Ronaldo was called up to the Brazil squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It was being said in whispers by many, it felt sacrilegious to say, but Ronaldo wasn’t an elite player any more. He had World Cup experience and a great goal rate, but the last year at Real Madrid had been somewhat disappointing and the striker looked…bigger. While he may not have been the phenomenon that he was in 1998 and 2002, the prospect of playing a Brazil side starring a front four of Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaka was truly frightening.
While he was goal shy in Brazil’s opening two games, Ronaldo showed that he still had it against Japan in the final group game. He opened Brazil’s scoring with a well-timed header and then, with the game won at 3-1, he scored a thunderbolt from outside the area to make it 4-1. This didn’t just guarantee Brazil’s topping of their group. This equalled the all-time World Cup scoring record, set by West Germany’s Gerd Müller. Both strikers had 14 goals to their name.
Five minutes into the round of 16 tie against Ghana and Ronaldo opened the scoring, set a world record by becoming the highest scoring player in the FIFA World Cup AND scored his final Brazil goal. He latched on to a pass from Kaka, rolling back the years to round the Ghanaian goalkeeper to tee up a simple tap in.
The quarter-final saw them lose out to a France team who were growing into the tournament after a fairly disappointing beginning. Ronaldo and co went into the 2006 World Cup as favourites and crashed out early, the first time that they hadn’t made the final since before Ronaldo was a Brazilian squad player. This was Ronaldo’s last ever competitive game for Brazil, though he would go on to play for the national team once more. This wouldn’t be for five years, however.
The 2006/07 season started with a great deal of optimism for Real Madrid. They had a new coach in the form of legendary Italian manager Fabio Capello. He was a genius, though he was an abrasive character.
Ronaldo was one of the first players to experience the wrath of Mr Capello. He asked Ronaldo how much he weighed. The answer, 96 kilos. Capello then asked how much he weighed when the striker won the World Cup in 2002. The answer was 84 kilos. The manager then asked the player if he could drop down to 90 kilos, a compromise of sorts. Ronaldo didn’t. He couldn’t.
This was the end for Real Madrid. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jose Reyes were signed up top and Ronaldo found his playing time limited. He left in January, having scored four goals in 13 games. His overall record at Real Madrid is on another level. In 177 games the striker scored 104 goals. This was an unbelievable accomplishment considering he only won the
title once in his time in Madrid (though he did get a winners medal as Capello won Real Madrid the title in 2006/07).
The weight fallout was the main reason that Ronaldo was forced out of Real Madrid, with Capello one of many who believed that the forward was too heavy to play at the elite level anymore. It came out years later that this wasn’t the fault of Ronaldo at all. He wasn’t a compulsive eater, nor was he a lazy trainer. The real reason that Ronaldo was gaining weight was that he had hypothyroidism – a condition that has side effects such as fatigue, depression and weight gain.
For several years after his Real Madrid departure, he was cruelly labelled “fat Ronaldo” by lazy journalists and many an armchair fan, particularly as this was round about the time when Cristiano Ronaldo was raising his game to astronomical levels.
The shamefully dubbed “fat Ronaldo” once again got branded as a traitor for his next move. Nine and a half years after becoming the most expensive player in the world by signing for Inter Milan, Ronaldo joined AC Milan for a modest fee of around €8 million. He joined an already stacked forward roster at Milan that included Pippo Inzaghi, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Borriello – the competition was tough. The legendary Ronaldo was no longer the star attraction. He wasn’t even a guaranteed starter now.
Ronaldo may have been a player for both Milan sides, just as he turned out for both sides of the El Clásico rivalry, but the hate aspect wasn’t as severe as one might think. He never transferred directly between rivals, and he always showed an element of respect. He would celebrate his goals, but he rarely tried to incite the crowd. He celebrated scoring, rather
than scoring against a particular team. While he was disliked by the fans of Inter and AC, Barca and Real for a period, he was also adored by them too. He scored a lot of goals for each of them, creating a lot of memories for the fans along the way.
Milan loved him more for the player that he was in the past. They loved him because he was a former Ballon d’Or player and World Cup winner, rather than for his output with the team. He tried, nobody can lack his effort, but by now it just wasn’t working for him.
Signed at the age of 30, with a string of knee injuries behind him, the cumbersome striker was forced to play further and further up the box, becoming more of a penalty box predator than ever before. His size and stature meant that he simply couldn’t be the explosive forward that he once was.
He played the bulk of the second half of the season for Milan, scoring seven goals for the side. A goal every other game wasn’t bad for a player who was so clearly past his prime.
Ronaldo has won many titles in his career, but the UEFA Champions League is one which has alluded him. He won a UEFA Cup at Inter, he joined Real Madrid after the Champions League win when Zidane scored *THAT* goal, and while Milan won the Champions League in his first season there, he was cup-tied and could only watch from the stands as his team beat Liverpool in the final.
He might not have been able to play in Europe that season, yet his presence in the squad helped everyone. He was a hard battler in training, boosting the intensity to ready the defenders for their matchups on the path to the final. He also was able to step in and play league games, relieving the need for the likes of Pippo Inzaghi to play every game, keeping
him and the other strikers fresh for Europe. Ronaldo may not have played for Milan in the Champions League that season, but he played his part in getting them there.
Ronaldo’s time at Milan was short and ravaged by injury. He suffered a leg fracture at the tail end of the 2006-07 season which forced him to miss all of pre-season as well as a large chunk of the next season. A ruptured kneecap at the beginning of 2008 saw the end of his time in Europe. His contract expired in June and due to his injury issues this was not renewed.
15 years after leaving the carnival country of Brazil, the great Ronaldo returned. He was older, heavier and his knees were wrecked, but he was home. From a footballing perspective, the transfer was a bit of a risk; he was an injury nightmare. He did bring about some excellent benefits though. Ronaldo was a marketers dream. He was a jersey seller; the likes of which Corinthians had never seen before. He was a draw for fans too. Even in his 30’s, he was still Ronaldo – a Brazilian icon. Fans flocked to see the two-time Ballon d’Or winner. But he was more than just a crowd pleaser for the name, his time with Corinthians was, by enlarge, a success.
Not everyone in Brazil were happy to see him sign for Corinthians, however. He was training with Flamengo for four months as part of his knee recuperation. He was a self-confessed Flamengo fan and when he opted to sign for their rivals, Corinthians, he was branded a phenomenal traitor, a cruel jibe on his famous nickname. He was remarkably open about the situation, however. While his boyhood club were open to signing him, an offer never materialised. It did materialise from their fierce rivals though. He may not have liked the team he played for, but he felt he still had some gas in the tank and wanted to keep playing, whatever the cost.
Why was his second spell in Brazil a success? Well, because like so many of his clubs before him, Ronaldo averaged over a goal every other game – in fact, Milan was the only team where he didn’t match this target, and only missed this by one. He scored 23 in 38 games in his first season, helping Corinthians to a magnificent league and cup double. His second season saw a still impressive 12 in 27, though no titles followed this year.
His final year in football was a disappointing one, sadly. He played only four times, failing to find the net. One of these four games was a Copa Libertadores defeat to Colombia’s Deportes Tolima. This all but ended a wonderful 18-year career. He announced his decision at a press conference, in a close to tearful state. “Mentally, I want to continue, but I have to acknowledge that I lost to my body” It was also this press conference where he admitted to the world that he suffered from hypothyroidism – and by doing so made the majority of those who called him “fat Ronaldo” feel rather sheepish.
I write that this career was all but ended because he had one last fixture to fulfil – a farewell international fixture. A virtually unheard of testimonial match at international level. Such was his contribution to Brazilian football that the Brazilian FA awarded him one final send-off in June 2011. This was played in Sao Paulo against European opposition Romania.
This match ended 1-0 to Brazil. Ronaldo played only 15 minutes, the last 15 of the first half, and gave a speech at halftime, thanking the fans for their support over the years.
Since retirement Ronaldo has certainly not retreated from our lives. He has made numerous media appearances, including starring in an episode of The Simpsons. He has been married three times and has four children. He is a co-owner in a racing car team and has purchased a majority share in Spanish football side Real Valladolid. He has developed a full, well-rounded life after football, though this isn’t to say that he is hiding from football – quite the opposite in fact.
As well as buying shares in a football team, Ronaldo was an honoured guest at the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup, following the footsteps of some of the games true greats in years before him. Despite the Generation Z populous belittling his career by calling him fat and brandishing him a failure for “never doing it in England“, those who actually have a clue about football saw this as a perfect opening to the World Cup in Russia, parading one of the most fun players to have ever graced the game.
Whatever your memories are of Ronaldo, I’m sure they come with a smile attached. Whether you think of him in his early career, scoring goals for fun in Brazil, the Netherlands and Italy or if you know him more for his Galácticos spell, he brought joy to those who watched him. He was never a one-club man, frequently labelled traitorous by sets of fans all throughout Spain, Italy and Brazil, yet in spite of this he was still adored by the majority.
His career involved a multitude of clubs, yet it is with Brazil in which he is remembered most fondly, the World Cup being the source of so much joy to millions of people the world over. He was the biggest player on the planet at ’98, prior to the incident, he was a force of nature in 2002, winning Brazil the final in a magnificent personal comeback. 2006 was
undoubtedly less spectacular tournament for Ronaldo, but it was also during this tournament where he touched the ball around Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson to slot home his 15th World Cup goal, scoring what was then the most goals in the tournaments rich history.
As I said in the first instalment of this series, I am not here to try and convince you of Ronaldo’s greatness, he doesn’t need my approval, nor yours, to justify his career. The point of this article was to bring just a fraction of the joy that he evoked during the ’90s and 2000s. I intended to paint a picture of some of the powerhouse striker’s greatest moments, mixed with one or two lesser-known escapades, with the intention of filling you, valued reader, with a healthy dose of nostalgia. He isn’t “fat Ronaldo“, he isn’t “other Ronaldo“. He is Ronaldo. He is O Fenômeno. He is The Phenomenon. He is the greatest striker to ever grace the football pitch. Thank you for the memories, Ronaldo. It’s been a pleasure.