Manchester United sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid because they knew it was his dream to play for them. They wanted to support him in becoming the best player in the world and a legend of the game. Also United had already agreed Ronaldo could leave at the end of the 2008/09 season for a world record £80 million, if he remained professional and played well, which he did.
A Simple Transfer?
Cristiano Ronaldo's departure from United in the summer of 2009, as reported in the wider media at least, seemed to be one of the most harmonious exits of a high profile player in recent memory.
To fans and pundits alike the transfer looked to have been completed with minimal fuss. The player wanted to leave. United were willing to let him leave. There was no nastiness or bickering between the club or agent. No long drawn out negotiation. Even the average United fan seemed accepting that it was time for their star to shine brightly elsewhere.
But the reasons as to why one of the most famous football transfers of recent times appeared so efficient was down to a great deal of understanding, loyalty and persuasion from everyone at the heart of it.
Let's be clear. United didn't need to sell one of the greatest players to ever grace Old Trafford. Not from a legal or contractual standpoint anyway.
The then reigning Premier League champions were well within their rights to retain the Portuguese ace for the remaining two years of his deal and there was little the player would be able to do about it. And yet within the blink of an eye, he was gone.
So why did Manchester United sell Cristiano Ronaldo?
Supporting Ronaldo's Dreams
From the moment Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in England, Alex Ferguson had begun to adapt the both the young winger's physicality and mentally, providing him with the building blocks that would ultimately lead to greatness.
"I want to leave my mark on football history. If you don't believe you are the best then you will never achieve all that you are capable of."
Ronaldo speaking to the British Media in 2007
In fact when Ronaldo first stepped foot into Old Trafford in the summer of 2003, the youngster modestly assumed he would don the Number 28 shirt worn previously at Sporting Lisbon.
But Ferguson had other ideas. Instead his manager insisted the young Ronaldo be gifted the club's famous Number 7 shirt, masterfully filled by the likes of David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson and George Best before him.
It was a simple yet notable gesture. The first of many baby steps designed to draw out Ronaldo's natural confidence and a subtle nod that the manager believed he could establish himself amongst the very best to have every played the game.
United invested in their new signing with more than just money. Ronaldo's coaches and even his fellow players quickly realised that if he was going to survive, perhaps even thrive in the English game then he needed to evolve, from a showboating entertainer and instead focus on end product. With the first two seasons those tricky step overs and mazy runs were quickly replaced by precise decision making and devastating finishes.
His lack of physical presence was soon addressed. With the support of the club he committed to a new fitness regime designed to add muscle mass. Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford a wiry teenager and during his stay in Manchester gained the physique of an elite athlete. Through the guidance of Ferguson and his staff, the youngster had transitioned from an often erratic winger to an all conquering offensive machine.
In the first three seasons in England, Ronaldo had played a respectable 137 games for the club and scored 27 goals in that period. Yet after his return from the World Cup in 2006, all of United's hard work with their boy wonder started to show. Over the following three seasons he would play a further 155 games for United but noticeably found the back of the net an impressive 91 more times. Ronaldo was forever moving closer to becoming the finished article. But his improvement came at a cost to United.
Ronaldo had began to outgrow them.
Wanting to Play For Real
Even in the early stages of his career, Ronaldo made no secret of the grand ambitions he held.
Without doubt Manchester United were a footballing giant steeped in history, recent successes and global appeal. It would be hard for any player to make the decision to walk away from the club. But for Ronaldo it became clear that United were always part of a journey and never the final destination.
"Some days he (Ronaldo) was telling us openly; 'I'm here six or seven years now, I think it's enough for me. 'He said that a couple of times."
Nani, Former Portugal and Manchester United teammate
Yet if Ronaldo saw United as a stepping stone then it rarely showed. His appreciation and dedication towards the club was never in question. He seemed to understand the fact that United had shown great faith in his potential, helping to transform him into a footballing megastar, someone the game would remember as one of its greatest.
But his true legacy would be crafted further a field.
By the summer of 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo was at the height of his powers and considered by most to be the best football talent on the planet. Having just scored 31 league goals in a single season, the most of any United player in the Premier League Era, he rightly claimed the first of his Ballon D'or accolades.
Naturally Ronaldo had attracted numerous admirers from across Europe's biggest leagues. A queue was forming amongst top clubs from Germany, Italy and France; all of whom would have welcomed his world beating skill without hesitation.
But as a young man born and raised in Portugal there was only ever one choice.
"I want to play for Real Madrid. But only if it is true they are eager to pay me and Manchester United what they have been saying they will."
Ronaldo in the Summer of 2008
It wasn't long before rumours began to circulate that Real Madrid were willing to pay a world record fee.
United couldn't help but take notice. From a purely financial perspective it was a tantalising sum. Only five years prior, the club had paid a modest £12.3 million to Sporting Lisbon and now there was talk of Los Blancos offering over six times that amount.
It seemed unlikely that a multi-billion pound club would bow to pressure of a quick pay day. Yet soon it became clear that it would take more than bank balances to set this particular transfer in motion.
The fuse was lit. With Ronaldo publicly expressing his desire to head for Spain it would prove difficult to keep him. It appeared seemingly impossible for United to resist any potential deal were it placed in front of them. As long as the terms were fair and suited all parties then the signing looked all but done. Not even Alex Ferguson would stand in his way.
That was until Madrid President Ramon Calderon weighted in.
Through the Spanish media, Calderon suddenly started to comment on Real's ambition to make Ronaldo the Spanish giant's next signing. He made his voice heard in multiple interviews and TV appearances throughout that summer in a bid to entice Ronaldo to join them.
The problem was, Ferguson wasn't exactly Calderon's biggest fan.
Madrid's President had never been far from controversy during his scandal ridden reign and would eventually be shown the door within a matter of months. Ferguson felt that selling his prize asset to a character such as Calderon, pressured by his mind games in the media, would make a fool of the United manager both professionally and personally.
Ferguson needed to save face.
"I found the boy expressing an urge to go to Real Madrid and told him; 'You can't go this year…not after the way Calderon has approached the issue. If I do that, all my honour's gone. I'd rather shoot you than sell you to that guy. If you perform, don't mess us about and someone comes and offers us a world record fee…then we will let you go."
And so, having already conveyed the message to Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendes, Ferguson outright promised him a move to Real Madrid after the close of the 2008/09 season. It was potentially a very risky move.
In the beginning there were even some suggestions that Ronaldo would attempt to force United's hand. Reports that things got ugly when he accused the club of treating him 'like a slave.'
How exactly Ferguson regained control is unclear.
Did Ronaldo stay as a favour to the fans? Not likely.
His loyalty towards the manager? Perhaps.
Investing in his own future by simply performing at a high level, maintaining Madrid's interest and guaranteeing a move the following season? Almost certainly.
Did Ronaldo realise, either all by himself or with the help of others (teammates, agents and family no doubt) that looking at the bigger picture...it was an arrangement that would mutually benefit all involved?
United fans would certainly like to fantasise it played out that way.
For Ferguson, he would now have another season to find a suitable replacement, whilst at the same time securing the services of his star attacker for another twelve months. In the end, Ferguson settled for Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan, a fact that still disgruntles most die hard United supporters to this day.
Ronaldo would eventually find himself motivated for the majority of the following season. Whilst not fully emulating his staggering achievement of the previous campaign, he was still pivotal in helping United lift their eleventh Premier League title and only narrowly missing out on a second successive European Cup triumph after defeat to Pep Guardiola's emerging Barcelona side.
Following defeat in Rome at the hands of Guardiola's men, and failure to claim a third European Cup, it was time for United to finally make the sale happen.
There was an air of inevitability about the move. United's bold ploy had been admirable, delaying such a high profile and profitable transfer at what had seemed the most opportune moment. It was a testament to the way in which the club had mapped out Ronaldo's development not only in his final season but at other key points of his evolution. The way they had nurtured him through the struggles of an indifferent first few year and kept faith in his ability for the duration.
However things could have been very different.
Because in the Summer of 2006, it was widely speculated that Ronaldo was about to leave United and join La Liga side Valenica. In the aftermath of his infamous 'wink' bust up with then teammate Wayne Rooney, during the Euro 2006 Quarter final game between Portugal and England, Ronaldo was said to have become unsettled by the incident...some questioning whether he could play in the same team as Rooney ever again.
Valencia's former Sporting Director Amedeo Carboni had even gone as far as to claim that the paperwork had been all but signed. A transaction in which the footballing history books would have been completely rewritten.
Why did he decide to stay?
Another masterstroke by a man called Ferguson no doubt.
It was a turning point for Ronaldo. The 2006/07 season saw both he and Rooney strike up a formidable partnership that led United to its first title in four seasons. Ronaldo didn't look back. Over the next two years he catapulted himself from a rising talent to undoubtedly the hottest property in world football.
It had been a year in the making. Now it was time to finally get the deal done.
Ronaldo was characteristically professional and quietly submitted a transfer request. Ramon Calderon had since made way for respected Florentino Perez and with his presidency in full swing, Ferguson would no longer oppose the move like he had a year earlier.
And so in June 2009, Manchester United officially accepted an £80 million bid from Real Madrid.
Ronaldo would spend nine illustrious years in Spain, scoring 450 goals in 438 appearances, winning five European Cups and multiple Ballon D'or trophies.
With the help of United...Cristiano Ronaldo had cemented his place in football history.
Did United Have To Sell?
The simple answer is no.
Ronaldo wasn't entering the final year of his contract. There was no need to sell him for the fear of a discounted price the following season. In fact. the player still had three years remaining on a new five year deal signed in April of 2007, worth a relatively modest £120,000 a week.
And if it weren't for his ambition and relentless drive for perfection, Ronaldo may well have stayed in Manchester for many more years. Is it so hard to imagine him spending a decade at Old Trafford, perhaps choosing to depart along with Ferguson in 2013?
Could United Have Forced Him To Stay?
However there is little doubt that Ronaldo's attitude would have shifted dramatically if the club had both failed to acknowledge his ambition in the first place and then repeatedly blocked any attempt by Madrid to sign him each season.
A Cristiano Ronaldo in his early 20's could quite easily have begun to underperform in an effort to force a move away. Although he might have been foolish to do so. Ferguson had surely banished many a player to the stands or even organised a stint in the reserve team in order to display his authority. Ronaldo may well have received the same treatment.
Was There A Reason For Ronaldo To Stay?
Any experienced footballing person would find it hard to find a reason why he'd hang around.
Ronaldo had arguably achieved all he could with the Manchester club; domestic titles and cups, European honours and recognition on a global scale. It's hard to deny Real Madrid now offered the platform he needed to achieve greatness, the likes of which game had rarely seen before.
That fact that if it had been solely down to the player, who was more than eager to leave the season before, speaks volumes about his willingness to stay.
Towards the end of this transfer saga, one thing became abundantly clear.
United knew it was time to sell.
Having already put themselves into a strong position of negotiation, if sometimes maybe a little precarious, they could now part with the player on their own terms. A factor that always seemed of upmost importance. They took back the control to part ways for the right price...and at the right time.
Ronaldo left United after six years having scored 118 times in 292 appearances, winning the Champions League, three Premier League titles, one FA cup and two League Cups.
A true legend of the game. Eulogised in Madrid. Made in Manchester.