“When Ronaldo attacks, I have the feeling that a pack is attacking. It feels like there are many of them, not just one”.
These words pronounced by Jorge Valdano define to perfection the sensation of insecurity in rival defences when Ronaldo faced up to the ball, a wonder of nature that left behind as many opponents as came his way.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was discovered by former Brazilian player Jairzinho when he was just one of many children raised in the Brazilian favelas who dreamed of playing top-level football, and it was the latter who transferred him to Cruzeiro when he was 16 years old.
Two seasons at the Brazilian club, where he won a Mineiro championship and a Brazilian Cup and, with an average of almost a goal per game (a total of 44 goals in 47 games), put him in the shop window of European clubs and the Seleçao itself, which recruited him to form part of the National Team for the World Cup USA 94 and, although he did not play a single minute in the whole competition, he would become a world champion at just 17 years of age in a team that had Romario and Bebeto as big stars.
As a curious fact, it is worth noting that in that World Cup Ronaldo wore the name “Ronaldinho” on his shirt, a name that the football world would associate years later with another of the great Brazilian magicians of recent times, Ronaldinho Gaucho.
Despite not making his debut in the World Cup, European clubs were already scrambling for the future Brazilian star and it was PSV Eindhoven the club chosen to take his leap to Europe, the same team that also chose Romario at the time.
Only two seasons could enjoy him in the Eredivisie, but after winning a Cup and a Super Cup and, again with an average of almost a goal per game with 54 goals in 57 games (he was also top scorer of the competition in his first season), the big clubs were not going to wait any longer to cast their nets over the great promise of world football.
His stay in the Netherlands was to be his definitive springboard to world stardom, but he also had his dark moments as. He was treated with steroids to speed up his physical development, a fact that would have serious repercussions in the future.
In the 1996-1997 season O fenómeno, like Romario before him, landed in the Spanish league with F. C. Barcelona after paying 2,500 millions of pesetas (about 15 million euros) to become the best player of the moment.
In those days without cable TV where you could watch all the matches of all the competitions, the fact of having Ronaldo playing every weekend on the Spanish pitches was a gift.
Ronaldo was a spectacle, any defence could not stop this technically and physically super talented player, he suffered constant fouls and even tackles with which they tried to stop him from running, because if not, you were already sold, but even then they couldn’t stop him.
Many, many goals could be cited as examples, but perhaps the most iconic goal of Ronaldo’s Barcelona career was the one he scored at the Estadio Multiusos de San Lazaro against Sociedad Deportiva Compostela on the 12th of October 1996 when the Barcelona manager Sir Bobby Robson said: “I’ve seen Pele”.
In January 1997 Ronaldo was awarded with the FIFA World Player award ahead of Liberia’s George Weah and England’s Alan Shearer.
By the end of the season he had already won the Spanish Super Cup, the Copa del Rey and had become the top scorer in La Liga with 34 goals, and although he failed to win that competition (a title that would be won by Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid), Ronaldo appeared in Rotterdam to play in his first continental final.
The final in question was the European Cup Winners’ Cup, played at the De Kuip stadium against a PSG team full of big names such as Lama, N’Gotty, Patrice Loko or the Brazilians Leonardo and Raí… all great players… but Ronaldo was playing for the opposing team and, at the end, Barcelona won 1-0 with a goal by the Fenómeno.
Three titles, top scorer in La Liga – Golden Boot included – and an 8-year contract… which surprisingly ended up being just one.
Since mid-season, Barcelona, already alerted by the siren songs of Italian football, tried by all means to extend the contract of the carioca player, which they apparently managed to do, announcing the agreement at a press conference, but shortly afterwards the whole thing collapsed. Each of the parts involved argued their reasons, the president of Barcelona, Josep Lluis Nuñez said:
“We gave them everything they asked for. They expected us to say no, but we thought that if he broke it would be because of them. If he leaves it’s because they will pay.
On the other hand, Giovanni Branchini, the player’s representative declared:
“If Barcelona had presented us with a clean contract, we would have signed it. That press conference was an insult to our intelligence, there was no reason to expose Ronaldo to such humiliation”.
It is difficult to know who was telling the truth or not in a world with as many intricacies as the world of football, but in any case, his transfer to Inter Milan was announced on the 20th of June 1997 and the 4,000 million pesetas (about 24 million euros) corresponding to the rescission clause was deposited at the headquarters of the Professional Football League (LFP).
While all this was going on, the player was playing in the Copa América in Bolivia, a competition he would win for Brazil for the fifth time in its history, scoring five goals and being recognised as MVP of the tournament.
Now, Ronaldo, who had become the best player in the world and the emblem of a large American multinational, was arriving at the all-powerful and at the same time complicated calcio.
His first season with the Nerazzurri was very profitable on a personal level, winning the FIFA World Player award once again and, in addition, the brand new Ballon d’Or ahead of Montenegrin Predrag Mijatović and Frenchman Zinédine Zidane.
On a collective level, Ronaldo leaves memorable moments every weekend in Italy and reaches his second continental final, this time in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) against Lazio of Rome at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
Given the potential of both teams, you would think that the match would be hard fought, but Inter would take the match by a resounding 3-0 scoreline with Ronaldo scoring the third goal to seal the match.
The 97-98 season at Inter ended without a title, but it was World Cup year and this time, Ronaldo would take an active part, being the leading figure of the Canarinha National Team.
As current World Champions, Brazil were the number one candidates to repeat the title and, although the road to the final was far from smooth (especially the semi-final against the Netherlands with a penalty shoot-out victory), they fulfilled the predictions and reached the final match against the hosts of the tournament, Zidane’s France.
What happened in the final was a mystery for many years… Ronaldo and a generally unknown team succumbed to France by 3-0, a very poor showing, especially that of Ronaldo, the idol, the best player of the moment… something unexplainable.
Rumours soon began to surface about the Brazilian star’s health. What became known was that the day before the final he suffered convulsions that put the whole Brazilian expedition on alert (Roberto Carlos, his roommate, was the one who raised the alarm). There were many theories about it, from excessive pressure from sponsors to an epileptic attack… but the reality was that he suffered a heart crisis.
Ronaldo himself explained much later what happened to him that fateful day:
“I decided to rest a bit after lunch and the last thing I remember is that I was going to bed. I went to bed, then I had a convulsion and, when I woke up, I was surrounded by other players and by Dr Lidio Toledo. Nobody wanted to tell me what was going on”.
“I probably affected the whole team because that convulsion was one of those scary ones, it’s not something you see every day. But I had a responsibility to my country and I didn’t want to let them down. I had my pride and I felt I could play”.
Even with all this, Ronaldo finished the championship with 4 goals in 7 games and was named Player of the Tournament.
The following season was not prolific in terms of club titles either, but once again, the National Team was his lifeline as he won his second consecutive Copa America with a five-goal contribution.
From here begins the torment of Ronaldo with injuries… on the 21st of November 1999 in a Serie A match against Lecce he suffers his first major injury with a partial rupture of the rotulian tendon for which he was out of action for 6 months.
His return was in the Coppa final against Lazio, but fate was even crueler to the player with the eternal smile when he suffered a complete rupture of the previously injured rotulian tendon only 6 minutes after his comeback.
It was a real shock in the world of football, all more so because of the declarations coming from the doctors who operated on him, such as that of Doctor Gérard Saillant:“
Miracles don’t exist. He needs at least eight months of recovery before he can play again and even then I can’t say, neither I nor anyone else, that he will play again”.
The Brazilian Football Confederation blamed PSV Eindhoven for the injuries, having treated the player with anabolics, as former CBF anti-doping coordinator Bernardino Santi pointed out:
“All the blame lies with PSV. They gave him anabolics and the result was that his musculature ended up being incompatible with the bone structure of his knee”.
It was a year and a half in the dry dock, but it was worth the wait.
Ronaldo is called up for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan and leads the Seleçao to their fifth championship with 8 goals that would make him the Golden Boot of the tournament, scoring two of them in the final in a 2-0 win over Germany.
Just after the end of the championship, rumours of a possible departure from Inter Milan emerged. Ronaldo did not have a good relationship with coach Héctor Cúper and so he made this known to president Massimo Moratti, but to the Brazilian’s surprise, the president took a position in favour of the coach, as the player himself said:
“I never thought it would come to the situation of asking the president (Massimo Moratti) to choose: it was me or the coach, and to my surprise he chose the coach; which was wonderful because I was able to go to Real Madrid.”
Real Madrid, aware of this situation, took action and after a month of intense negotiations and just one hour before the close of the transfer window, managed to sign him for 45 million euros on the 31st of August 2002.
Ronaldo became the third Galáctico in a dream team after the arrival of Figo and Zidane and so, in the space of two months, the player who had been out of action for a year and a half and who it was feared would never play football again, was crowned world champion and signed for Real Madrid. Fate, capricious and cruel before with the player, seems to settle his debt.
Given the non-existent pre-season with Inter Milan, the Whites’ fans had to wait a month to see Ronaldo in action for the first time. It was on the 6th of October 2002 in a match against Alavés when he made his debut with the number 11 on his back (the number 9 was occupied by Morientes) scoring two goals, the first of them… 62 seconds after entering the field!
This was perhaps Ronaldo’s best season, winning the FIFA World Player award for third time in December and his second Ballon d’Or. In addition, in the same month, Real Madrid won the Intercontinental Cup against Olimpia de Asunción 2-0 with a goal and MVP of the tournament included.
Also in the Champions League he would delight us with memorable performances such as the hat-trick he scored at Old Trafford, where he was even given a standing ovation by the rival fans when he was substituted. To round it all off, he contributed 23 goals to the league championship won by Real Madrid.
The following season would begin with the Spanish Super Cup title, which would ultimately be his last title with Real Madrid, and on a personal level he would become the top scorer in La Liga with 24 goals.
As the seasons went by, Ronaldo – devoured by the continuous news about parties and his wedding –, and in general the whole Galáctico team, entered the twilight of their relationship and finally in the winter transfer window of the 2006-2007 season and with only 7 games played until then, Ronaldo left Real Madrid fleeing from coach Fabio Capello and headed to Milan… but this time to the home of the neighbour, A. C. Milan.
Two seasons defending the rossoneri colours, the first one quite decent with 7 goals in 14 games and the second one where, weighed down again by a serious injury in the rotulian tendon, this time in the left knee, he would only play 6 games with two goals.
After having been the best player in the world, after falling down and getting up, the time would come to leave the big European leagues and head for home, to Brazil.
Corinthians would be the team of choice, where with an obvious weight problem, which was later revealed to be a thyroid problem, and coinciding with an old battle partner like Roberto Carlos, he would complete his last seasons until February 2011, when he announced his definitive retirement.
The player with the eternal smile, one of the best strikers in the history of world football, the striker who, as Jorge Valdano said, when he attacked it seemed like a whole pack was attacking, not only because of his power, but also because of his skill. And the fact is that, as a well-known Italian tyre brand that sponsored the player put it in its slogan… power is nothing without control.