Uniao Desportiva Ponte de Frielas
Before Cristiano Ronaldo was a household name, the world’s most famous footballer was just Roni, a scrawny kid on Sporting CP who got teased relentlessly for by teammates for “driving the Ferrari.”
He had moved from his island home, Madeira, to the mainland to try to make it with the club, one of Portugal’s biggest, but he couldn’t seem to get to his classes. The punishment for truancy was to carry a large and heavy trash cart—the Ferrari—out of the original Estadio Jose Alvalade.
“Vroom, vroom,” they would repeat, laughing, as he performed the unenviable task. “There goes Roni, driving the Ferrari. Go faster. Speed up.”
In retrospect, the taunts seem ironic considering the 33-year-old ace can afford as many sports cars as he wants and will be a global representative of Ferrari after sealing a £105 million move to Juventus—a club that has its checks signed by the Agnelli family, principal shareholders of the sports car brand. But at the time, those taunts—and bullying over his accent—drove a wedge between him and teammates.
“He told them, ‘You can laugh as much as you want, but one day I’ll be driving a Ferrari, and you’re all going to be staring at me,'” Nuno Nare, a former Sporting coach, tells Bleacher Report.
Roni didn’t have many allies in that dressing room. That wasn’t ideal considering he couldn’t push the Ferrari by himself.
Luckily, Fabio Ferreira was an exception.
Like Ronaldo, Ferreira was an extremely talented young player—to some, an even brighter prospect. He was an all-around forward with a strong physical presence and great finishing ability. “He had so much strength, was very difficult to stop in one-on-one situations—really impressive,” Sporting youth coach Joao Couto recalls. “He was definitely one of our biggest hopes. When he was around 15, you could say it was him plus 10 others on the team.”
But the connection between the two had more to do with their similarities off the field than on it.
Ferreira was also far away from home—a native of Monte Gordo in the Algarve—and he too had his accent ridiculed by the Lisbon boys. While many of the youth players at Sporting’s academy went home for the weekend, Ronaldo and Ferreira stayed behind in the same dormitory.
They became inseparable for that time, sharing not just a roof but also the workload whenever either was tasked with driving the Ferrari.
The two friends were heading in the same direction. When Ronaldo scored in his debut for Portugal, in an U15 friendly against South Africa in 2001, Ferreira was there celebrating the goal with him.
It seemed destiny back then that the two would one day star for Portugal at senior level—that Ferreira would be the forward partner Ronaldo so dearly missed at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Instead Ferreira ended up with a slow-paced life in the Algarve, a man who makes a living working with shellfish, never to be bothered by the paparazzi or fans.
His friend, meanwhile, became the greatest footballer in the world.
At some point, destiny set them on different paths.
Ronaldo’s routine in those days included lunch and dinner in a homey restaurant called Tobisbar that was a 15-minute walk from the Alvalade. It’s a popular spot for the locals in the Lumiar neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Lisbon.
Getting in and out of there is a breeze these days, but back in the late ’90s, it was a less desirable location and known for its gang fights. On one trip there, Ronaldo was mugged by five boys who threatened him with knives and accused him of beating up a member of their group. He swore he had not done it. It didn’t save him getting punched in the eye.
Ronaldo was telling the truth, though. It was Ferreira who had attacked their friend.
It was not the first time the two had been mistaken. Ronaldo and Ferreira were often taken for brothers. They looked pretty much the same, both with short curly hair and always hanging out together.
“As they did not travel home in the weekends, they remained at the dorm and became very close,” Nare says. “They were outgoing kids, best buddies and did not care if the structure at the dorm was not the most comfortable one. Instead of complaining about it, they made the best of it.”
A retired striker, Carlos Saleiro is from the same generation as Ronaldo and Ferreira and had to work extra hard for a chance up front at Sporting ahead of the two immense talents.
“Fabio was a crazier player,” Saleiro remembers, laughing. “Like we say in Portugal, ‘He did much porcaria (crap) out of the pitch, but he didn’t mean any harm.’ He was more immature and had not gone through everything Ronaldo did.”
As a player, though, Saleiro confirms Couto’s assessment. “[Ferreira] was a few steps ahead of Ronaldo, although the main thing—the desire to be the best—was possibly not there. That made the difference for Ronaldo.”
Sporting’s technical coordinator, Luis Martins, who worked with them both as a coach, recalls Ferreira drew more positive attention during the pair’s first few months at the club.
“He was a penalty-area player, didn’t need much space [to score], had a powerful foot,” Martins says. “He was sort of like Fernando Torres, maybe [Jean-Pierre] Papin. Cristiano played behind him and would ask him to run to the left, to the right to give the ball wherever he went. He would not miss a chance.”
However, Martins adds that Ferreira’s attitude off the pitch was a concern from early on.
“He was one of those kids who defied the rules,” he says. “Sometimes, he did not have the right behavior, could not avoid conflicts, seemed to think he was above our codes.”
Whether Ferreira could have been the partner Ronaldo has long needed on the Portugal national team is a question that will never be answered and may well haunt him for the rest of his life. What we do know is that between the U15 and U17 age groups, the center-forward from Monte Gordo scored three goals in 10 international appearances.
There were also occasions when Ferreira lined up alongside his now-globally-known best mate in the national team’s colors.
One of these was in Andorra, on March 8, 2002, when the hosts played Portugal for a place in the UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals. The Andorrans were crushed 4-0, with Ronaldo netting twice and Ferreira once. It would be the first and last time the duo would score in the same game for the national team. Ferreira was never called up again.
Six months later, Ronaldo was celebrating his first senior goal in a Portuguese league match for Sporting against Moreirense. The then-17-year-old got a £12.24 million transfer to Manchester United the following summer.
Meanwhile, Ferreira never made it to the first team.
What went wrong for the man once rated higher than Ronaldo?
“From the neck up was the main difference between them,” Nare says. “When Ronaldo arrived from Madeira, he was already an athlete. We would find him doing press-ups and sit-ups in the dorm and lifting weights in the gym at 1 a.m. He has never stopped working and became a complete footballer.
“Fabio may have outshone him for a moment—he was very strong, had muscles, was taller—but did not have the same attitude. That was crucial.”
Saleiro recalls that the early advantages that Ferreira had over his peers soon ebbed away.
“When we were 13, perhaps 14, he was one of the tallest kids of our age, was faster, his legs were much stronger,” Saleiro says. “He had matured earlier than the others and naturally excelled in the games. After a while, however, the rest of the team leveled out, and the pure talents—not just those based on physical advantages—stood out.”
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Above all else, Ferreira struggled with off-the-field problems, which ruined his reputation inside Sporting’s academy. In many ways, he sabotaged himself.
“He should have had a different attitude, taken [his career] seriously, had a normal social life,” says Couto, who owns a house in Monte Gordo, where his former protege is back living. “His focus was definitely not on training.
“While Ronaldo was ambitious, [Ferreira] concluded he was already too talented and did not need to work on improving himself. He has always been a very good person, meant well, but he was surrounded by bad company. He enjoyed going out at night, the so-called porcarias and ended up getting lost. I believed in him and gave him multiple chances. However, he did not train like the others.
“He would later realize he had wasted his potential.”
Ronaldo’s meteoric rise since making his professional debut in 2002 is stunning, to say the least. Ferreira could not cope with how fast his friend was progressing and found it almost impossible to catch up. Suddenly, he was no longer one of Sporting’s most promising talents but the former roommate of the best Portuguese player since Eusebio. Just another character in the biography of a global icon.
Beyond the disciplinary issues, Ferreira also saw his career derailed by a series of knee problems that threatened his future at the Alvalade.
“He spent six months out,” Martins remembers. “I’m not sure whether he listened to the doctors and paid attention to the recovery process—it’s a shame because the potential was there. He was not the same player after that.”
Ferreira would never get his career back on track. After a farewell season with Sporting in 2003-04, he bounced around Portugal’s semi-amateur divisions, where average salaries are around €580 ($680) a month, the nation’s minimum wage.
“Fabio became a serious man and realized the chance he had thrown away,” Couto says. “He had alternatives, but he didn’t make the right choices and was never again the same impressive player.
“If you look back, one had a career that reached the highest level; the other could have been as successful.”
When it comes to football, Ferreira has closed himself off to the rest of the world. He understandably doesn’t enjoy revisiting the times when he featured alongside Ronaldo and the likes of Nani, Joao Moutinho, Silvestre Varela and Miguel Veloso.
Bleacher Report tried to track him down for over a month and spoke to several people on the phone in an attempt to get him to sit down and tell his story. His mother told B/R that he was sick and tired of interviews and would charge for his time. Others confirmed he would not be interested in talking.
We decided to ask anyway. Monte Gordo is five-hour train ride from Lisbon, but once there, it is not difficult to find Ferreira. Everyone knows him in the resort town, which attracts mostly elderly tourists, who come for the seemingly limitless sunshine and the tasty seafood of the Algarve region.
On the side of a football shop in Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, the area’s most popular area, two large posters of Ronaldo in underwear draw attention en route to the long white sandy beach.
Ferreira is not known in the region for his exciting days at Sporting alongside the five-time Ballon d’Or winner but rather for his bond with Armenio Goncalves, the owner of the most popular restaurant in Monte Gordo, Tapas.
“Armenio was always his sponsor [in his career],” Couto says.
Ferreira worked there as a waiter after retiring. His older brother, Angelo, still does. And when we find him, he says to wait for Fabio in a cafe in the centre of the small village. He says his brother stops there at least twice a day for a cup of coffee and small talk with friends. He shows up after three hours.
Asked for an interview, he replies: “I prefer not to talk about my career. I’ve already done many interviews and always spoke about the same stuff. There are other guys closer to [Ronaldo] at this moment.”
Ferreira is referring to Ronaldo’s entourage, a close-knit group consisting of brother Hugo Aveiro, former Nike representative Ricardo Regufe and two former Sporting colleagues Miguel Paixao and Jose Semedo. Over the years, Ferreira would realize there was little room for him in Ronaldo’s exclusive band.
However, for reasons he never understood, suddenly his calls were not returned anymore.
The two buddies who once shared a room and dreams are no longer in touch and have moved on with their lives.
After sipping on his coffee, Ferreira leaves the cafe in a cherry-red Corsa. Unlike Ronaldo, he doesn’t have a stunning collection of cars in his garage. He drives almost every day to the neighbor city of Vila Real de Santo Antonio, where he works with shellfish for a local company.
He can stop by anywhere he wants in the middle of the afternoon, and no one will bother him for a selfie.
Some may look at his life and see what could have been. Others may see the type of anonymity that is a dream for many footballers.
Either way, for Ferreira, it’s what destiny brought.