There are some games which become turning points for individual players or clubs. The second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid in the quarter final of the Champions League altered the trajectory of modern football as we know it.
On 8th April 2003 in the first leg at the Bernabeu, Real destroyed United 3-1. Raul was exceptional and scored twice. Only a goal for United from Ruud van Nistelrooy stopped it turning into a mauling.
That night, Paul Scholes was the only United player who looked worthy of getting into the Real side. Roy Keane and Nicky Butt were overrun in midfield by the domineering brilliance of Zinedine Zidane. All looked lost for United.
The return fixture had a far wider reaching significance than just a place in a semi-final. David Beckham’s relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson had strained. The imperious Scot left Beckham out of the starting eleven and put in motion a chain of events that would see United’s famous number 7 eventually leave for Real.
Beckham is the most famous graduate of the Class of 92. Arguably, not the best player in that group, but certainly the most influential. He is a cultural phenomenon and exceptional role model for players and fans alike. Once vilified for a sending off, he eventually retained redemption and elevated himself to the status of national hero and icon. Beckham is a cultural architect and one of the finest captains of the England national side. On more than occasion his performance of leading by example dragged entire teams to perform at a higher standard.
Beckham is arguably the greatest kicker of a football the world has ever seen. Although not the quickest player, he never needed it. His unique posture when striking a ball has been frequently replicated but never matched. He never required the skill to be able to beat a man on the dribble. He built his game to maximise the skills he did have. His pinpoint passing from open play or dead ball situations regularly garnered applause and admiration from the stands. Beckham’s prowess from direct free-kicks is also unparalleled in the modern era. The power, swerve and dip he was able to create by wrapping his Adidas Predators around the ball enabled him to be the most lethal free-kick specialist of his time.
That night, Beckham’s omission from the side against Real sparked gossip instantly and when he reflected on it years after he said: “I could taste the anger in the back of my throat.” He entered the game in the 63rd minute as a substitute. Within 22 minutes of being on the field he scored twice. One of which he called “my best free-kick ever in a Man United shirt.” During the game he recalls Real’s players talking to him and asking him when he was going to transfer to Spain. He recalls “Roberto Carlos was grinning at me again: “Are you coming to play for us?” he asked.”
It was an incredible performance from Beckham. Ferguson said quietly to him after the game: “You played well, David.” A media circus ensued as it became certain Beckham was to exit United for Real. This quarter final encapsulated the end of the Beckham-era at United, his best performance in a United shirt, and the start of his journey to becoming the next Galactico of Madrid.
The game is also significant because of the performance of another individual. But this player wore a Madrid shirt. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima finished the game on the losing side but was awarded the match ball at the end for a remarkable hat-trick. His third goal, a curling 25-yard strike was utterly brilliant. Ferguson said: “Ronaldo was marvellous. His third goal was a tremendous strike and you can’t legislate for someone who produces moments like that.” As he was substituted, every fan in the stadium stood to applaud the Brazilian’s departure. The United fans, aware of their team’s impending exit, recognised the brilliance of Ronaldo and duly paid their respects.
Ronaldo, a World Cup winning striker, when at his peak, was totally unplayable and perhaps the greatest number 9 of the last thirty years. His struggle with fitness hampered his progress – but his technique, guile and instinct elevated him high above his peers. The game against United will live as a highlight reel of his superior power as a centre forward.
The final moment of significance in this game went quietly unnoticed by many on the evening. Also, it is possibly the moment the trajectory of modern football changed forever. Sat in the stands as a guest at Old Trafford was a Russian businessman by the name of Roman Abramovich. So impressed was he by the scintillating football on display and the atmosphere generated in the stadium, it persuaded him to buy a football club of his very own.
His purchase of Chelsea followed soon after and altered the financial paradigm of world football forever. The £140 million he spent on buying the club was followed by the investment of millions to bankroll the building blocks of a team who would go on to win the Premier League and Champions League in the following years. It also started a trend of ‘big businessman’ buying teams and shifting financial power overnight. If Abramovich had not attended Old Trafford that evening, perhaps the game would be in a vastly different position to what it is now.
Ronaldo said: “I will never forget this night.” Neither will we and neither will history.