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Ronaldo. What does this mean to you?

If you are thinking of the pretty-boy Portuguese mirror addict then you can go ahead and put your device down now. This article isn’t for you.

If, however, you thought of the Brazilian striker, the World Cup winner, O Fenômeno, The Phenomenon himself, then keep on reading. If you have ever referred to him as “fat Ronaldo” or “other Ronaldo“, then again, please, with all due respect, see yourself out. You see, I am not writing this to try and convince you of the greatness of Ronaldo. Nor am I here to try and get into some inane debate over whether Ronaldo or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player. Ronaldo was an unfathomably wonderful player.

On his day he could strike fear into the heart of even the greatest defenders. He wasn’t simply one of the best Brazilian players, nor was he just one of the best players around the turn of the century. Ronaldo was one of the greatest players to have graced the game of football, arguably the greatest. I have no desire to debate how good he is to anybody that uses mind-numbing expressions such as “Cristiano Ronaldo is the GOAT.” This is a full-on Ronaldo love-in.

Ronaldo-fever hit breaking point in the summer of 1998. We all know the story, to a point. Brazil coast through the World Cup with ease, booking their place in the final against hosts, France. A video emerged of French coach Aime Jacquet and a number of the starting defenders for Les Blues. They are asked by Jacquet “so, how do we stop Ronaldo?” The response? Laughter. Lilian Thuram jokes that there is no way; that you see him perform a step over and then like magic, Ronaldo, and the ball, are gone. Ronaldo was the poster boy to the tournament, it was his destiny to win football’s biggest prize. His destiny was not to be fulfilled in 1998 however. On the eve of the World Cup final, disaster struck.

It wasn’t his knees, which would inflict so much trauma upon him over his career. In fact, nobody really knows what the disaster was. On the eve of the 1998 FIFA World Cup final, Ronaldo suffered a seizure. Just an hour prior to the final and news broke that Ronaldo had been left out of the starting XI, much to the shock of the world. Half an hour later, in one of the biggest U-turns in world sport, Ronaldo was back in the lineup, supposedly fit to play. The following 90 minutes showed that he was clearly anything but fit. His body may have been on the pitch, but his mind wasn’t.

He was likened to a sleepwalker, walking through a game like he was in a trance. His teammate and international roommate Roberto Carlos said that Ronaldo had been an emotional wreck the night before, crushed under the pressure of the world. He suffered a seizure, he wasn’t sleeping and he was violently sick. Not only was Ronaldo unwell, but this surely had an adverse effect on his teammates who were evidently worried about their talisman. The 3-0 defeat to France was a shock to anyone who saw the score without the prelude.

So why was there so much pressure on Ronaldo? He was one of the best in the world, he routinely had defenders in his pocket and playing in Serie A meant that he was regularly playing against meaner defences than those that he played in the early stages of the World Cup. He was good, and he knew it. But the World Cup, the Pele comparisons, the attention of the planet all waiting in anticipation to see what the Brazilian could do, it was simply too much. He was arguably the most well-known sportsman on the planet. Oh, and he was 21 years old. 21.

There was, believe it or not, a time when Ronaldo wasn’t this famous. Once upon a time, he was just a kid on the streets of Brazil. Unlike the usual narrative of Brazilian footballers, the Ronaldo story isn’t one of rags to riches. He wasn’t on the street begging. He isn’t from the favelas. His parents didn’t suffer from extreme poverty. He lived in a nice house,
though his parents did separate when he was 11 years old. By the time he was 12, he had dropped out of school altogether. His mother was furious. Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima was focused.

He was a highly gifted futsal player, attributing this as the reason that he was so great. He was a big, strong boy growing up, and was able to hone his technique by mastering the art of futsal; the quick give-and-go’s, the short bursts of pace, the fast thinking nature of the game. These skills got him through the cage battles and street soccer games and were
replicated through his career time and time again. As a boy Ronaldo would be playing to emulate his heroes at the time, beating a defender and hitting it through the faux-goalpost jumpers, pretending he was Pele. A decade later and the local Rio kids would be doing the same thing, only it would be Ronaldo who they pretended to be.

Soon enough Ronaldo was off the street and onto the football pitch, lining up for Cruzeiro. He made his debut as a 16-year-old, going on to make 47 appearances for the Brazilian side, scoring an astounding 44 goals in that period. He helped Cruzeiro win their first Brazilian Cup Championship in 1993 and in doing so booked himself a place in Brazil’s squad for the 1994 World Cup in America.

What made Ronaldo so special wasn’t just his stupendous goal record for Cruzeiro, it was the variety of finishes that marvelled those who saw The Phenomenon play. He wasn’t a pace merchant, nor was he merely a target man. Ronaldo was the full package. Thunderbolt strikes, deft chips, glancing headers, penalties, cheeky drags round the goalkeeper, first-time reaction hits. Ronaldo knew where the goal was and found an array of ways to do so.

Above all though, Ronaldo was intelligent – one of the few traits that simply cannot be taught. It separates the good players from the great. In a match against Bahia in November 1993, Cruzeiro triumphed 6-0. Five of these six goals came courtesy of Ronaldo. Two penalties and two traditional strikes made up the majority of his goals, but it was the fifth that showcased his smarts. The Bahia goalkeeper made a save, proceeding to play up to the crowd who had been giving him hell all afternoon. He placed the ball in front of him as he lay on the ground, grimacing, playing up to his role of pantomime villain. Ronaldo, quick as a whip, dispossessed the goalkeeper to nab his fifth of the day. Was it a great act of sportsmanship? No. Did he care? Not even slightly.

It was a no-brainer to include Ronaldo in the squad for the 1994 World Cup. He had that special trait that every coach wishes upon their centre-forward – a natural finishing ability. In spite of his raw talent, Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira opted to stick with his experienced stars, with Ronaldo failing to amass a single minute of play. This may seem
crazy in retrospect; however, it is hard to argue given the fact that Brazil did win the World Cup that summer.

As the celebrations began in Pasadena following Brazil’s penalty shootout victory over Italy the camera panned over the victors: Romario, Cafu, Bebeto, Tarrafel and so on, each player getting a second of screen time. When the camera passed over Ronaldo, the American commentator said “and there’s the number 20, the wonderkid Ronaldo. We haven’t seen him, but they say he’s a special one.” The commentator certainly did not lie…

Despite his age and the fact that he had only completed one full season in his homeland, Europe beckoned for the rising star. Rumours were rife over where the young forward would go, however it would appear that a month with his Brazil teammates had helped pave the way forward. Romario, a star for PSV Eindhoven in the late 80’s and early 90’s, sold Ronaldo on the Dutch side. In July 1994 his move to the Netherlands was confirmed.

There was a worry that buying Ronaldo so young with so little experience would backfire, that he may be an expensive flop. €5 million was a large investment back in 1994 and there was a justifiable concern that Ronaldo might struggle against the supposedly tougher league. Two years, 57 games and a staggering 54 goals later and PSV felt like they had done the deal of the century.

Ronaldo was averaging just under a goal a game in the Eredivisie, laughing in the face of those who predicted that he may struggle to adapt to European football. Ronaldo, as was a theme of his career, defied expectation. He averaged over a goal a game in his two seasons in Holland. In his second season, PSV played a Bayern Leverkusen side which saw O Fenômeno grab a hat-trick. He received high praise from Leverkusen striker Rudi Voller, who claimed that he had never before seen someone of Ronaldo’s age play in such a way.

The praise continued to be lavished upon Ronaldo. In his second year with the Dutch outfit, another striker was signed; a young Icelandic man named Eidur Gudjohnsen. He was two years younger than the then 19-year-old Ronaldo, but he was astounded by the physical stature in the Brazilian. He said that Ronaldo could do things at full speed that he couldn’t
even do at walking pace, as well as stating that he didn’t think he’d be the player he turned out to be without playing alongside the Brazilian for a year.

His final year in the Netherlands saw a Johan Cruijff-Schaal and a KNVB Cup added to his Cruzeiro accolades and his World Cup medal. Things were not going as well for Ronaldo in his second season, despite the addition of silverware. He had fallen out with his manager Dick Advocaat on account of his desire to party and his occasional lackadaisical training
sessions. It was also in this season where he suffered his first real knee injury, an issue which would plague him throughout his career.

Due to Ronaldo’s incredible scoring record and dazzling displays he truly had his pick of clubs to choose from. In the end, after a couple of years in the turbulent weather of the Netherlands, the player opted to move to Spain, in an attempt to feel more at home in a warmer climate. This cost Barcelona €15 million a world record transfer fee back then, although they would do incredibly well out of this transfer. The player would score almost 50 goals in his one year with the Catalonian side, before being sold for nearly double what they paid for him.