Touted as the world's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo is simply fulfilling the promise Aurélio Pereira spotted when he signed the boy for €25,000 eleven years ago.
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Aurélio Pereira could excuse himself a wry smile after reading reports last week that Real Madrid CF were allegedly ready to pay Manchester United FC €80m for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Sporting Clube de Portugal chief scout was himself once involved in a transfer for the young winger.
"Sporting were owed money by CD Nacional after they signed a player from Odivelas FC who had played for a Sporting youth team," Pereira told uefa.com. "The amount was around €25,000 and Nacional proposed paying the debt with an eleven-year-old named Cristiano Ronaldo. Our scout in Madeira approved the deal and I agreed after watching the player in Lisbon during a trial. I soon realised it was a good deal for us despite the accountants calling me crazy. What he is doing today doesn't surprise me at all. I know I'm not a magician in discovering players like Ronaldo, but experience told me he was destined to be great."
Pereira has been a coach in Sporting's vaunted youth academy for 35 years and has helped some of Portugal's finest players take their first steps up the footballing ladder. Luís Figo and Paulo Futre were the best of their generations; Ronaldo, at just 22, is poised to surpass them. "Figo developed his talent thanks to his strong character and serious commitment. He turned out to be a fantastic player, but Ronaldo was a little different. He's the kind of player who always wants the ball. Even when the coach was speaking he wouldn't stop for a minute."
AS Roma players will second that after Ronaldo - who was named the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year in England and also took the young player accolade on Sunday night - ran riot and scored twice in United's 7-1 victory in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Patrice Evra, speaking after that win, told uefa.com how the opposition "defend on the retreat" when Ronaldo touches the ball, prompting United to seek him out at the earliest opportunity. Ronaldo has been happy to assume that responsibility, hitting new heights during a season that threatened more menace than magic following his FIFA World Cup altercation with Wayne Rooney. Returning from Germany to face his critics in England represented a huge challenge. Recalling his first impressions of Ronaldo, it was no surprise to Pereira that he met it head on.
"Besides all the individual skills, he showed certain mental qualities I wasn't used to seeing in eleven-year-old boys. He played against older players and even when he was under pressure, he was the one telling the others to take it easy. Ronaldo showed a precocious maturity." Now touted as the "greatest player in the world", the Funchal-born prodigy is thriving as the games grow in intensity for treble-chasing United. For Pereira, Ronaldo has a "pure talent" which he was encouraged to express from an early age.
"We have a rule at Sporting that we give players the room they need to be creative. We don't interfere or restrain them from doing what they like on the pitch. The players, though, must have the discipline to see the difference between pure individual play and individual play for the benefit of the team." That, according to Pereira, is perhaps the one area Ronaldo has to work on. "His responsibilities are growing very quickly. Being named Portugal captain or Manchester United captain some day, that's when he'll start playing more collectively."
Constructive criticism from a man who played his part in getting Ronaldo where he is today. As the United No7 jinks, twists and turns the AC Milan defence on Tuesday, Pereira will still see the child who caught his eye all those years ago. "When I watch him play, it's as if I'm looking at the boy at Sporting's academy." Milan might soon be wishing Ronaldo was still there.