Cristiano Ronaldo’s former team-mate Eric Djemba-Djemba has spoken about the close bond the pair enjoyed while playing at Manchester United – and tips his old side to win their first Premier League title in nine seasons now that their iconic No 7 is back.
The 40-year-old has just announced his retirement from football after a journeyman career that saw him in Israel, Serbia, India and Indonesia following a four-year stint in England with the Red Devils and Aston Villa.
Speaking to British Gambler ahead of Ronaldo’s homecoming against Newcastle, the Cameroonian said: ‘Oh my God, I am so, so happy to see Ronaldo back at Manchester United!
Eric Djemba-Djemba played 20 league games for Manchester United between 2003 and 2005
Djemba-Djemba and Ronaldo became good friends at United after the winger joined the club
Djemba-Djemba first faced Ronaldo when he starred for Sporting Lisbon against the Red Devils
Ronaldo immediately wowed his new supporters on his debut against Bolton in August 2003
‘I’m mostly happy for the fans because they have been through a hard time for a few years, but now it’s like their son has come home! Alex Ferguson is the Dad, and Ronaldo is the son.’
Djemba-Djemba first came across the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in 2003 during a friendly between United and Sporting Lisbon that has since gone down in legend as the youthful winger ran Sir Alex Ferguson’s side ragged.
Djemba-Djemba said: ‘At full time we sat in the changing room and just said to Alex Ferguson: ‘We want this guy. We need this guy.’
‘I remember coming up against him and trying to kick him, but I couldn’t because he was just so fast! I couldn’t even pull his shirt. I was so happy when we signed him so I didn’t have to chase him again!’
The pair quickly became close and spend lots of time off the pitch as well as on it.
Djemba-Djemba continues: ‘Every day, he would arrive first so that he could go to the gym before training, then after training he’d want to go to the gym again!
Djemba-Djemba and Ronaldo often went to Deansgate together and ate together at Nando’s
‘Sometimes I’d say ‘Cristiano, let’s go back home’, because sometimes we’d drive to training together and I’d drive him or he would drive me, and we’d go to eat at a restaurant – he introduced me to Nandos, and we’d go and have food together – he loved the chicken there, and I’d have spicy chicken.’
‘We’d often watch movies together, we liked to eat together, and went shopping together either to Deansgate of The Trafford Centre, and just be tourists in Manchester!
‘We’d watch games together at his house and we’d see his mum, dad and sister at the house.
‘We didn’t play video games as I didn’t know how to play, but as much football as we would watch together, I never saw him play FIFA on the PlayStation. We’d watch loads of Premier League football at either mine or his house.’
As two young players, the pair were regularly kept in check by Roy Keane, who did not take kindly to some of their fashion choices.
‘Roy Keane didn’t like our earrings – he was the protector. When we were both young players, he could give you a hard time in the dressing room or in a game if you weren’t running,’ according to Djemba-Djemba.
Roy Keane gave the pair grief for wearing earrings and was relentless in applying standards
‘He just wanted people to give everything, and if you were wearing an earring like me or Cristiano, he could give you a hard time for it if you weren’t playing at the highest level or if you weren’t giving everything.’
Although Ronaldo was a precocious talent, he could become petulant after being constantly on the end of rough treatment by opponents. It has been suggested before that to toughen him up, he never received fouls against him in training. Is this true?
‘It’s true,’ Djemba-Djemba confirmed. ‘No fouls would be given against Cristiano in training. That was a big part of getting him to become the player he is today.’
A whirlwind Friday late last month saw Ronaldo’s destiny swing between the blue and red halves of Manchester, with it seeming likely that the Theatre of Dreams’ former darling could be heading to enemy territory. However, by the afternoon on that incredible day, a fitting return to the club where he made his name was complete, with sales of his No 7 shirt already breaking records.
Djemba-Djemba dismisses the idea that Ronaldo would ever have moved to the Etihad.
‘He loves Manchester United too much to have ever joined Manchester City. I can say that hand on heart, never would he join Man City.
Djemba-Djemba believes there was never a chance of Ronaldo moving to Manchester City
‘In football you never know, but I know him and he wouldn’t have joined City. Just imagine what would happen if he went to City – it would be unbelievable, the fans would want him dead!’
Pep Guardiola’s men finished 12 points ahead of their arch-rivals last season to win a third title in four years and United have responded with significant spending in the transfer window, as Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho joined Ronaldo in joining Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side as they plan for an assault on the crown they have not worn since Sir Alex’s last season in 2013. Can they do it?
‘Now they have Ronaldo, the whole team can improve and he will raise the standards of the whole team.
‘Ronaldo cannot win the Premier League on his own, but Varane is a very good signing as well, and United have a very good team to try and win the league. If I had to pick one team to win the league this year, I’d say Manchester United.
‘Since Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United, this is the best team and the best squad that they have had.
‘Ronaldo can have a huge influence on the team in raising the standards and I think Manchester United are going to have a great season.’