Sliding Doors: What if Parma had signed Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003?

When Parma agreed to sell Serie A’s hottest young property to Chelsea in the summer of 2003, Stefano Tanzi was disappointed but not overly worried. Adrian Mutu was a special talent, but the Parma president had seen the club sell great players before without falling from the division’s upper echelons – Tino Asprilla, Gianfranco Zola, Hernan Crespo, Lilian Thuram and Juan Sebastian Veron had all come and gone over the past decade – and besides, he was confident he had a decent replacement lined up.

At just 18, Cristiano Ronaldo was waifishly thin and had only played a handful of senior games for Sporting CP, but his reputation was already beginning to grow. With ears pricking up across Europe, Tanzi had acted quickly. Arrigo Sacchi, Parma’s technical director, had seen enough of the kid to be suitably impressed and had given the green light to an €11m bid. Sporting were mulling it over. Tanzi was hopeful.

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Unfortunately for Parma, that was the moment a certain Glaswegian chose to step in. Still reeling from missing out on Ronaldinho to Barcelona that summer – and desperately needing a replacement for David Beckham, Real Madrid’s latest galactico, on the eve of the new season – Alex Ferguson took a punt, gazumping Parma with a fee that made Ronaldo the most expensive teenager in English football history.

(Contrary to the popular legend – in which Alex Ferguson signed Ronaldo on the back of a blinding display in a friendly against United that summer, his players persuading him to recruit their tormentor on their flight home – the deal was in fact done the night before that game, in a meeting with Jorge Mendes up the coast in Cascais.)

Quite how close Parma came to landing the young Ronaldo is unclear, but it was enough to leave Tenzi with a few sleepless nights. “My only regret is with Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said later that summer. “I wanted him, we went very close to getting him, but Manchester inserted themselves between us and the player at the least timely moment.”

Those sleepless nights would only increase as the season went on, and not just because his one that got away was soon dazzling Old Trafford. In February 2004 Tenzi was arrested after his father and the club’s former president, Calisto, admitted siphoning off €500m from the dairy company through which he earned his millions and bankrolled Parma’s rise.

Tenzi Sr. would be sentenced to 18 years in prison for fraud and embezzlement – the incident remains Europe’s biggest ever bankruptcy – and Parma, suddenly without their sugar daddy, went into tailspin. Fourteen years, two relegations and two top-down re-formations later, Parma are battling to get out of Serie B. Ronaldo, it’s fair to say, dodged a bullet.

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Oddly enough, missing out on an all-time great probably didn’t affect Parma’s trajectory a great deal: their problems ran a tad deeper than a single player, and he would have departed in the following summer’s inevitable fire-sale. But for the man himself, summer ’03 was a fork-in-the-road moment. Who knows how Ronaldo’s early years might’ve been different had they been spent at a club in tumult, and without the guidance of Ferguson, who he’s since called “a father for me in football”.

Ronaldo’s dedication to self-improvement is the stuff of legend – he would have become some player wherever he’d been – but you suspect the Darwinian training conditions and exacting professionalism he encountered at Carrington didn’t just suit his character, but helped shape it too.

“He didn’t arrive at Manchester United as someone who was setting the tone for everybody else,” recalled Gary Neville. “It wasn’t a case of he came in and all of a sudden everyone else upped their game, that’s not how it was. He became who he was because of what was in that dressing room.”

Fans in Manchester, Madrid and Madeira have plenty to thank, then, for the young Ronaldo deciding the path to greatness began in England rather than Italy. Likewise, perhaps, do those of Barcelona – and indeed Lionel Messi himself, who surely wouldn’t have driven himself to such sublime heights had he not spent the large part of his career as one half of an all-time great sporting rivalry.

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But there’s a credible argument that no one in football has benefited more from the Portuguese’s talents than his former manager at Old Trafford. A mere five months after signing Ronaldo, Ferguson launched legal action against John Magnier, United’s major shareholder, over rights for the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar. Magnier counter-sued, and the fallout led to the club’s ownership changing hands. In May 2005, the Glazer family took charge of Manchester United.

Ferguson had bitten off more than he could chew, unwittingly ushering his club – hitherto English football’s most lavishly cash-rich institution – into an era of relative austerity.

Nor could it have happened at a worse time. Two years earlier Roman Abramovich had parked his yacht on British shores and set about rewriting the Premier League’s financial rulebook. Then Jose Mourinho arrived and stormed to a record-breaking league title. Arsenal had recently gone the season unbeaten. Liverpool had just won the Champions League. The sands were shifting and United, having gone a decade without finishing outside the top two, had just finished third two seasons on the bounce.

What happened over the next few years was without doubt Ferguson’s greatest accomplishment. He effectively defied economic reality – which is to say, the bottomless wealth of rival clubs and the relative parsimony of his own – to win three league titles in a row and four in five seasons. He never finished lower than second again.

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To say he relied on Ronaldo for all that would be quite the understatement. That hat-trick of titles, between 2007 and 2009, coincided with the Portuguese’s stratospheric transformation from skilful winger to herculean goal machine. The team was built around him to an almost absurd extent – remember a peak-era Wayne Rooney chugging thanklessly down the flanks? – and he repaid such measures in abundance. In the 2007/08 season, in which United reclaimed the Champions League, he scored a staggering 42 goals. Even when he left, four years before Ferguson did, he bequeathed the club a handsome £80m with which to rebuild.

Ronaldo isn’t solely to thank for United thriving in the face of Glazernomics, of course. If anyone deserves the applause for that, it’s Ferguson. But would the Scot have managed it without a player of such ludicrous ability?

Perhaps he would. He might have unearthed another star-in-waiting; he might have simply bought a midfielder. Or he might have made Wayne Rooney the centrepiece of his side rather than consigning him to spend his prime years as a high-grade water-carrier. Even without Ronaldo it’s quite possible Ferguson would have, as was his wont, simply found a way.

But it’s equally likely that he wouldn’t. In which case the Glazers’ parasitic practices would certainly have been a lot more obvious to the layman, and Ferguson’s latter years could well have been marked by the atmosphere inside Old Trafford taking a turn for the mutinous.

Instead, the anti-Glazer protests were largely confined to a politicised fringe and, those aside, it was all smiles for the rest of the Fergie years until he laid on the perfect send-off for himself in 2013, legacy merrily intact. And not many managers can say that.

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Sliding Doors: What if Parma had signed Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003?
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