It must be surreal to hear a childhood friend touted as one the greatest at anything, particularly in a field as pervasive as football – perhaps akin to having known Marlon Brando or John Lennon as a teenager. Even though Jose Semedo knew his room-mate was all but guaranteed to be a pro, he never expected the countless accolades and worldwide adulation that has come.
“Everyone at Sporting knew he was going to be a professional footballer,” Semedo said of academy team-mate and closest confidant Cristiano Ronaldo. “Maybe we didn't imagine he'd win three Ballon d'Ors, but a professional footballer for sure.” His emphasises final two words, painting a picture of a precocious boy with world at his feet, a man Semedo still calls one of his dearest friends today.
They were both 12 years old when the Madeira-native moved to Lisbon, where Semedo – from nearby Setubal – was already housed. As the only two residents at the academy of their age, they instantly bonded as the now Sheffield Wednesday midfielder helped the overawed country-boy settle into city life.
Ronaldo arrived with pedigree already, “every tournament he went to from the age of ten he was named as the best player”, and would regularly dazzle his team-mates in training. Deft touches and top-corner free-kicks would leave his peers open-mouthed, before they tried again and again to ape him. He always played in teams of older players, Semedo explained: “only when we played teams like Benfica and Porto did he play with us!”
While firm friends, their characters were quite different. Attending a local state school, their attitudes to punctuality were certainly somewhat unaligned. Semedo described a regular scenario. “Every day I would wake up at 6.30am, slowly creep around the room and every single day he'd wake up and ask: 'Semy, where are you going?'”
“If the boss finds out we miss school we'll get kicked out!” Semedo would reply, only to be met with a response of: "No, stay here and sleep with me. We'll be footballers any way, we don't need school!" It would often be 10am before Ronaldo joined him in class!
A crucial intervention
Their fledgling friendship was almost cut short though. After about two years at the academy the decision was made for Semedo's residency to be cancelled, with him to make the one hour journey from his family's home. Ronaldo knew this could be the end for them.
Semy, as he is known to his friends, hailed from a tough part of Setubal – riddled with poverty and crime – and as one of ten kids from a poor family, it would likely see him go the way of many of his friends, being locked up or a victim of violence. “It was a really difficult area for a mum or dad to bring up their son to become a good person," he reflected. "Football saved me."
But when he told Ronaldo he would be leaving, the future superstar did not accept it. “He said: 'no, if you do I won't see you any more. Your area's difficult for you guys and you don't have much help – they'll have to put an extra bed here. You'll stay here and we'll share'.”
A word with the director and it was done. How? “'Because I'm the best player here',” Semedo recounted Ronaldo saying. “'They have to look after me for me to keep doing well. I like you so much I don't want to lose you'.” In hindsight, Semedo is clear what that act of kindness did for him: “He changed my life.”
Without a doubt he's the best sportsman on the planet. When he plays the world should stop and watch.
So from then on the pair shared their wardrobe space, squeezed an extra bed into the room and lived in each other's pockets. They became thick as thieves, a fact that greatly helped Ronaldo as fame began to grip him soon after.
“It was really difficult for him at school aged around 14, 15. Every guy was jealous of him. Firstly, because of his name, he was called Ronaldo! Secondly, because he was considered in almost every newspaper as the best player under 15 in Europe – he was in the news all the time. And all the girls wanted him!”
As a result the pair got into their fair share of scrapes as Semedo supported his friend and, after one school move did not work, Ronaldo had to get a private tutor. “I had to protect him!” Semedo said. “It wasn't his fault, he was famous already. He was special.”
While academically things were not going so smoothly, their thirst to improve on the pitch was unquenchable. Semedo laughed with glee as he recalled midnight training sessions for the pair, breaking into the handball court or gym and dodging security guards, with Ronaldo regularly strapping weights to his feet as he practised taking on the defensive midfielder. “We ran away from the [usual life of a teenager] and we worked every single day and night just with the aim to get stronger and get better.”
It is an attitude that has seen both exceed expectations. “The most beautiful thing Ronaldo said about me, which I will never forget, was: 'Semy, I'm really proud of you'. I laughed and asked why he was starting this conversation. He replied: 'There were a lot of players [about 50 or 60 at Sporting] and of all of us you were the least gifted with talent. Only we made it from our generation as professional footballers'.”
Fighting for progress
This fact exemplifies 'The Warrior Spirit', a trait Semedo writes about in his recent book Win the Day – of course featuring a foreword by the FIFA Ballon d'Or winner – which looks at how positive thinking can impact help you in life. “That warrior spirit has always been inside of us,” the English Championship player explained. “It's more difficult to see in me, because of the level I'm at, but with him you can see that he doesn't give up on anything.”
“He always tells me: 'with the most difficult things, don't give up, you will get there eventually'. We grew up with that mentality.”
The fact Ronaldo's career has followed his plans almost to the letter shows he rarely suffers from a lack of positivity. “Even then he would say 'I will play for Manchester United first, then I will sign for Real Madrid'. When I think back now, everything that he said has happened.”
As Semedo has seen his friend blossom from prospect to superstar, boy to father, he has seen one of the icons of the game develop before his eyes and he is the first to insist Ronaldo is doing something special. “Cristiano is writing an unforgettable story in the world of football.
“Without a doubt he's the best sportsman on the planet. When he plays the world should stop and watch as when he retires we will cry when we are left without players like him. He shows that anything in football is possible. He's another level.”