Cristiano Ronaldo made his debut for Sporting CP on 14 August 2002 – UEFA.com looks back to the start of a remarkable career and remembers the player's other senior bows.
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Though Cristiano Ronaldo's impact off the bench was negligible on the occasion of his Sporting CP debut – the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round first leg against Inter finished goalless – the night of 14 August 2002 remains a defining moment in the recent history of European football. It was a night when one of the greatest players of a generation first appeared in a professional game.
UEFA.com's Portuguese reporter and editor Pedro Marques, who was in the stadium in Lisbon that evening 15 years ago, takes a walk down memory lane ...
Pedro, what are your memories of Ronaldo's debut?
Sporting had just celebrated winning the Liga title – still their most recent, in fact – but that season the Portuguese champions did not enter the UEFA Champions League in the group stage, so Sporting had to face Inter in the qualifiers. It had been a tough summer for Sporting, with several important players absent through injury, and that allowed Ronaldo to get a few pre-season opportunities.
He made the most of them, with sports newspaper Record reporting after a friendly against Lyon: "Take note of this young boy. He's quick on the ball, has amazing dribbling skills and always has an eye for goal." Ronaldo was on the bench for the first competitive match of the campaign – the opening leg of the qualifier with Inter – and he came on for Spanish midfielder Toñito with nearly an hour gone.
I remember him doing a couple of dribbles down the right, to the delight of the crowd, but nothing decisive enough to help Sporting break the deadlock. The game finished 0-0, with the Lions then losing the second leg 2-0 in Italy and failing to reach the group stage.
Was there great anticipation surrounding the player? Do you recall the moment he came off the bench?
Much of the talk before the game centred on another Ronaldo, the Brazilian, and his absence from the Inter squad that night. As for Cristiano Ronaldo, only 17 at the time, he'd had a great pre-season for Sporting, scoring his first goal for the club a couple of weeks before in a 3-2 friendly win against Betis.
The media and the fans were starting to talk about him as the next big star out of the club's academy, but no one expected him to become so important so quickly. I remember when he entered the field, midway through the second half, I heard a supporter near me saying: "This is the kid I was talking to you about. Just wait and see." So there were already people eager to see him play.
When had you first heard that Ronaldo might be an exciting prospect?
Sporting have a long tradition of nurturing highly-rated players – especially wingers, like Paulo Futre, Luís Figo and Simão Sabrosa. The previous year, another one of those magical wingers, Ricardo Quaresma, had his breakthrough season, marvelling the crowd with his skills. But I remember people saying: "Sure, Quaresma is great, but there's another kid who will soon make it into the first team who is breaking records at youth level."
They were talking about Cristiano, and when he did get into the first team in 2002, I understood what they meant. His amazing pre-season goal against Betis was all the proof I needed: showing fantastic pace and composure, Ronaldo beat the keeper to the ball and, from a difficult angle outside the area, curled a beautiful shot into the top corner with his right foot. Sporting had a star in the making.
"The exceptional goal that Cristiano Ronaldo scored against Betis put this 17-year-old from Madeira on his way to stardom," wrote A Bola shortly afterwards, when assessing Sporting's prospects for the coming season. "Over the last month he has proved he can be the next big thing at the club." His debut against Inter came a few days later.
RONALDO'S OTHER DEBUTS
Date: 16 August 2003
Game: Manchester United 4-0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)
How did it go? Ronaldo came off the bench with 30 minutes left and was simply sensational on the left flank, playing an instrumental role in the addition of three goals to the scoreline. "It was a marvellous debut," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "I thought the pace was too slow in the first half and I knew Cristiano would add penetration." Bolton manager Sam Allardyce added: "He was different class; he looks a very exciting player and his introduction was crucial."
Date: 20 August 2003
Game: Portugal 1-0 Kazakhstan (friendly)
How did it go? Ronaldo replaced Rui Costa at half-time and, within a minute, got the crowd off their feet with a typically mazy run that ended in a strong cross-shot across the keeper. From that moment on, the Portugal fans had eyes only for his dazzling movement and wonderful skill. So impressive was his display, aged 18, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said after the match: "Cristiano is a strong candidate to be called up for EURO ." And so he was, very nearly inspiring the hosts to glory.
A Bola said of his international debut: "He showed no fear of having the ball at his feet, taking on opponents and creating space with his astonishing dribbling ability."
Date: 29 August 2009
Game: Real Madrid 3-2 Deportivo (Spanish Liga)
How did it go? Then donning the No9 jersey, Ronaldo made his debut alongside Raúl González and fellow newcomer Karim Benzema. It was a symbolic match in many ways, not least because Ronaldo scored the first of his 285 Liga goals but also as it came from the penalty spot, with Raúl having ceded duties to him. "I felt good; it's always important to get off to a winning start," said Ronaldo. "I'm delighted that the team's in good shape, now we have to continue improving." He has led by example ever since.