Manchester – “Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo, running down the wing, hear United sing, viva Ronaldo… ”
If hearing Manchester United fans sing your name years after you have left Old Trafford is a true gauge of popularity, then Cristiano Ronaldo can consider himself to be up there alongside modern-day legends like Eric Cantona and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Yes, he dived, he strutted, he preened himself, he even cried sometimes. He helped get Wayne Rooney sent off at the 2006 World Cup. But he was a unique talent and United fans loved him for it.
When he left for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009 for a world record transfer fee of £80 million, the feeling among them was not so much one of disappointment but surprise that Sir Alex Ferguson had managed to keep the boy from the beaches of Madeira in Manchester for six years.
And to think, when Ferguson signed him from Sporting Lisbon for £12m in 2003, all the talk was of United paying over the odds.
Ronaldo will be back in town to play for the first time on Wednesday night when Madrid face Manchester City in the Champions League. The late winner he scored to break City’s hearts at the Bernabeu in September has only increased his popularity across town.
Ferguson prefaced his return at the weekend by raising the possibility of bringing the 27-year-old back to Old Trafford before quickly dismissing the idea because he is simply “unbuyable”.
He’s probably right but who could blame the manager for dreaming of re-signing a player who won the Champions League, three Premier League titles and the FA Cup at Old Trafford?
However, the honours list doesn’t really do justice to a player who was simply a joy to watch from the moment he mesmerized Bolton after coming off the bench to make his debut in 2003. They love their wingers at United but this one was different.
There was that short-step running style and the ability to inject a turbo boost of pace just when an opponent thought he had him in his sights. Few people will forget seeing Ronaldo leave a trail of Fulham defenders in his wake as he burst forward over the halfway line in 2007 en route to scoring a late winner that helped reignite United’s title challenge.
Then there was the unique way he developed of “lacing” a freekick that caused the ball to dip and swerve in the most unstoppable way. There were a few memorable efforts but the cracker against Portsmouth at Old Trafford in 2008 stands out. Ferguson described it as the best he had ever seen.
Then, of course, there were those stepovers. Some liked it, some didn’t. Many will remember an exasperated James Morrison being sent off for a wild lunge at Ronaldo as he teased Middlesbrough a little too much during an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford.
Combined with his sense of self-image, the fancy tricks earned him a reputation. But Ronaldo was busy bulking up into a player who, physically, became a match for any opponent.
Nor was he afraid to stick his head in where it hurts, as former teammate Gary Neville pointed out this week.
“Look at the headed goal he scored at Roma in 2008,” wrote Neville. “He was laid out by the defence as he attacked the ball. You don’t score a header like that unless you’re brave.”
Arguably his greatest performances came at Arsenal in the semi-final of the Champions League in his last season at United, scoring two goals and setting up the other. In the final in Rome, you sensed he was trying too hard to go out on a high. For the first 20 minutes it was the Cristiano Ronaldo Show, but then he – and United – lost their way against Barcelona.
Not many young men would have relished inheriting the red No 7 shirt worn by Beckham and Best, but he grew into it and then outgrew United.
In a world without Lionel Messi, he would stand alone as the best player on the planet.