"I have never seen a boy of his age with this level of ability. His technique, physique and athleticism, in both training and matches, are incredible. He's got what it takes to stay at the top of world football for the next ten years," Such was the glowing tribute from Carlos Queiroz, Sir Alex Ferguson's right-hand man at Manchester United, to Cristiano Ronaldo , the Portuguese midfielder, who celebrated his 22nd birthday earlier this month.
The boy from Funchal has enjoyed a fairytale rise to prominence since walking through the doors of the Sporting Lisbon training academy as a starry-eyed 11-year-old. After making his Portuguese league and UEFA Champions League debuts (the latter against Inter Milan) six years later, and scoring in his first appearance for Portugal at the age of 18, Ronaldo joined the Manchester giants for a record fee of €22.2m in 2003.
So taken was he with his new recruit that Sir Alex handed him the legendary No7 shirt, worn with such distinction over the years by the likes of David Beckham, Eric Cantona, George Best and Bryan Robson, some of the most illustrious names in the club's history. Not that such a responsibility was likely to knock the Portuguese off his stride. An instant hit with the Old Trafford fans, the only problems he encountered as he settled into Manchester life were the practical kind. "The hardest thing was getting used to the food and the weather," he admits.
The flying winger has also been able to reproduce his excellent club form at international level. He confirmed his status as one of Europe's brightest young hopes when Portugal hosted UEFA EURO 2004, his two goals and audacious dribbling skills drawing admiration from all quarters.
I've grown up now
Perhaps the only negative aspect of Ronaldo's rapid ascent is the controversy he sometimes generates on the field of play . Often criticised for provoking opponents and diving in an effort to get an opponent booked or win a penalty, the Portuguese is quick to defend himself. "Don't forget that I play in an exposed position out on the wing," he said. "I have to take on the man marking me every time and try and get past him. That's what I love doing. Where I come from dribbling's part of the game, but I never ever try to provoke my opponent. It's just the way I play."
The heated reaction to his part in the quarter-final between England and Portugal at last year's FIFA World Cup™ finals, however, made Ronaldo realise that it was perhaps time to tone his act down a little. "I learned a lot during the knockout games at the World Cup," he says. "As Arsene Wenger said, I've grown up without even realising it. What's true is that I've calmed down now. I'm less hot-headed perhaps, but a lot more focused."
"Before, I used to hang onto the ball for too long maybe, but now I'm very aware of that type of situation," he continues. As if to underline this new-found maturity, Ronaldo has been in prodigious scoring form this season, hitting the back of the net 15 times already, a personal record.
Keeping a cool head
Mindful of the importance of his surroundings in his steady rise to the top, Ronaldo is always quick to point out that he has worked with some of the best coaches in the business. His mentor as a callow 16-year-old with Sporting Lisbon was Romanian coach Laszlo Boloni. At international level he has teamed up with Luiz Felipe Scolari , and now at Manchester he is learning fast under the guidance of his compatriot Queiroz and the paternalistic Ferguson.
With his goals, passes and mazy dribbling, the ex-Sporting man is perhaps the main reason why United top the Premiership scoring charts with an remarkable 63 goals. Nevertheless, the fleet-footed winger is adamant he can do even better. "I've still got a lot to learn, particularly in front of goal," he admits, which is surely a good sign for the league leaders as they prepare for the championship run-in and the knockout phases of the Champions League.
The downside for Ferguson and the United fans is that Ronaldo's consistent brilliance has attracted the attentions of Europe's other footballing goliaths, Spain's big two in particular. Not that Ronaldo is letting any of the conjecture go to his head. For now, he is content to let his football do the talking, focusing solely on taking the Red Devils back to the summit of European football.