Words: Owen Blackhurst
Images: Offside Sports Photography
In April 2008, a man was reported to the Rio de Janeiro police for threatening three prostitutes. So the story goes, he solicited them in one of the city’s less salubrious areas, took them back to a motel and, after discovering that they were, in fact, pre-op trans sex workers, lost his rag and screamed blue murder.
Although the case was later dropped when it appeared he’d been a victim of extortion, the escapade cost him $4.8 million in lost endorsements, led to a temporary break in his engagement to his long-term partner, and saw him savagely criticised and satirised by the Brazilian media. His fans, though, didn’t give a toss. They only cared that he was recovering from knee surgery and, all being well, would soon don club colours in his homeland.
The man, of course, was Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. Otherwise known as Ó Fenómeno, Originaldo and, to some heathens, Fat Ronaldo. The kid who burst out of Bento Ribeiro and blazed a swoosh-shaped trail across Europe. The footballer who made Sir Bobby Robson dance like your dad at a wedding after too many Pernod and blacks. The bastard offspring of a beaver and a hollow point bullet who smiled at defenders before turning them to jelly. The greatest striker of the modern era who won three FIFA World Player of the Year awards, a brace of Ballon d’Ors, and scored over 400 career goals.
Of course, we all remember the big moments. That goal for Barcelona, his seizure on the morning of the 1998 World Cup final and resulting horror-show of a performance, the glorious redemption in the Land of the Rising Sun four years later. We can talk rabidly about the time he scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford and was serenaded with a standing ovation, and we can easily recall his outrageous double-dummy that won Inter the UEFA Cup.
Yet as time passes and his career becomes nothing more than a collection of YouTube videos set to appalling house music, and his deeds are crunched into numbers that are trotted out by people who prefer to lionise raw data over raw talent, we have missed the point. As dads sit on sofas across the country, shaking their heads at his appearance on a Pokerstars ad which elicits murmurs of ‘Fat’ Ronaldo from the kids, we have forgotten not only that he was the most exciting player seen on a football pitch in at least the last 25 years, but that every time he crossed the white line he played with a childlike joy that is rarely seen in the paid ranks.
Ronaldo approached pretty much every one of his 600-odd games like a puppy who has just seen water for the first time, and is going in head first no matter how many times you call or whistle and, if he drowns, well fuck it, because it was fun while it lasted. Even towards the end of his career, with millions in the bank and knees that hated him, his delight at getting on the ball and taking the piss was palpable.
Watching him elicited feelings like that first grope at your teenage disco or climbing a podium on your original lads’ holiday and reaching for those fucking lasers. It was a shot of pure adrenaline that could eviscerate cynicism, shred club loyalties, and render whole pubs mute. Whole actual pubs full of men wearing ill-fitting jeans covered in today’s paint and yesterday’s curry left speechless by a bald blur with teeth like a Disney character.
In remembering only the milestones and tragedies in our endless search for bite-sized pub-chat, we have allowed some of the greatest things ever seen on a football pitch to slip down the cracks of our bleary-eyed storytelling. We have forgotten one of the Titans.
Brazil’s victorious 1994 World Cup winning squad were an enigmatic bunch. There’s Dunga, a man who rattled into tackles and played simple give and go football (which is fitting when you consider he was a mere moustache away from being the third Chuckle Brother). Branco, the left back of the 40-yard free kick and a barnet that was lost to the world of 80s Glam Rock. Romário, the penalty box king who had the air of a lorry driver cruising for action in the bogs at a roadside cafe. It was amongst this throng that Ronaldo first smiled at the world.
Minutes after Roberto Baggio sent his penalty into orbit, as Franco Baresi broke down in tears and members of the Brazilian backroom staff performed somersaults in gaudy shell suits that Paulie Walnuts would’ve considered beyond the pale, Brazil’s 17-year-old reserve striker walked up the steps to get his hands on World Cup. “And there’s the number 20, the wonderkid Ronaldo,” said the American commentator. “We haven’t seen him, but they say he’s a special one.”
Think of any great South American talent and their childhoods are often seen as fuel for their inexorable rise. Luis Suárez playing in a sewer-lined gap next to a prison, Maradona bouncing a ball on his head on a patch of rutted dirt, Garrincha crippled by rickets and losing his virginity to a goat. Whether true or apocryphal, these tales stoke the need for a certain type of poverty tourism in the minds of Western football fans and journalists who, basically, lament the fact that you can’t find the next Bobby Charlton, living on a diet of mouldy bread and coal, playing one-and-in against a stinking outside toilet.
Ronaldo’s story has often been burnished to fit this narrative. Yet despite acknowledging that he saw the effects of poverty first hand, he came from a loving family where both parents worked, and there was mostly enough food to pass around. Sure, he gave his mum his first pay packet so that she could reupholster the sofa that had been his childhood bed, and his dad climbed to the top of a hill to listen to that debut match for Cruzeiro on a long wave radio, but he wasn’t the ragged favela kid that some reports would have you believe. Not that it makes his early exploits any less remarkable.
In the 14 months that preceded USA 1994, Ronaldo had bludgeoned 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro. Watch them back now, and they are a beautiful portrait of the artist as a young man. Skinny, shaven-headed, and with the gait of a child wearing his mum’s high heels, he turns brutish Brazilian defences to dust with sheer brilliance and desire. Towering headers, first-time finishes, stepovers followed by screamers – they’re all there. But there are two in particular that serve notice of what was to come.
On November 7, 1993, Ronaldo exploded into the public consciousness by scoring five goals in a 6-0 win against Bahia. If the first four – a brace of penalties bookending a shimmy and finish and a towering header – show that he was well on his way to being the complete striker, then the fifth encapsulates his fun side. After the ball goes dead in the box, the Bahia keeper starts messing around and taunting the Cruzeiro fans. Caught up in his role as pantomime villain, he lets go of the ball for a split second. Ronaldo, lurking, reacts before the keeper can reclaim it, accelerates past him, taps it into the net, and runs off pissing himself laughing.
Think of all the difficult places you found yourself in at age 17: getting scowled at by your girlfriend’s dad over egg and chips, buying a bag of twigs off a nutter with his name tattooed on his knuckles via a school compass and a broken biro, heading to the back of Kwik Save for a fight you don’t want but definitely have to engage in to save face. None of them can compare to a Copa Libertadores tie against Boca fucking Juniors.
In the reverse fixture at La Bombonera three weeks previously, Ronaldo had the shit kicked out of him by César Luis Menotti’s Boca team. Popping up in the deep and wide attacking positions that would become his trademark, he taunted and traumatised defenders into several acts of classic South American thuggery. He wouldn’t have to wait long for his revenge.
Early in the second half, on April 6, 1994, Ronaldo received a ball 50 yards from the Boca goal. After taking a touch, he drives at one defender and leaves him trailing, beats two more Boca players with an inside-chop before turning on the afterburners to leave the last man floundering. Composing himself, he gives the keeper the eyes, sits him down with a roll of his studs, and buries the ball into the bottom corner with his left foot. Less than ten seconds from start to finish, it was a goal that we would see countless times in his career. It was also one that lit the touchpaper of a national campaign to have him included in the 1994 World Cup squad and had European scouts scurrying home to deliver gushing reports to the men in shite coats.
Had Ronaldo played in the 1994 World Cup, it’s likely we’d be talking about an entirely different career. Alex Ferguson recently revealed that he was a whisker away from bringing him to Old Trafford, only to be scuppered by draconian work permit stipulations. Imagine the state of that team with Ronaldo in it: fed by Giggs and Cantona and backed up by a snarling central midfield, he would’ve turned the Premier League’s band of shitkickers to mince and consigned Alan Shearer to a life of cliché on late-night Eurosport.
Louis van Gaal also thought he’d got his man, salivating at the prospect of alternating Ronaldo with Patrick Kluivert and Kanu at Ajax and sending him dizzy with obtuse tactical instructions. Yet acting on the advice of Romário, Ronaldo chose to move to PSV Eindhoven for a fee of £3.83m, which was not only the same price as Liverpool spunked on Phil Babb that summer, but also one that made him a very rich man when he trousered a 15% cut.
Despite the 5-4 scoreline, the UEFA Cup tie between Bayer Leverkusen v PSV played on September 13, 1994, is hardly remembered as a classic, but he didn’t disappoint. It was the first time the wider European public had got to see him over 90 minutes.
“The Ronaldo show started, and he scored three goals,” remembers Frank Arnesen, then PSV’s Technical Director. “But it wasn’t about the goals even; there was one detail in the game that was incredible. He received the ball in his own half. The ball is played to him, and the German right back assaults him from behind in a dangerous way. He lifts the ball with the outside of his left shoe, around the defender, and jumps. Ronaldo passes him by on the other side and starts a solo. He moves past three or four men, one man two times. Then all of Europe knew about Ronaldo.”
Watch the game now, and it is a performance that no teenager, especially one only a month into his career in Europe and still deaf to the instructions of his teammates, had any right to give. The pick of the hat-trick was undoubtedly his second goal: a quivering belter hit from 30 yards that screams into the top corner and leaves the Leverkusen keeper, Rüdiger Vollborn, shaking his Friar Tuck haircut in absolute disbelief.
The wobbled heads, twitching arseholes, and broken souls of opposition defenders were a common sight that season as Ronaldo finished with 35 goals in 36 games in all competitions. One of his most memorable performances, though, came in a game where he failed to score entirely, and PSV were battered 4-1 at home by the Ajax team he turned down.
Van der Sar, Reiziger, Blind, Rijkaard and de Boer rank up there with history’s very best club defences. Unlikely to win any beauty contests, they marshalled that Ajax team to an unbeaten league season, and though records state that they shut out Ronaldo on his home turf, the footage shows four world stars being legged all over the show by a whirling dervish in red and white.
Sensing early on in the game that he’s got the beating of Michael Reiziger, there’s something of the hungry lion stalking a runt antelope in the way he continues to drift towards the left wing position. Reiziger was a fine right back, yet by the time he’s been nutmegged twice, turned inside out on numerous occasions and left flummoxed by a peach of a body swerve; he resembled a sad clown slumped in his van after a particularly testing birthday party.
No one is spared the treatment: he makes Rijkaard look like a reversing tanker on at least two occasions, leaves de Boer in a flustered sweat, and causes Edgar Davids to gurn like a man feeding the pigeons in Amsterdam’s lairiest techno club. Only a display of world-class goalkeeping from Big Edwin and some frankly blinkered refereeing stop him from crowning this 90-minute bloodletting with a goal.
For various reasons, Ronaldo’s second season at PSV was less successful. Although he still managed 19 goals in 21 games and won the Dutch Cup, he ran into strife with the authoritarian Dick Advocaat for an alleged lack of discipline on the training field, and, more importantly in the arc of his career, suffered the first serious injury to his right knee.
These days, thumbs-up Instagram footage of footballers recovering from injuries all takes place in the same pristine club gyms filled with rows and rows of identikit equipment. This was the 90s, however, and watching Ronaldo do a passable impression of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV in what appears to be someone’s living room serves as a stark reminder of how much the game has changed in the ensuing two decades. Interviewed after a gruelling set of leg weights, Ronaldo delivered a quote that not only highlights his love for the game but also hints at the depths he must have constantly sunk to in the injury-ravaged middle years of his career.
“I need football; I need to score,” he says with the pleading eyes of a cow about to feel the death kiss of a bolt gun. “Football for me is… my life. If I can not do this then, then…” He finishes by mumbling something about it being terrible, but the furrowed brow and forlorn expression point to something far deeper.
Thankfully, he returned to full health to make a handful of appearances before the season ended. By now, though, he wasn’t the rookie who had joined PSV through the back door and set the Eredivisie ablaze, he was the most sought-after striker in European football, not only for his gifts but also for his star quality and huge marketing appeal.
It soon became clear that, despite saying he wanted to stay another year at PSV to repay them for sticking by him after his injury, Ronaldo would be joining one of Europe’s top clubs.
Some years after Tyson’s heyday, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates waxed lyrical about the young Iron Mike in the New York Review of Books. “To see Tyson’s early fights, both amateur and professional, is to see young boxers stalked, cornered, and swiftly beaten into submission by a younger boxer. To see these fights in quick succession, the shared incredulity of the boxers who have found themselves in the ring with the relatively short, short-armed Tyson, their disbelief and astonishment at the sheer force of their opponent as he swarms upon them is to witness a kind of Theatre of the Absurd.”
Ronaldo’s season at Barcelona ran along similar lines. Now weighing 12 and a half stone and fitter than a gypsy’s whippet, Ronaldo spent a year making every opponent and team he faced look like relics. These men were meant to be his peers, yet they appeared out of time; physically inferior without a hope of stopping him. If you watch the highlight reels, you’ll instantly be drawn to the ridiculous footwork and incredible acceleration that he uses to leave them floundering. Look again, and you’ll see that he’s turned up to a knife fight driving a fucking tank.
Swarming in packs they charge, grab, kick, and push to no avail. With granite thighs and torso allied to his fast-twitch athleticism, they simply didn’t stand a chance. Defenders bounced off him like bumper cars at a fair, scattering in his wake as he repelled them with hip, forearm and elbow, physicality bristling from every part of his body. A Theatre of the Absurd played out three times a week, ninety minutes a pop, across Spain and mainland Europe.
On June 27, 1988, Mike Tyson fought the undefeated Michael Spinks, holder of the Ring MagazineHeavyweight title who was tipped by Muhammad Ali and plenty of others to relieve Tyson of his three heavyweight belts. From the moment Tyson walks to the ring, stripped to only his shorts and accompanied by what he later described as ‘funeral music’, it’s clear there is only going to be one winner. He annihilated Spinks in 91 seconds. He destroyed a man who had never been to the canvas with a minute and a half of devastating punching that Spinks later confessed ‘paralysed him’.
Six and a half years later, at Compostela’s San Lázaro Stadium, Ronaldo had his Spinks moment.
It’s a goal that has been replayed millions of times: one that Nike used in an advert with the tagline “What if you asked God to be the best footballer in the world… And he listened?” – one that no matter how many times you watch it, leaves you breathless. The first defender had three wild kicks at him and grabbed his shirt. Fighting him off with arse and forearm, he sent the second for some churros by stepping on the ball, taking two swift touches and accelerating away to goal; if you paused it there, it’s the best of Ronaldo in a microcosm. That he finally scored after running from the halfway line at Olympic pace and cutting inside two defenders, rifling home as he fell over, almost doesn’t matter. “He is not a man,” said Real Madrid legend Jorge Valdano. “He is a herd.”
It was a goal so magnificent that Bobby Robson, a football man of such purity that his socks were probably arranged in formation, leapt from the dugout, hopped around his technical area performed what can only be described as a proto-Mobot with colour draining from his face. Finally calming down, he forced his hands deep into the pockets of his charcoal grey blazer and staggered back to his seat.
“Ronaldo?” said José Mourinho, also in the dugout that day. “The best I have seen with my eyes.”
By the time Ronaldo joined his Brazil teammates in Bolivia for the 1997 Copa América, he had already scored 20 goals for the Seleção at U23 and senior level since making his debut in a friendly against Argentina in 1994. Taking his Barcelona form to Bolivia, he was the outstanding player in the tournament as Brazil lifted their fifth trophy, and it was what he did in the final against the hosts that proved he was ready to become Brazil’s undisputed leader.
After 78 minutes of being kicked to kingdom come and with the score resting at one apiece, Ronaldo dropped off the centre half. Cushioning the ball onto Denílson’s left foot, he hit the space that the defender had haplessly vacated, received the return pass and leathered a murderous left-footed half volley from the 18-yard line into the top corner. As the commentator nearly swallowed his tongue, Ronaldo just sauntered off with outstretched arms, soaring like a phoenix as his megawatt grin lit up the stadium.
There are many differing accounts of exactly why Ronaldo left Barcelona after that tournament. Some say his agents had asked to renegotiate his contract after the goal at Compostela and the Barcelona board refused, others said that his agents pulled out of negotiations when they heard Inter were going to double his wages. Whatever the reason, after 47 goals in 49 appearances and a Cup Winners Cup victory, Inter paid his buyout clause and signed the FIFA World Player of the Year for a snip at £19m.
On Sunday, March 22, 1998, Ronaldo scored his 17th Serie A goal of the season in the Derby della Madonnina against AC Milan at the San Siro. After 75 minutes of running Desailly, Maldini, and Donadoni ragged (and showing Patrick Kluivert and George Weah who was the real swinging dick) in what was then the finest league in the world, he pounced. His teammate, Francesco Moriero, received the ball in the outside right position. Taking it on his back foot with a glance forward, he saw that Ronaldo was already on his bike towards goal with only Marcel Desailly and Ibrahim Ba for company.
Moriero’s pass was an absolute peach: it bent around Desailly and reared up at the back post just outside the six-yard box, but the trajectory meant that Ronaldo still had a lot to do to turn it into a goal. In the split second where it looks like Ba might stop him, he leapt into a full karate kick and volleyed it with the outside of his foot, while in mid-air, over the onrushing Sebastiano Rossi. It was preposterous.
It somehow came as no surprise, though. He’d been at it from the word go in Italy, and if his season at Barca was all about taking advantage of the large amounts of space afforded to him by embarrassed Spanish defenders, then it was at Inter that he became truly unstoppable. Operating in tighter spaces, against teams who sat back and tried to negate his pace, and defenders who would prefer to be castrated on live television than to be seen giving up, Ronaldo opened up a box of tricks he’d filled on the futsal courts of Rio to ensure he stayed three steps ahead of the rest.
He scored every kind of goal there is that season. The most important of his 34 being the beauty in the UEFA Cup final. Haring onto a diagonal through ball, he did that trick where he appears to be pedalling a bicycle, dumped the keeper, Luca Marchegiani, on his arse and rolled the ball into an empty net. Never in history has a player so often treated the man in the net as the 11th defender, to be embarrassed rather than being beaten with brute force.
Sandro Mazzola, who notched over 300 goals for Inter in the 60s and 70s, winning two European Cups and four Serie A titles along the way, was a fully paid-up member of the fan club. “If Ronaldo decided to score, there was nothing you could do to stop him,” he later said about that season. “He would do it in so many different ways, and sooner or later, just as an opponent thought they had him under control he would explode and score. He could not be marked on the pitch.”
Yet it was his all-round play that should be feted. There’s a video on YouTube called ‘Ronaldo Brazil Impossible Technique and Dribbling Ever’. As snappy titles go, it probably needs a bit of work, but the content is 15 minutes of absolute fire. Nutmegs and eásticos, stepovers and drag backs, all elicit a head shake as a 21-year-old—one with the weight of the world on his shoulders—revels in the simple glory of football in its purest form.
His season in bel paese behind him, Ronaldo rocked up at the 1998 World Cup as the finest player in the world. Delivering a handful of bravura performances littered with goals, he dragged Brazil to the final ready to cement his growing legacy. When future generations look back, all that will be remembered is his seizure on the morning of the game – a seizure that resulted in him being left out of the starting line-up. The archives will state that he then reappeared on the team sheet not long before kick-off and proceeded to play like, well, a man who had a fit 12 hours earlier. Factually correct? Certainly. Missing the bigger picture? Absolutely.
When a star reaches critical mass, it explodes with a cataclysmic bang that can briefly outshine entire galaxies. And if Ronaldo’s marketability had been on the burn since his move to PSV, it went fully supernova in the summer of ‘98. The super-light R9 Mercurials were released to a fanfare that forever shifted the paradigms of boot launches and designs, his buck-toothed smile adorned billboards and buses, and amateur players marched like worker ants to grab a slice of the man who had recently been christened “Il Fenomeno” by the Italian Press.
Plastic bags, fizzy drink bottles, playing cards – his image could be found everywhere. Yet it was a three-minute TV spot that turned him into a global idol.
Ronaldo had already featured in several iconic adverts by the time France 1998 came around, yet all of them were knocked into a cocked hat by the commercial that dominated airspace in the run-up to the tournament. Set to the glorious Mas Que Nada by the Tamba Trio and starring Ronaldo, Romário, Roberto Carlos and Denílson, it is a triumph of creative simplicity. “I know,” someone probably said in a room full of whiteboards. “Let’s just have them kicking the ball around in an airport and use an ace song, yeah?”
It’s never been bettered.
Clad in some tremendous leisurewear, the Brazil squad have a kick around that breaches every security measure known to man. When a spot of head tennis on a travelator and the sight of Lucio going through an X-Ray machine fail to raise suspicion, Ronaldo sizes up a shot. In a moment of genius that instantly humanises his talent, he hits one of those silver queue posts before burying head in hands and grinning sheepishly. With those big old braces gleaming, you can pretty much hear the twang of knicker elastic and melting of hearts.
On the eve of the final, 24 hours before he became front page news, the French defence was filmed discussing how to stop Ronaldo. Manager Aimé Jacquet, in a world-class case of missing the point, does a really slow stepover and states how easy it should be to stop him because he feints the same way every time.
Mike Tyson once said that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” and as Jacquet starts to repeat his assertion in glorious slo-mo, Marcel Desailly stops him in his tracks. “He did it to me at Milan; I didn’t see the ball. Whether he goes right or left you don’t see the ball,” he squeals before waving his arms around like a maniac. “Where’s the ball? It is magic.”
“He stays there like that,” adds Thuram, gesturing to his planted feet and laughing. “You look down, and the ball is gone.”
There would be no laughing from Ronaldo. The reasons for both his convulsive fit and subsequent inclusion in the starting line-up have and been pored over, sensationalised and spoken about to such a point that retelling them is pointless. Yet the final makes painful watching. There he is, football’s anointed king, trundling around the Stade de France looking confused, lonely and like his ball has been punctured forever. It’s football’s JFK moment.
The Ronaldo of 1998/99 was a similarly forlorn figure. Every goal he’d scored before that season had been followed by a version of his Christ the Redeemer celebration. Due to a collection of niggling injuries and the inevitable hangover from his seizure, he could barely rouse himself to smile after scoring. Like the teddy bear your mum refused to chuck in the bin, his stuffing was starting to stretch at the seams. It wouldn’t be long before they spectacularly burst.
On November 21, 1999, Ronaldo ruptured the tendon in his right knee in a match against Lecce. Knee injuries are anathema to professional sportsmen and women, and there is a raft of studies that examine the psychological implications. Depression, anxiety, and overall poor mental health are high, and a holistic approach is recommended as the best route back to the pressures of professional sport.
In the Italy of 1999, it’s doubtful that holistic health was high on the agenda of club doctors. Five months after his injury, Ronaldo was back on the field for Inter in the first leg of the Coppa Italia final against Lazio.
Seven minutes into his comeback, Ronaldo received the ball and drove at the Lazio defence. You can’t help but think “He’s back”. He most definitely wasn’t. Feinting to the right, he planted his foot to push off towards a gap in between two defenders and collapsed. The image of him screaming as he grabbed his right knee and fell sideways hits you right in the chest, but continue past the pause and your guts will churn.
He howled in agony for a full minute while a hapless physio sprayed water on his knee. Iván Zamorano and Christian Panucci wore the faces of two men who have just witnessed a five-car pile-up, and Zamorano’s already ghostly pallor became transparent with the shock.
As Ronaldo was carried off down the tunnel, his screams echoed off the walls as walkie-talkies crackled and concerned men bellowed in Italian.
“Sometimes I look back, and I think about the operations when I was lying in a hospital bed, and blood was pouring from my knee. I think of that time, and the pain, and it gives me strength.”
Delivered on the eve of the 2002 World Cup final in Japan, it was a quote that many never thought they’d hear. Make no mistake about it, the knee injury that kept Ronaldo out for the best part of two seasons was meant to finish him.
It is hard to think of many sporting comebacks that rival a man with that knee – a knee that looks like a piece of lamb that has had a fight with a chainsaw – returning after spending the best part of two years out to score seven goals in the last ten league games. That he then had the brass bollocks to fight his way into a World Cup squad beggars belief.
I’m pretty sure you watched the 2002 World Cup. Whether you were a starry-eyed kid clutching a Panini album or an adult chained to the sofa for a month under a blanket of cans and crumbs, you’ll remember the goals. The flying kick volley in the opening group game against Turkey, the tap in against China, the assassin’s brace to slay Costa Rica.
You’ll remember him shifting through the gears in the knockout rounds, nutmegging the keeper with a first-time left-footer against Belgium and that ace slalom and toe-poke against Turkey in the semis. The artless toe poke, once the preserve of lumpen kids in cheap scuffed slip-ons, kids who got picked last and used the toe poke to try and obliterate your knackers, reclaimed as an art form in front of the world.
Of course, you haven’t forgotten the pair against Germany in the final. Finally breaking Oliver Kahn’s spirit on 69 minutes after Der Titan had repelled an endless yellow avalanche, then sweeping home when Kléberson (remember him, Old Trafford) and Rivaldo combined to set up a simple side-footer into the bottom corner. Eight goals in total that answered all the questions, stuck two fingers up to the doubters and proved that the king definitely hadn’t left the building.
What you might not remember, though, is what had changed about Ronaldo. Most obviously was his overall game. Gone were the bursts from the halfway line: this was the sustained performance of a man who had realised he couldn’t be the same, but also that he could still be just as effective if he just positioned himself further up the field and destroyed teams in the last thirty yards.
His celebration had also changed. The pre-1998 one was that of a man who totally believed in his talent. With a confident head nod and palms pushing towards the floor, it said: “Of course I’ve fucking got this, don’t worry.”
The semantics of his new celebration, though subtle to the naked eye, were markedly different. Running off in rapture with a double width smile, he opened his arms with palms pointing to the heavens as if he wants to give the world a big hug. “I can still do it,” it said. “I can still score the goals.”
Nine months after leaving Inter for €46m, Ronaldo and Real Madrid faced Athletic Bilbao at the Bernabéu, needing a win in the final match of the season to secure Los Blancos’ 29th La Liga title. Since scoring on his debut in September, the now three-time FIFA World Player of the Year had lit up La Liga. Despite the star names, this was a finely balanced Madrid side that had yet to go full Galactico. With Makélélé bossing things, Guti and McManaman flitting around and Raúl being Raúl, Ronaldo wreaked telepathic havoc with Zidane and scored 30 in 44 games.
The first of his league-winning brace that night is a beast. Luís Figo, all pomade and dipped shoulders, drove at the opposition right back before releasing the ball to Roberto Carlos. Overlapping at haste, powered by those worrying thighs, he drilled a cross across the box that took out the whole defence and left Ronaldo with a simple tap-in at the back post.
The second was all about beauty. With the clock showing 61 minutes and the fans dancing congas, Zinedine Zidane bisected the Bilbao rearguard with a perfect slide-rule pass. Timing, weight, accuracy – it had everything. Ronaldo, spinning the centre-half to beat the offside trap, scurried onto it and buried it with his right foot. Running to the corner flag with the same childlike joy he’d shown a decade earlier at Cruzeiro, he’s showered in thousands of white hankies and mobbed by his teammates.
That game, hat-trick at Old Trafford aside, was the apex of his career in triple white. Beckham joined that summer, the team became unbalanced, and they won jack shit until after he’d departed. Still, he scored over 100 goals for Madrid, and his bewitching presence on the ball and dead-eyed accuracy had a marked effect on a young tyro. “He was the best striker I have ever seen,” said Lionel Messi. “He could score from nothing and could finish better than anyone.”
It wasn’t only Messi who thought so.
Two years into his retirement, Zinedine Zidane was asked to name the best player he played with. Quick as a flash, he replies “Ronaldo.”
“Why?” enquires the interviewer.
“Why?” Zidane muses, nodding his head and smiling. “Because we very often see big players step up and perform in the biggest games and that’s what he did. But I was especially impressed with him in training. Every day I trained with him it would be different; I saw something new, something beautiful…”
Zlatan, Henry, Nesta, Ronaldinho, Maldini – pick a player who played with or against him, and they’ll all tell you that he was the best. It’s worth pausing to remember that as we follow him home.
Ronaldo’s year and a bit at AC Milan – who he joined six months after scoring the last of his 15 tournament goals at the 2006 World Cup in Germany – was far from beautiful.
There are, though, two standout moments that tell us a lot about Ronaldo the man. On Sunday, March 11, 2007, nearly nine years after that flying lob for Inter, Ronaldo led the line for AC Milan in an ‘away’ tie and in front of the supporters who had worshipped him. Before the game, an Inter supporters club handed out 33,000 whistles that were blown with hatred throughout. He didn’t care.
Forty minutes into a ragged affair, he received the ball in the same inside right position Moriero had assisted him from all those years ago. Hurtling towards goal as the noise reached a crescendo he hit a violent 25-yard bullet with his left foot that barely left the ground before whistling into the bottom corner. Off he ran, roaring in Portuguese before clasping his hands behind ears in defiance.
“As a great Brazilian writer, Nelson Rodrigues, once said, any unanimity is stupid,” he told the FIFA website in 2013. “I don’t worry about not pleasing a few people. As long as I made most of them happy.”
Happiness is a key emotion when understanding Ronaldo, and not just his own. Steve McManaman was one of his closest friends when they played in Madrid. “He just had this amazing aura where everyone wanted to join him,” he said in a BBC interview in 2011. “Sometimes there’d be 20 to 30 people sitting at meal times with him. He was a good friend of mine and a wonderful person. Everybody would second that, no matter what club he played for.”
One player who would definitely second that is Alexandre Pato. Ronaldo’s last goals in European football were a pair in a 5-2 win against Napoli in January 2008. Neither of them was anything to write home about, yet what was truly special was his treatment of Pato on his debut. After giving the youngster a couple of reassuring pats on the back at kick-off, Ronaldo, wearing 99 and sporting an unfamiliar curly barnet, spent the whole game trying to get Pato on the scoresheet; cajoling him to make runs and consoling him if something didn’t come off. When Pato finally found the back of the net, you’d be hard-pressed to decide who was happier with the outcome.
One month later his left knee exploded, and Milan decided not to renew his contract. Fourteen years after leaving Brazil for PSV, a decade and a half in which he made the continent shake with his exploits and was often considered sui generis, Ronaldo was going home.
In April 2009, almost a year to the day since Ronaldo had threatened to fight those prostitutes, he scored a pair of crackers against Santos to put Corinthians within spitting distance of the state title they eventually won.
A typically murderous finish and glorious 30-yard lob moved him to eight goals in the nine matches since his debut a month earlier. Brazil, predictably, went apeshit. Hollywood films about his revival were discussed, the country’s biggest rapper released a song about him, and a campaign to see him reinstated in the national team gathered pace. Even Lula, the country’s President, got in on the act. “I think that if he came back to the national side, it would be extraordinary,” he said. “I admire people who never give up.”
Charles Bukowski, the laureate of American low-life and a writer who examined the human condition better than most, once said: “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” He was talking about himself after a lifetime of penury, but he’d have surely recognised the bravery in how Ronaldo never once, in the face of suffering and ridicule, gave up on chasing his dream.
Every time the hammer of fate knocked him down, he came back smiling. Every time they told him his knees wouldn’t stand up he returned in a blaze of goals. He erased the biggest disappointment of his career by shaking up the world four years later, laughed in the face of critics who called him fat and continued to bind himself to supporters with a mutual joy formed by cast iron will and 18-carat talent. Ronaldo didn’t just walk through the fire; he ate it. “You have to die a few times before you can really live,” said Bukowski. With a hat-trick of figurative deaths to his name, Ronaldo would surely agree with the sentiment.
On Valentine’s Day 2011, the greatest striker of his generation called a press conference to announce his retirement. With his two sons sat next to him, it’s an emotional affair from start to finish. Thanking Corinthians for allowing him an Indian summer that saw him score 35 goals in 69 games and regain his self-worth, he is on the verge of tears for most of the interview before breaking down around the halfway mark.
He thanked the Brazil fans for ‘crying when he cried’, the teammates who loved him and opponents who kicked him, the managers who backed him, and everyone who ever criticised him “for making him stronger.”
“It’s very hard to leave something that made me so happy. Mentally, I wanted to continue, but I have to acknowledge that I lost to my body,” he says, choking on emotion. “My career was beautiful, wonderful and exciting. I had many defeats, infinite victories. I have made many friends, and I don’t remember making any enemies.”
And how could he make enemies? He might have crossed divides and embarrassed opponents, caused fans to boo and left defenders impotent, but there was nothing snide about Ronaldo. He did it all with a smile that erupted due to his simple love of kicking a ball around, and there is something to be learnt from that.
Mike Tyson, Charles Bukowski and Ronaldo are undoubtedly a peculiar triumvirate. Linking an iconic, destructive heavyweight champion who spectacularly combusted, a self-destructive alcoholic writer who preferred the company of society’s dregs, and a striker whose heart was buried by wounded knees could seem like gilding the lily if only the parallels weren’t so apparent.
Tyson, fuelled by a childhood that made The Wire look like Mary Poppins, set a standard for heavyweight boxing that lives on in the minds of impressionable fight fans who refuse to accept two lumps wrestling over 12 rounds of nothing. Bukowski, a man who drifted across post-war America working manual jobs and fighting in dive bars, hammered away at his typewriter to reach heights that more celebrated writers can only dream of. And Ronaldo, the kid who slept on a sofa and had his knees destroyed, picked himself up time and time again to deliver some of the finest moments in history and impress his peers beyond compare.
They’re joined by tragedy, linked by desire, and bound by excellence. Surely that’s enough?
In a footballing sense, Ronaldo’s legacy reaches far beyond the goals and trophies. It’s fat blokes in parks celebrating with arms outstretched, toe-poked finishes at 5-a-side, and finger-wagging at the dog after rifling his chewed tennis ball through a gap in the fence.
It’s advertising campaigns that turn players into gods. It’s funny coloured boots that weigh less than nothing and daft haircuts that your mates take the piss out of, but you love anyway.
It’s you and me in the pub shaking our heads at his genius. It’s dads telling their kids that they’d better not bloody call him “fat” again, and it’s remembering him in full flight and refusing to think ‘what if…?’.
It’s R9: the kid who harnessed his talent to become the player who lived out all of our dreams. It’s the man who looked fate in the eye and told it “Not today, sunshine”.
Phenomenal doesn’t even come close.This article originally featured as our Issue 4 cover story.
Stunning piece, had the absolute privellige of growing up with R9 lighting up the world, the greatest striker to ever live.
Absolutely LOVED this piece, best out and out striker of all time no question.
(title should read O Fenômeno though if we’re being strict with the Portuguese!)
Incredible piece. Oh the nostalgia. Bravo!
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