April 23, 2003 - Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid (Real Madrid won 6-5 on Aggregate), Old Trafford.
Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima - Three FIFA World Player of the Year awards, 414 career goals for club and country, two World Cup winners medals, and one utterly appalling haircut. Yet there are two words that still pop up in almost every conversation concerning the legacy of Brazil's Ronaldo - What if.
What if he hadn't ruptured those knee tendons in 1999 and 2000? And what if he hadn't had a seizure just hours before the 1998 World Cup final? - Well, he'd probably be widely accepted alongside Pele and Maradona as arguably the greatest player of all time.
At 18 years old he had already claimed an Eridivisie golden boot with 30 goals in 33 games for PSV during 94/95, and just two years later he scored 47 in 49 during his solitary season at Barcelona under Bobby Robson, including this famous 50-yard run against Compostela. For comparison, Lionel Messi managed a meagre 16 goals in 40 games at the same age during the 07/08 season. Ronaldo truly was a phenomenon, and only the goalscoring stats of a 20-year old Pele can compete with those of a 20-year old Ronaldo.
But just as the case with Marco van Basten, legacies are not defined by the words "what if". For both Van Basten and Ronaldo their careers peaked in their early 20s and were either largely or entirely finished by the age of 30.
The career of Ronaldo is instead one of football's better comeback stories. Having hardly played for three years between 1999 and 2002, the 2002 World Cup served two-fold as a glorious comeback from a career threatening injury and as a personal warpath of redemption for the Brazilian following the events surrounding his health in Paris four years before.
And following his performances in Korea and Japan in the summer of 2002, Florentino Perez promptly forked out £30 million to bring Ronaldo to the Bernabeu as Real Madrid's third Galactico, following Figo and Zidane. 104 goals in 178 games for Madrid was indeed a profitable return, but in Manchester Ronaldo is remembered almost entirely for the events of April 23, 2003.
Having drawn Fergie's United in the quarter-finals of the 02/03 Champions League, Raul and Figo swiftly hammered them 3-1 in Madrid. And two weeks later Ronaldo went to Manchester, smashed one past Fabien Barthez at his near post after 12 minutes, tapped in following a wonderful counter-attack after 50 minutes, and curled in from 25-yards on the hour mark.
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The Brazilian had single-handedly destroyed United, making a mockery of Rio Ferdinand in the process. United's saving grace was the introduction of David Beckham off the bench immediately following Ronaldo's third. 3-2 down, United needed four goals to win the tie, and Beckham, whose strained relationship with Sir Alex was a big deal with the English media at the time, managed to score two.
But despite Beckham's late heroics, which basically served as a trial for his inevitable move to Madrid later that summer, and United winning the match 4-3, Real went through 6-5 on aggregate. Madrid lost their semi-final against Juventus, and AC Milan would end up winning the trophy, but it is Ronaldo's hat-trick that remains as the lasting memory of both the 2002/03 Champions League and of his five years as a Galactico.
And for those with 20 minutes or so to spare, here are full match highlights. It's well worth a watch.
Manchester United 4 - 3 Real Madrid - 2002-2003... by isfr