The 1996/97 season would be one of the greatest seasons of Ronaldo’s career, combing domestic success with international; goal scoring with nothing short of magic. He had been in scintillating form while at Cruzeiro and PSV, but his spell with the Catalan club was nothing short of breathtaking.
Ronaldo may have spent only one year in Spain, but he made his time count. He scored 47 goals in 49 appearances. He won the 1996 Supercopa de Espana, scoring a crucial brace in the first leg. He won the Copa del Rey, though didn’t play in the final, as well as a UEFA Cup Winners Cup in which a Ronaldo penalty won the silverware.
It didn’t take Ronaldo long to get off the mark in Spain. He grabbed 12 goals in his first 11 games, including a hat-trick against a strong Valencia side. One goal stands out from the rest, however…
In a game against SD Compostela, Ronaldo took advantage of two midfielders colliding with one another to gain possession in his own half. He had players pull his shirt, possibly in an attempt to take it home as some iconic memorabilia, though more likely it was a cynical attempt to bring him to the ground. They kicked at his ankles, yet still he retained the ball, refusing to go down. He pulled out a step-over and unleashed a devastating burst of pace to distance himself from his markers. He gets to the edge of the 18-yard box, outfoxes two defenders with a cutback and unleashes a fearsome shot, hard and low into the bottom left of the goal.
It was a goal that raised the roof. It got the so-often calm, cool and collected Bobby Robson, his manager at the time, off his seat in joyous celebration. The commentators’ comments say all you need to hear:
“That is world class! Absolute genius from the young Brazilian!”
This was one of the greatest goals to have ever been scored. It is up there with Maradona dancing around the English defenders years before, and similar to Lionel Messi’s mazy run and goal against Getafe some years after. The big difference was the sheer physicality of Ronaldo to make this happen. It is on Youtube and an absolute must watch.
It is somewhat shocking that Barcelona failed to win La Liga that season, and that is in part down to the fact that Ronaldo missed the title run-in. This wasn’t down to injury though, on the contrary, he was fit and in fine form… for Brazil!
Due to an anomaly, La Liga was made up of 22 teams that season, rather than 20, and as such, the season was extended to mid-June on account of it not being a World Cup or European Championship year. It was, however, the Copa America. Bolivia were the hosts in the summer of ’97 and Ronaldo was set to lead the line for Brazil.
Ronaldo scored five goals in Brazil’s run to the final, including two in his country’s 3-1 victory over the hosts. Scoring was simply what he did best. While he was living up to his nickname of the phenomenon, he was somehow not impressing everyone. Some were unhappy at his lack of assists and all-around team play, with Luis Enrique earning the Player Of The Year accolade for his side. Jose Mourinho, then assistant to Bobby Robson, questioned the player’s work rate, while the manager was unhappy to see Ronaldo pictured celebrating the Rio Carnival upon missing training.
It was no surprise that Ronaldo decided to leave Barcelona after only one season. He had played what would arguably be the greatest season of his career, yet he felt underappreciated by his teammates and coaches.
He may have been underappreciated by those in Barcelona, but the world was happy to lavish him with praise. He was awarded the World Player Of The Year title in 1996 at the age of just 20-years-old. This was based off his final months with PSV and the beginning of his Barcelona stint. This raised his price tag significantly and forced Inter Milan to pay almost double what Barca did for the forward.
€28 million was the fee paid by the Italian giants, though this was, unfortunately, money not well spent. The plan seemed full proof, they paid for the best player in the world, and at the end of his first season, this looked like a wonderful investment. Ronaldo had scored 34 goals in 47 appearances, not a bad haul given the stereotypically dogged Italian defending. But it was what happened afterwards that was a cause for concern.
Injuries had been lurking in the background for Ronaldo during his career, but it was at Inter that they rose their ugly head like never before, to a point where it looked like he may never be able to play again. From the second half of 1998 through to the next World Cup in 2002, Ronaldo was in a bad way. A recurring knee ligament tear ended up transforming his entire style of play, while the 1998 World Cup issue brought him back to earth, away from his immortal status.
The saddest part about this dark period of Ronaldo’s career is how good 1998 started for him. Following on from his Ballon D’or triumph for 1997, he continued scoring goals for fun, embarrassing defenders and goalkeepers alike. Inter finished 2nd in Serie A and won the UEFA Cup, beating Lazio 3-0 in the final with The Phenomenon scoring the final goal. This goal was the stuff of beauty, it was peak Ronaldo. He received a pass into space, running the length of the half to the edge of the penalty box. Out rushed Lazio goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani to try and stop the unstoppable Brazilian. In one seamless shimmy, the striker had rounded Marchegiani and put the ball in the net to seal the victory.
The UEFA Cup final was played in the Park des Princes, Paris, and was the perfect segway for Ronaldo to waltz into the World Cup a month later. Everybody remembers the final, those masterclass performances from France, and the images of Ronaldo ghosting through the game that he was clearly not fit to play in. But this narrative seems to have left out the fact that for the majority of that tournament, Ronaldo was the focal point of an utterly dominant Brazil team.
In his second ever World Cup game, Ronaldo got his first World Cup goal. Rivaldo pinged a one-touch pass over the Moroccan defence to number nine. He positioned his body to judge the bounce of the ball before unleashing a venomous shot past Driss Benzekri in the Moroccan goal.
Ronaldo’s next game saw Brazil suffer a disappointing loss to Norway, though the Samba Boys still managed to top the group and set up a tie against fellow South Americans Chile. Brazil rushed to a 2-0 lead early on. Ronaldo, late in the second half, attempted his usual trick, rounding the goalkeeper. Nelson Tapia, the Chile goalkeeper, brought down the powerful striker in the box, then moments later had to pick the ball out of his net after Ronaldo dispatched the subsequent penalty. His second goal of the day capped off a 4-1 victory. He beat the offside trap to slot past Tapia with ease to take his World Cup tally up to three goals.
Denmark were next up for Brazil, with the Europeans giving Brazil a real tough test in the quarter-final. Ronaldo failed to get on the score sheet in this 3-2 victory, yet he was a crucial player. He set up two goals. Both were deep through-balls into space, first for Bebato, then Rivaldo, to score Brazil’s first two goals. Ronaldo was proving to the world that he was the ultimate attacker. When he wasn’t in the box he could still play a pass as good as anyone in the world.
In the Semi-Final against the Netherlands in the Stade Velodrome, Marseille, Ronaldo broke the deadlock moments after half-time. He received a cross from deep, outmuscled the defender harrying him and calmly tucked the ball between the legs of Edwin van der Sar as if he wasn’t even there. With the game tied at one goal apiece after 120, it went to penalties. Ronaldo stepped up, scoring the first penalty to lessen the pressure on his team. It was a powerful penalty to his left and showed real strength of character to bury it with such conviction.
The final, as we all know, didn’t go the way that many anticipated. The French team bullied Brazil, pummelling them for periods of the game, then sitting back, relying on their defence to soak up the pressure and start the counter attacks. Ronaldo shouldn’t have started the game after suffering a seizure the night before. He probably shouldn’t have been in the stadium, yet he played. He just didn’t play well.
The fact that Ronaldo suffered this seizure, something that was comparable to a panic attack of epic magnitude, really was no surprise. The man was 21-years-old and he was a global icon. He had grown up in as normal a scenario as one would imagine. He went to school, he played football and he built on this foundation. He wanted to be a professional player, but he didn’t ask for the fame that this brought on.
What are your memories of being 21? Racing against the clock to try and get your university dissertation in? Trying to convince your boss to give you more hours so you could afford rent this month? Well, Ronaldo had to deal with seeing his image everywhere; on billboards, buses, and bottles. He couldn’t so much as sneeze without the media turning it into a breaking news story. By the time the World Cup final came around he simply hit a breaking point, it was no wonder it hadn’t happened sooner.
It would be a huge discredit to France to say that a fit and focused Ronaldo would have seen a different result, yet it is hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have at least caused France more trouble. He was lacklustre; he was lost. The man usually played with the joy of a puppy being let off the leash, but the pressure crushing down on Ronaldo broke him mentally. It was painful to watch and was evidently sapping the energy from his teammates. The biggest shame of the situation is that this is people’s overriding memory of Ronaldo from this tournament, a tournament where he was the poster boy and duly delivered in the bulk of his games.
He was awarded the player of the tournament in France ’98 and after a period of downtime following the World Cup was back to work at Internazionale. It was a bizarre season to watch Ronaldo. He was still prolific, scoring 14 goals in 19 games, but things were obviously not right with the Brazilian. He was scoring, but he often had the appearance that he did in the World Cup Final – he had lost his way.
Ronaldo-fever was at the point of hysteria in the summer of 1998 and it appeared that he didn’t relish being so famous. He had risen above being a footballer, he was a global icon, he was a brand. If NIKE could have tattooed a large swoosh across his forehead then they almost certainly would have. He was missing games too, little injuries hampering his progress and as such his season never really got going.
In November 1999 disaster struck. Ronaldo ruptured a tendon in his right knee in a match against Lecce. This was painful to watch, and no doubt rather sore to experience too! The great Ronaldo was wrecked, his knee was a car crash and his season looked to be over. It might have been better had his season really been over. If he’d been given the next six months off, plus a couple of months in the summer without international football, then perhaps he could have made a full recovery. Unfortunately, Ronaldo was not afforded this “luxury”.
Just five short months after suffering what should have been a season-ending knee injury in November 1999, Ronaldo was back on the field. The Inter Milan doctors had worked their magic to “fix” his knee. I say fix, really it appeared to have been the medical equivalent of banging your fist on a jigsaw puzzle piece that doesn’t naturally fit yet looks like it should if you squint a little… Ronaldo was on the pitch, but he was not back.
His comeback was in a match against Lazio. The cautious fan hoped to see Ronaldo simply get through the match, the more optimistic supporter prayed that he’d play against the side from Rome the way he did in the UEFA Cup final prior to the World Cup. With seven minutes gone in the game, Ronaldo picked up the ball and drove towards goal. As he picked up pace the crowd inhaled in anticipation. Their messiah was back. Only he wasn’t.
He turned one direction; his knee didn’t. He fell to the ground in agony, tears pouring down his face, his screams piercing the silence that had befallen the stadium. Forget Bambie’s Mum, forget Mufasa’s tragic trampling and forget that heart-wrenching moment when Tom Hanks loses Wilson. There is no moment in any movie as sad as the sight of the once joyful phenomenon lying on the stretcher being carried off the field in unfathomable anguish. The sound of his scream as he is carried off the field and into the changing room is painful to listen to.
Could this be the end of his career? Players had suffered knee injuries before, and have done since, but this looked different. This was a player that had been dealing with niggling injuries for years.
He had suffered a horrendous knee injury earlier in the year and had been rushed back so quickly that it was akin to a parent trying to fix their child’s favourite toy, hoping the kid wouldn’t notice the duct tape and still wet glue fruitlessly holding it together.
The more astute fan had noticed that Ronaldo seemed to have lost his love for the game since the bizarreness of the World Cup final. With his knee in such a state, and his mental health obviously stretched as far as it could cope, could the world’s greatest striker be on the verge of giving up the game?