Alex Ferguson rejected the chance to bring Ronaldo to Manchester United back in 1996.
At the time, the Brazilian striker was in the middle of his one and only season with Barcelona. In 49 games for the Catalan club, Ronaldo scored 47 goals and helped Bobby Robson’s team win the Uefa Cup.
Powerful and lightning-quick with wonderful technique, Ronaldo was a phenomenon. Despite only being 20, he was the best footballer in the world.
Ronaldo would be dogged by injuries and fitness concerns later in his career. Yet, this version of the player remains arguably the most complete centre-forward in the history of the sport. He was a once in a generation talent.
However, Ferguson decided not to sign him in 1996. The Manchester United manager was offered the chance to pay the player’s buyout clause mid-way through the 1996/97 season.
Man United’s hunt for a striker
Ferguson was in the market for a striker. He missed out on Alan Shearer a few months previously, after the striker opted for Newcastle, and would sign Teddy Sheringham the following summer after Eric Cantona retired.
He was also aware that Ronaldo would have lit up Old Trafford, but Ferguson decided not to pursue the deal for a few reasons.
“Ronaldo’s agent asked me a little while ago if I would be interested in the player,” the former Man United manager writes in A Will to Win, his diary of the 1996/97 season.
“My first reaction was to wonder why Barcelona would sell such an important player after paying £13 million for him only last July.
“He told me I wouldn’t even have to talk to the club. I could go straight to the Spanish FA.”
The deal would have been straight-forward as Man United could have bought him out of his contract, bypassing Barcelona and going straight to the Spanish FA. However, the figures involved left Ferguson reeling.
“The agent said that there was no problem; there was a clause in his contract which allowed him to move if an offer came in above a certain sum,” he writes.
“He told me I wouldn’t even have to talk to the club. I could go straight to the Spanish FA.
“It transpired that the fee would be around $32 million, with a salary of $4 million a year.”
“So then I asked him about money. I soon told him he was talking to the wrong guy, and that he should go and see the chairman and frighten the life out of him, not me!
“It transpired that the fee would be around $32 million, with a salary of $4 million a year. We are talking here about a £20 million transfer fee plus a pay packet of well over £2 million a year.”
There were also wider concerns surrounding the move. Ferguson worried that Ronaldo’s arrival, and his potential wage packet, would affect the morale amongst the Man United squad.
He was also concerned that the Brazilian striker would not settle in Manchester. Ferguson cites the example of Emerson, a Brazilian midfielder who played for Middlesbrough at the time, as someone who struggled to adapt to life in England.
And the Man United manager was suspicious of Ronaldo’s agent. If he was touting the player around at that point, Ferguson wondered if Ronaldo’s agent would do the same within a few months of him joining United.
“Now I would love to see Ronaldo playing for Manchester United,” he writes.
“I have a gut feeling Old Trafford would be his kind of stage. But can you really justify that kind of outlay when you are a public company? Perhaps I could steal the Crown Jewels…
“How would the rest of our players feel? And what if he did an Emerson and didn’t take to life in Manchester? And what guarantee would we have that the same agent wouldn’t be hawking him around again in six months’ time?”
Ronaldo after Barcelona
Ronaldo went on to sign for Inter Milan in the summer of 1997. The Serie A club paid his buyout clause worth £25m.
However, the Brazilian’s time in Italy was blighted by a serious knee injury. From the start of the 1999/2000 season to the end of the 2001/02 season, Ronaldo only played 24 times.
He missed the entire 2000/01 campaign. Yet, Ronaldo managed to overcome his injuries to fire Brazil to the World Cup in 2002, before sealing a move to Real Madrid.
In 2003, he scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford to knock Manchester United out of the Champions League.
Man United supporters gave him a standing ovation.
Originally published on August 9, 2020.