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Words: Rupert Fryer
Images: Getty

By August ‘93, Cruzeiro’s Copa do Brasil-winning coach Pinheiro had been replaced by Carlos Alberto Silva. With a a friendly competition coming up in Portugal ahead of the start of the domestic league, Silva needed some extra bodies to fill out the squad.

“We were having trouble getting a team together because of injuries,” the late Silva told Superesportes. “I’d suggested we take a local striker on loan for the trip… but was asked to take a look a boy called Ronaldo. As soon as I saw him, I knew I had to take him.” He was still just 16 years old.

Cruzeiro would be playing against three teams from Portugal: Benfica, Belenenses, and Porto, and one from Uruguay: Peñarol. Luis Sobral, a Portuguese journalist, remembers that first game against Benfica very well indeed.

“He looked relatively short from the press box in the top tier [of the Estadio da Luz],” recalled Luís a few years ago. “In the first second of his first possession, I remember thinking, ‘This kid is quick!’ He set off running, only to be faced by the Benfica centre-backs—two big, strong men who were experienced and confident… With one touch, Ronaldo pushed the ball around [them]. My eyes opened a little wider. But getting the ball past the defenders was only half the problem. Where would Ronaldo go now? Without any fear, he chose the most unlikely route: right between the two of them. And he made it! It was like a scene out of an action movie. In his most difficult moment, the hero discovers a way to win. I’ve never forgotten that. I remember thinking to myself: 'This is different'.”

If that run spiked the senses, the game against Belenenses was the turning point. A teenager on a different continent for the first time making his mark. A day that will always remain mythical.No photos exist from the game. There are no videos. It was a preseason friendly before preseason friendlies were screened around the world and broadcast to your phone. But what we do know from people there that day is that Ronaldo, wearing number nine on the back of his V-neck shirt, scored his first ever senior goal—a 17-year-old opening the heavens.

“I wish I had a video, but I don't know anyone who does,” the Belenenses goalkeeper that day, Diamantino Figueiredo, told Globo years later. “It was a cross from the right, and he headed it past me… it’s a memory that lives only in my head—I don’t even have photos or newspaper clippings. All I have is my memory.”

Cruzeiro diehard Fernando Novy remembers almost every minute of Ronaldo’s debut season, but his only recollection of the goal was from a radio broadcast. “There is barely even any record whatsoever of that match,” he told me.

“But it was clear we had something special now...

The above is an excerpt from our Issue 24 cover story. You'd love to read the whole thing, so click here to do exactly that.

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