldo was a young, reckless footballer back in those days. He enjoyed the fame and fortune that came with being a star.
However, he was also unique in many other ways. He was a determined, obsessive achiever who is driven to succeed and has a constant desire to improve himself and be the best.
Patrice Evra’s favorite story about Ronaldo was told after he invited him to lunch at his house in Alderley Edge.
Evra recalls that there was some salad and plain white chicken. There was no juice or water. He said, “Let us go into the garden and play two touch. Let’s take a dip after that. Sauna and Jacuzzi follow. I replied, “Cristiano! Why didn’t you just stay at the training grounds ?”.
Others were already familiarized with the dedication of the youngster to his craft. Ronaldo was the first member of the club to be able to cook for himself. A young man nicknamed Noodle in Portugal, Ronaldo, was a skinny teenager who challenged United’s power and Simon Clegg, his development coach. He became the greatest athlete we know today.
Carrington was his private practice area where he would practice his tricks for hours, and no one could see him make mistakes. When he ran in Quinta do Falcao (the neighborhood where he grew-up on Madeira), a boy used to have weights around his ankles. He did the same at United.
Darren Fletcher says, “He did fast feet with ankle weights and took training to another level.” “The lads laughed, but he didn’t care. Although they thought it was banter, deep down they understood that the work-rate, desire, and sheer determination to be the best in the world.
Ronaldo used resistance bands in his ankle ligament strengthening because he knew that a player with fancy feet, a penchant to stepovers and an early love for the game was likely to get into trouble from teammates.
“He used to get snapped during training. Rio Ferdinand admits that people would beat him up. We didn’t bully his. We all recognized the immense potential he had. His first thought when he arrived was to entertain, but he wanted to win. He was a bit too entertaining to be able to help us get the assists and goals.
Ferdinand recollects Ruud van Niestelrooy being the main man at United. He was furious by Ronaldo’s tricks and flouncing off the training grounds. This was the beginning of a rift that would eventually see the Dutchman leave United amid allegations of favoritism. However, it was also the beginning of a friendship that the younger man accepted.
Ferdinand says that Ruud was running into the box, but the ball was not coming in because Cristiano was doing 50 stepovers. He walked in after Ruud began screaming “He shouldn’t be on the pitch. He should be in circus!”.
‘Cristiano got upset. He thought, “Why is he speaking to me this way?” But Ruud may actually have been right. It was gradual, not instantaneous. It was all about numbers, statistics and goals.
“We used to make fun of him. He’s not the No 7 in this club. You have George Best and David Beckham. He would counter. He had passion and fire. He could clearly see himself thinking, “How can I get over these guys?”.
“I have never met a more determined, obsessed, or stronger player than I’ve had the privilege of sharing a dressing room. It was a great privilege to watch him grow up from a boy into a man. He was a child when he arrived and he left the game as the best player in the entire world.
To the delight of their colleagues at Carrington, Ferdinand beat Ronaldo at table-tennis. Cristiano, furious, told Nuno Viveiros that he wanted to buy a table tennis set. He repaid him two weeks later.
Evra laughs, “That’s Cristiano. He doesn’t want any game to lose.”
Ronaldo, a Sporting Lisbon student, was determined to outperform his peers in the academy. He would sneak out from the Centro de Estagio in the middle of the evening to get to the gym via a roof window.
After Sporting saw him playing for Nacional, the youngster left his family to move to the Portuguese capital.
Pedro Talhinhas, his former youth coach in Madeira, saw a man who was still driven to succeed.
Talhinhas says that he had a great relationship with his teammates and coaches. The only thing that he did not have was a relationship with defeat.
After Ronaldo set an international record of scoring 111 goals against Republic of Ireland in Portugal’s World Cup qualifier, Nike has unveiled an all weather football court in Quinta do Falcao.
After moving to Sporting, Ronaldo became homesick and began crying every day. Other boys ridiculed his Madeiran accent. He was still the club’s most important player by the time he played United in a summer friendly. Sir Alex Ferguson described that night as a surprise. “The greatest surge of excitement that I experienced in football management.”
Ronaldo arrived at the right time for a club that had just sold David Beckham, and was being snubbed in Ronaldinho’s place.
Beckham’s No7 shirt was accepted by the young man. It was also obvious that he would return it to Edinson Cavani upon his return. CR7 is as marketable to United or the Premier League as it was to Beckham.
Ronaldo was a talented man with the talent and looks to match Beckham. He had his teeth cleaned at a Manchester clinic, and was able to get rid of his adolescent cysts. To compensate for the Manchester climate, there was a sunbed at his home. His place in Old Trafford’s dressing room was not by accident opposite a full-length mirror.
Nani and he would fight over who got off first, and in theory, they got the most cheers from the fans. Of course, there was always one winner. Ronaldo took the extra time to look at his reflection in the windows.
Team-mates and staff noticed a shift in the body of the player after Euro 2004 and more so after 2006 World Cup.
He needed mental strength to weather the Rooney wink’ storm. This required a physical transformation.
Ronaldo scored 42 goals during the 2007-08 season, which ended with him winning his first Champions League or Ballon d’Or.
Viveiros recalls his cousin going to the gym as the first thing he did upon returning to Manchester after United’s victory over Chelsea in Moscow.
Ronaldo had been open about his desire to join Real Madrid. However, Ferguson was able to postpone a PS80m transfer that would have set a new world record. This allowed Ferguson to keep Ronaldo for one more season.
“I’d rather kill you than sell you that guy now,” said the United manager during a meeting in Portugal in summer 2008.
Ronaldo’s final game was the Champions League final in the following season. This marked the end of Ronaldo’s Old Trafford career, but also the beginning of a rivalry between Lionel Messi (Barcelona) and Lionel Messi (United in Rome that night, and Wembley the next year).
Ronaldo was driven by a desire to surpass Messi in Spain and take his game to a new level.
A sleep expert advised him to take five, 90-minute naps per day under fresh sheets. He kept a cryotherapy chamber at his home for his recovery, and had a bike in his swimming pool for resistance training. A gym was also available where he could exercise for up to four hours per day.
All of them are fueled by a high-protein diet consisting of six meals a day and a preference to drink still mineral water over sugary beverages. Anyone who saw him remove two Coke bottles from the podium in front of a Portugal press conference in July will be aware.
He doesn’t drink alcohol. Dinis’ father, Dinis, passed away from alcoholism in 2005. Dolores, his mother, is the driving force behind a career which has brought him 20 major trophies for country and club.
He is a global icon who returns to United. He owns a hotel chain, a statue in Madeira’s airport named after him, and his own museum in Funchal.
He has seen that so much has changed over the past 12 years, but much is the same.
United should also hope that his insatiable desire for success does not change.
Cristiano Ronaldo does Santos Aveiro’s life is not evidence of this.