By Kris Voakes
Legend has it that it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s own Manchester United players who persuaded the record-breaking former manager to sign Cristiano Ronaldo. “You’ve got to get him, boss,” they told the 13-time league champion after losing 3-1 to a Ronaldo-inspired Sporting Lisbon in a pre-season friendly in 2003.
Of course, Ferguson was not a man to be forced into anything, and much of the due diligence had already been done. Still, it was that night in Lisbon which had put the seal on the storied manager’s decision to sign the 18-year-old Portuguese for €15 million.
Six years on, Ronaldo was the biggest thing in football. A record of 118 goals in 282 games in Manchester United colours, including 42 in 49 in a Ballon d’Or-clinching 2007-08 campaign, persuaded Real Madrid to part with a then world-record €94m fee to blast him even further into superstardom.
But winding back to 2003, nobody appeared to know at the time that Ronaldo very nearly hadn’t played in that friendly against United. It could have been Marcelo Salas wearing the green and white hoops instead, if only Juventus had had their way.
During that same summer, the Bianconeri had made their move for Ronaldo. Indeed, they had a deal agreed, according to former director-general Luciano Moggi.
Moggi told Sphera Sports: “We had everything signed with Sporting Lisbon. We had agreed a swap deal with Cristiano in exchange for Marcelo Salas, who accepted the move, then went to Portugal for talks, but eventually backed out of the deal and chose to go to Argentina with River Plate instead.”
Juve knew that Salas was their only real hope of making the swap deal happen due to a lack of funds in the club coffers, but the Chilean had made up his mind and South America was his destination, leaving Ronaldo at a loose end in Lisbon.
“That’s when Manchester United intervened,” continues Moggi. “They were offering millions and we had no money to compete, so I had to cancel the contract. Cristiano Ronaldo could have joined Juventus when he was 18.”
Small details make big differences in football, and had Salas not backed out of the deal a decade ago, Juventus would have had their man. Perhaps, 12 years on, it would be Madrid and not the Bianconeri fearing the attacking superstar ahead of Tuesday's Champions League semi-final clash in Turin.
Maybe Ronaldo would have since followed in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane by making the same switch from Juve to Real Madrid at some point anyway, clinching a transfer to his beloved Blancos via a different conduit to the one which saw him break records in 2009. But what is certain is that Salas changed football history in 2003, blocking a deal which would have almost certainly seen Ronaldo become a Juve legend.
Many of a Manchester United persuasion will tell you that Ferguson helped to make Ronaldo what he is today. Others put their faith in the Portuguese, saying the 30-year-old always had the talent to reach the levels he has scaled during his career, regardless of whether or not he had stopped off in Manchester.
In an era dominated by the names Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s star duo could easily have been making waves in black and white stripes rather than the famous white of Madrid. If only Juve had had a spare €15m when it had mattered.Follow Kris Voakes on