The season that followed the centenary, 2002-03, was expected to feature a few hangovers. Some saw it as a new beginning, a symbolic year zero - whilst others thought it might be the year in which the club's bloated sense of its own importance would finally cause the whole institution to begin to eat itself alive. In truth, it was to be the final season in which Florentine Perez would enjoy the fruits of his groaning orchard, the last year in which the emperor could sit untroubled over his treasure chest and rub his hands in glee. By the end of August, he had pulled off the third coup of his mandate and signed the re-born Ronaldo, fresh from his World Cup triumph and apparently happy to leave Italy, despite the reluctance of his footballing wife to leave Milan and the rumblings in the Italian press regarding the player's lack of gratitude to a club (Inter) that had stood by him during his years in dry dock. There was quite a hullabaloo, most of it focusing on the dodgy knee, the size of the transfer fee (45 million dollars) and the more important fact that the club already had a decent centre-forward in Morientes with a very promising youngster, Portillo, also waiting in the shadows for his turn. Raul, Morientes' friend, was said to disapprove, and Spain's most respected journalists went into the usual frenzy of speculation as to whether the Brazilian and Raul would be compatible.
Significantly, Raul was injured when Ronaldo finally made his debut, five weeks into the season at home to Alaves. Coming on in the 64th minute as substitute, he required exactly 40 seconds and two touches to register his first goal for Real. Chesting down Roberto Carlos' cross he thumped the ball into the Fondo Sur goal and ran up to the advertising boards in something resembling a state of ecstasy. Thirteen minutes later he got another one, and although poor Alaves were to finish the season with the league's worst defensive figures, back then it looked pretty impressive. The Madrileno press, up to that point more than a little worried by rumours of the player's lack of fitness, tubby appearance and alleged distress at all the question marks, simply exploded with incontinent relief at the reconfirmation that he could actually play football and score goals. The tabloid Marca led with a memorable header 'Debuta madre! ('The Mother of all Debuts!) but punning on the foul-mouthed phrase 'Deputa madrt, which can be either positive or negative, depending on your intonation. It was a headline worthy of The Sufi in its heyday, and it ushered in the new Ronaldo era.
His season was to be far from an easy ride, however, with his contribution to the team's overall playing patterns constantly questioned by fans and press alike, added to the further pressure exerted on him by the resentment of Morientes and Portillo at their lack of involvement. The famous Argentine Cesar Menotti, briefly brought back into the limelight as a possible replacement for Barca's Van Gaal, commented on Spanish radio that Ronaldo 'N fiene ni idea de futbot (Has no idea about what football is) and that Real had wasted their money. But by the end of the season he had scored 23 goals in the league - including two in the final game to clinch the title - and had scored a sublime hat-trick at Old Trafford in the Champions League quarter-finals in a performance that saw the Manchester faithful applaud him off the field when he was substituted near the end. So moved were the Spanish club by this gesture that Florentine Perez proposed to the Spanish FA that they award the Old Trafford supporters with the medal of the Prince of Asturias for 'services to sportsmanship'.
They didn't take up his offer, but the fact of the matter was that by the end of the season no-one was too worried about the so-called lack of understanding with Raul, and as far as the initial expense was concerned, the happy news from the Bernabeu marketing department was that sales of the number 11 shirt bearing his name had comfortably covered the cost of his transfer. Ronaldo, then, brought along with him a whole package of virtues that finally silenced the critics. However, not to put too fine a point on it, even the player himself has admitted that he is no oil painting - and back in the summer of 2002 this was still relatively unimportant. In the first seven hours of Ronaldo's shirt being put up for sale in the official Real Madrid retail outlets, 2,000 were sold. Flash forward ten months to 2 July 2003, and in the first four hours of trading in the same shops David Beckham's number 23 shirt shifted 8,000. Zidane, wonderful player though he was, only moved 300 on his first day - an obvious sign of how things were changing...
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