Manchester United were looking for a new superstar in the summer of 2003. David Beckham was leaving Old Trafford for Real Madrid, while Juan Sebastian Veron – despite occasional flashes of brilliance – hadn’t lived up to expectations and was also on his way out.
Step forward 23-year-old Ronaldinho, the 2002 World Cup winner who had broken England’s hearts at the tournament and was ready to spread his wings at club level after initially finding his feet in Europe during two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain.
At one point, United looked set to get the deal done. The number seven shirt, which he often wore for Brazil around that time, was tantalisingly vacant following Beckham’s departure, and ready for a new occupant to carry on its legendary status.
It has always been known that a deal was definitely at least on the cards.
Ronaldinho himself gave an interview to The Independent in June 2003 stating, “Of course I would like to be at a great club like that – anybody would.
“The idea of joining Manchester United makes me dream, because they are a big, successful club and play my kind of football. I have a burning desire to be involved with a club that plays in big games all the time,” he added.
This week, Paul Scholes has explained that United were pretty much ready to announce the deal and choose a shirt number – presumably the vacant seven – until a last minute change of heart from the player saw Barcelona steal in and complete the deal instead.
“He was away on pre-season and we were as close as announcing him and giving him a number but I think he ended up changing his mind at the last minute and signing for Barcelona. It’s strange really because we played Barcelona on that pre-season tour,” Scholes said.
“We were all excited – Ronaldinho, what a player! I think he was coming from PSG at the time and we were all going to get to play with him and he’s going to bring something special.”
The reality was that Ronaldinho did indeed end up at Barcelona, taking the number 10 shirt there, effectively resurrecting the club after a difficult few years and being named FIFA World Player of the Year within 18 months, retaining it in 2005 and also scooping the Ballon d’Or.
Ronaldinho might never have made it to Camp Nou had David Beckham not chosen Real Madrid instead of Barcelona – as new president elect Joan Laporta had vocally pledged his intentions to sign the England captain during his pre-election campaigning.
But what might have happened had things turned out slightly differently and Beckham went to Barça and Ronaldinho ended up in Manchester as his replacement?
For starters, United would have been getting one of the best rapidly emerging attackers in world football, a player who had already shown he could get the better of Premier League defenders with his display against England at the 2002 World Cup. Even physically, the Brazilian could handle himself, as he showed by raking his studs down Danny Mills’ ankle to get sent off.
In 2003/04, the stage was made for Ronaldinho at Old Trafford. His primary function would have been to play in tandem with prolific central striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had scored 44 goals in all competitions the previous season and won the Premier League golden boot.
Just imagine the Brazilian laying on chances for peak Van Nistelrooy…
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was already operating as a wide midfielder at that time, having actually forced Beckham out of the team for parts of the 2002/03 run-in. As it was, the Norwegian suffered a serious knee injury relatively early in the new season and was ruled out for several months.
As Scholes suggested, a player with the quality of Ronaldinho coming was an exciting prospect for the existing players. It would have given the squad a lift – much in the same way this season’s United squad collectively raised its game when Bruno Fernandes joined in January.
In real life, United missed that boost and fell short of Arsenal and nouveau riche Chelsea.
If Ronaldinho was at United in 2003/04, would Arsenal have recorded their ‘Invincibles’ season?
Would they have still won the title? Probably not. That doesn’t take away from the team they were, but United with Ronaldinho would have been a different challenger altogether.
Then there is the Champions League in 2003/04. It feels like the season that got away for United, beaten by a late Porto goal in the last 16. With the rest of Europe’s biggest sides also crumbling, that Porto side faced minimal opposition as they reached the final and lifted the trophy.
The difference, again, for United was not having Ronaldinho.
United actually did win the FA Cup in 2003/04. Was a second treble even on the cards if Ronaldinho had been part of that team and not at Barcelona…?
What about Cristiano Ronaldo? He joined United as an 18-year-old in 2003, after the club had missed out on the Ronaldinho deal, and ultimately thrived almost straight off the bat because of the chances that came his way so soon.
Those two transfers weren’t connected in any way and Ronaldo could have joined United regardless because of his age. He surely wouldn’t have been put off by the prospect of playing a fringe role behind Ronaldinho given he could never have expected to have played so many games.
With Solskjaer’s injury, chances are he might still have come into the side anyway. It would, however, have probably been in the number 28 shirt that he had wanted in real life when he joined United because it had been his jersey at Sporting CP. CR28 doesn’t quite have the same ring.
There is no doubt being at United with Ronaldinho would have altered his career in some way.
But might it have given Arsenal or Liverpool, who were aware of Ronaldo at the same time as United, the extra impetus to sign him instead? Immediate first team prospects at Arsenal were, if anything, still worse than at United. But Liverpool? Maybe.
It seems unlikely that Ronaldinho would have lasted for the long-term at United. His real career trajectory suggests he wouldn’t have the staying power to go again and again. He had four good years at Barcelona and a limited fifth, and was already winding down by the time he hit 30.
United would also always have signed Wayne Rooney in 2004, Ronaldinho or Ronaldinho and so, as was the case at Barcelona with Lionel Messi, there were younger players ready to replace him.
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