By Mike Njoroge
I, for one, will be applauding.
Applauding because he once was a good servant of the club. A servant to the point of becoming a master. On Tuesday, the 5th Day of March, 2013, if everything goes right; injuries permitting ; Icelandic volcanoes and Mayan apocalyptic prophecies ignored, Cristiano Ronaldo will return to Old Trafford.
It will be, his third game against Manchester United. His second competitive game against them. His first at Old Trafford since leaving Manchuria to join the Madrilenos. Stopped being a Red Devil and became a merengue. Preferred paella to fish and chips. Euros, to Sterling Pounds.
And when he comes back, when he returns, I will be applauding.
Applauding just as I did on that day in early August, 2003. Fresh from a pre season tour in the United States, Man United stopped over in Portugal. Their purpose, ridiculous it seemed to me at the time, was to play the inaugural match at Sporting Clube de Portugal of Lisbon’s newly built José Alvalade stadium, which would in a years time host five matches for the European Championships.
United had already felt the satisfaction of a pre season tour. In the States, they had already defeated, convincingly so, both AC Milan and FC Barcelona. The 3-1 win over the Catalans had been most satisfactory. Barcelona had in their line up their latest coup, Ronaldinho Gaucho. The Brazilian was wearing the Blaugrana colours out of choice after refusing to join United. That same summer, he had chosen tradition over novelty. With the chance of becoming Manchester United’s first ever Brazilian superstar, he instead chose to follow the footsteps of fellow Brazilians Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo in establishing a name at the Camp Nou. It was his first game against the club he had just snubbed.
So, as United defeated Barca 3-1, though just a pre season friendly, the feeling was that dominance would come ; there was no need of Ronaldinho. The trip to Portugal was therefore but just a casual one. To enjoy the festivities of the opening of a new stadium.
The Portuguese were in festive mood. The scoreline after 90 minutes read 3-1 to Sporting Lisbon.
That was not the important factor though. The performance of an 18 year old completely left all who witnessed that match feel as if they were in dreamland. Donning the number 28 jersey, Cristiano Ronaldo had dazzled and bamboozled the United defence with his dribbling. Nobody could contain him. He was an evident thorn in the side.
The new stadium applauded.
Apparently, on the way back to Manchester, United players pestered their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, urging him to buy that player. They would have their wish. Before the transfer window was over, Ronaldo would be unveiled as a United player. 12 Million Pounds had been the price. At the time, it was the largest sum anyone had ever paid for a teenager, but a meagre amount to the 30 million that had been set aside for Ronaldinho.
It would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Legend has it that at his unveiling, Ronaldo requested the number 28 jersey that he had worn in Portugal. Sir Alex had refused, and instead gave him the number 7. The stuff of legends. Ronaldo was told that he would become a legend.
From then on, the rest is history. Requesting for the number 28 would prove to be Ronaldo’s last act of modesty. Arrogance would eventually encapsulate him as he set out on the road to becoming a legend. By the time of his departure, he had contributed a lot to the United cause. He had been central to a hat-trick of Premiership titles between 2007 and 2009. He would also be instrumental to the Champions League winning side of 2008. His goals in that season, 42 in all competitions, would be phenomenal, falling just short of Denis Law’s record of 46. He had though surpassed other legends such as George Best.
The road had not been rosy. The start had been doubtful. His endless dribbling was, although flashy, at times needless. Charged with delivering corners and free kicks, his delivery was poor. It seemed as if United had gotten another headless running winger into their ranks. All the while, Arsene Wenger was leading his team to an unprecedented unbeaten run. Then, Jose Mourinho would join the millions that Roman Abramovich had brought to West London to clinch the Premier League in two successive years. Success in Europe was also not forthcoming. In fact, neither was the FA Cup. It led to a period when the only realistic challenge United had was the one for the League Cup.
So bad was it that Sir Alex said some of his senior players requested to leave. One in particular, unnamed to everyone, had even told Sir Alex that he recognised that Ronaldo (as well as another young recruit in Wayne Rooney) had potential, but that he was not willing to stick around to wait for that potential to materialise.
That would eventually be his loss, whoever he was. As he left, Ronaldo was busy learning. The potential would eventually materialise. Ronaldo and Rooney would together become an unstoppable, immovable force. They led United in a period of dominance just as grand as the one that had won the treble in 1999.
It was all because of that August night in Lisbon when a young boy had lived up to that legendary name of his.
Now, he returns. Returns having further made his name and raised the bar for all of football. At times, superhuman, his battle with genius Lionel Messi means that he is undoubtedly one of the best footballers in the world, – if not ever.
He returns after having already played against United, and scoring against them at the Bernabeu. On a night filled with stars, he had risen as high as the stars to head in the equaliser that ensures that the tie is now precariously placed at 1-1.
The last time a man named Ronaldo played for Real Madrid against United at Old Trafford in the Champions League, he scored a hat-trick. If Cristiano is to emulate his namesake, then he will undoubtedly etch his name forever into the pantheon of greatness.
Whatever transpires does not matter for me. All that matters is that once Cristiano Ronaldo steps onto that Old Trafford turf, it will seem like a dream. Ronaldo back at the theatre of dreams. I will raise my hands and move palm to palm in a motion to produce complimentary sound. I, for one, will be applauding.