Arsene Wenger has often hinted at how close he was to signing Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2003 and yesterday he revealed that he got as near as the shirt on the newly-crowned European Footballer of the Year's back.
Wenger said that Ronaldo was presented with an Arsenal shirt with his name on it during a visit to London Colney, the club's training ground.
The battle to sign Ronaldo was eventually won, Wenger said, by Carlos Queiroz, then Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United, who sealed the deal in August 2003. However, the player admitted yesterday that he had been "just an inch away from signing for Arsenal" before United's intervention. Ronaldo said he was so close that his mother Dolores still fondly recalls the time she met the Arsenal manager.
When Wenger was told about Ronaldo's comments in France Football magazine, from whom he will receive the Ballon d'Or trophy tomorrow in Paris, he said – in jest – "I'm disappointed that I only seduced Ronaldo's mum."
Wenger has often threatened to tell the story of how he almost signed the teenage prodigy but only yesterday could he be persuaded to give up the key facts after Ronaldo had revealed just how near he was to playing for Arsenal. Unsurprisingly, it was a question of money, with United prepared to pay Sporting Lisbon £12.25m, three times what Arsenal had already agreed with the club.
"The price that we discussed was much lower, it was [£12.25m] divided by three," Wenger said. "What killed the deal is that United came back from [a pre-season tour to] the United States and played against Sporting and Ronaldo was man of the match. [The deciding factor] was Carlos Queiroz, [but] also the United players must have been dead coming off the plane and Ronaldo was fresh, so he must have been even more dominant.
"I had Ronaldo at our training ground, I showed him around and I gave him a shirt. It has got his name on the back. I wanted him to be here, but most important is he makes a career. He went to Manchester and made a career, he would have done that here, and he is European Footballer of the Year. It's fantastic."
Wenger pointed out that he has since beaten United to other young players and, while he would not name names, it was Arsenal's signing of Aaron Ramsey that particularly hurt Ferguson in the summer. While Arsenal flew the Welsh teenager out to meet Wenger in Switzerland at Euro 2008, United failed to give him the red carpet treatment and he made his choice accordingly. United were also interested in Theo Walcott but they joined the process too late to affect his decision to join Arsenal in 2006.
Wenger said that the problem with signing good young players now was the strength of the competition. "Last night I spoke to a friend of mine [Daniel Sanchez] who is a coach of Tours in France. He said when they play at home they have on average – and they are in the second division – 15-20 foreign scouts watching. It is Ajax, Roma – unbelievable. That means the scouts are everywhere."
Arsenal play Wigan today and will kick-off eight points behind leaders Liverpool. Wenger said he was confident his side could repeat their title-winning feat of the 1997-98 season, when they were 13 points behind United at Christmas. "I am confident we have the quality to do it again," he said. "Why? Because I believe the rest of the Premier League has lifted the level much more and secondly, because I trust my team to be capable to achieve that."