Ronaldo missed the entirety of the 2000/01 season. The Brazilian missed the bulk of the 2001/02 season too, playing 10 league games towards the season’s end. Of these 10 games, he scored seven goals. Ronaldo was back, but he was different. He was still a world class striker, but that was the point; he wasn’t a forward any more, he was a striker. His 90s style involved picking up the ball deep and driving at the defence from afar, bringing other players into the game. Now he was a penalty box king, giving his team mates the opportunity to carry the ball to him and let him do his damage in and around the box.
The most incredible thing about the Ronaldo comeback wasn’t him rediscovering his form with Inter Milan, but was that he was recalled to the Brazil squad for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. After such a torrid couple of years recovering from his knee injury it would perhaps have been kinder to give number nine the summer off. That would have been sensible, of course, but Luiz Felipe Scolari was tasked with picking the best players in the country, and Ronaldo, even with just 24 games to his name since the start of the 1999 season, was still a top player. Ronaldo was a proud Brazilian too, and even if every doctor in the world had told him to take the summer off, he’d have been on that plane to Korea and Japan.
Ronaldo takes the World Cup by storm
If it was a gamble to take the injury-plagued Ronaldo to the World Cup then Brazil won the jackpot. In his new role as a penalty box predator Ronaldo was arguably a shade less entertaining, but, crucially, he was significantly more deadly. As Brazil marched to the final at the Yokohama Stadium in Japan, Ronaldo scored in six out of seven games, notching doubles in two of them.
The groups saw Ronaldo exert his talent in style. He equalised against Turkey with a volley, the commentator saying what we were all thinking: “And there’s Ronaldo! He’s off and running. How nice to see that buck-toothed smile of his again.”
The second game against China saw Ronaldo batter his Asian opponents. His goal was the fourth out of four, a simple tap in to convert Cafu’s low cross. His penalty box movement was causing the opposition all sorts of headaches. He was pivotal in Rivaldo’s goal, luring defenders away from him. He was also brought down by the defence to give his side a penalty. In both matches he was subbed off with 20 minutes to play, giving him a much-needed recuperation period.
The final game of the group saw Ronaldo score a brace, the first on 10 minutes, then on 13, to break Costa Rican spirits. Ronaldo lasted 90 minutes this time, looking completely at ease throughout.
Upon topping Group C at a canter, Brazil were pitted against plucky Belgium. After a dominant first half, Rivaldo opened the scoring midway through the second. Belgium fought hard to equalise, naturally pushing forward late on. Ronaldo took advantage of that, stabbing home a low cross with minutes to go double the lead and ensure Brazil would make it to the quarter finals, a tasty tie with England.
Ronaldo played well in this match, causing trouble for the English defence, but this match was all about Ronaldinho and Rivaldo as they dismantled England. He was hooked after 70 minutes, allowing him to be fresh for their semi-final against Turkey – a rematch of their opening tournament game.
The team was the same, but the occasion was much, much bigger. This was Brazil’s third consecutive semi-final appearance, and they were desperate to make it three finals on the bounce. Step up, O Fenômeno. Shortly after the break he picked the ball up 30 yards from goal. He drove into the box at pace, bamboozling the Turkish defence before smashing a shot off the outside of his boot, at such speed that goalkeeper, Rüştü Reçber, had no chance of stopping it. It was only a 1-0 victory, but the result was never in doubt following the opening goal.
Ronaldo faces World Cup Final demons
It is hard to envisage what was going through the mind of Ronaldo on 29 June 2002 – the night before the World Cup final. Four years previously he had suffered the seizure. Panic struck him and he simply couldn’t cope. The world collectively held its breath, hoping and praying that this lovely man, this majestic player, could keep his nerve. The events of Paris caused him to suffer a lot and stuck with him for a long time. Would he be the star that they knew he could be? Would he be able to play? So many questions, all of them answered by the Brazilian on the field the next day.
You could tell before a ball was kicked that this was going to be Ronaldo’s day. While the camera panned along the teams during the anthems, stalwart players like Oliver Kahn were stone faced, nervous, distracted. Cut to Ronaldo, and his ludicrous island of hair, standing out from the shaved back and sides. He was smiling at first, then grinning. He was happy.
He had gone full circle. Four years ago he was a ghost on the field, drifting through the match. He had suffered greatly on the pitch, undergoing the worst injury a footballer could suffer. He had hit rock bottom. But now he was back. He was fit, he was healthy. He had a child and a wife. He was representing his country in the greatest occasion imaginable, emulating his hero Pele. He had wasted his opportunity four years ago, he sure as hell wasn’t going to make that mistake again here.
The first half had the feel that perhaps, sadly, it just wasn’t Ronaldo’s day. He had several clear chances that just didn’t fall his way. Accuracy problems coupled with Oliver Kahn’s massive frame making it feel like the Brazilian just couldn’t find the net. Upon the full time whistle the narrative changed. It wasn’t that Ronaldo had been struggling. It was that he was building into the game. He was causing Germany problems all game long, and that his goals were just a matter of time coming.
A tale of two halves
With 67 minutes on the clock, Ronaldo bullied the Dietmar Hamann off the ball, 25 yards from the German goal. After such a bullish act, Ronaldo then played a delicate pass at a tight angle to Rivaldo – his old futsal days coming back to him at the highest occasion. Rivaldo unleashes a thunderbolt of a strike towards goal. The behemoth goalkeeper tried to hold on to the ball, but to his horror, he spilled it in front of him. Ronaldo reacted first, as he continued his run to goal the moment he offloaded the pass to his team mate. He sprinted to the ball while Carsten Ramelow merely walked back, unaware of the phenomenon running behind him. By the time Ramelow noticed, the ball was in the back of the net.
The second goal was a joy to watch. Kleberson ran down the wing, playing a low cross to Rivaldo. He dummied the ball, catching the German defence out and allowing the ball to run through to Ronaldo. There was no defender in sight, which should have made this a sure thing for Ronaldo. Yet substitute forward Gerald Asamoah had sprinted back to throw himself in front of the incoming shot. It was like Ronaldo possessed a sixth sense, as nobody could have foreseen the pace that Asamoah displayed to get back. Ronaldo lifted his shot at such a height that it curled round the leg of the German and beyond Oliver Kahn.
Into injury time Scolari substituted Ronaldo off, allowing the capacity stadium of 69000 to applaud him. It was truly magical to watch the smile on his face. Just a couple of minutes later and he was back on the field, a massive Brazil flag draped over his shoulders. The grin spread over his face was a sight of pure joy. He had conquered his demons of four years ago. He had proved not to the world, not to his team, but to himself, that he could do this. That he was number one. He was Brazil’s number nine, but he put in a 10/10 display in Japan that night. Ronaldo was a world champion.
Crossing El Clasico’s divide
Ronaldo is many things, but loyal he is not. Just five years after leaving Barcelona, he joined the Catalonian’s fierce rivals, Real Madrid. This was a huge transfer that saw Ronaldo become one of the superstar Galácticos, at a cost of €46 million, with him linking up with the likes of Luis Figo, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. Ronaldo was the biggest player in the world in the summer of 2002 and was joining arguably the most commercialised megaclub. As such, his jersey sales obliterated previous records on day one.
His debut came later than anticipated for Real Madrid, an injury ruling him out until October 2002. He was brought on at home to Alaves, little over an hour into the game, Madrid 2-1 up at the time. A minute later it was 3-1, O Fenômeno had a debut goal. Some neat link up play between Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Esteban Cambiasso outfoxed the Alaves defence. Carlos put a cross into the box and Ronaldo took it on his chest in a way which took both centre backs out of play. He allowed the ball to bounce and with all the time in the world he hammered it into the back of the net.
He scored again that game, capping off a 5-2 win, though didn’t score in the league again for a month. La Liga was a different style of football to Serie A, but that wasn’t the problem. issue here was that Ronaldo wasn’t the star attraction. He may have been leading the line, but the team weren’t relying on him like they did at Inter, at PSV and at Cruzeiro. He had Figo, Zidane and Raul all chipping in with a multitude of goals and assists and it was a different style for the striker to adapt to. Even Brazil, with the talents of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho in attack treated Ronaldo as a tier above and in doing so meant he was the focal point in their attack.
He found his scoring touch in November, scoring the opener in a win over Rayo Vallecano. Then not for another month, scoring brace against RCD Mallorca. His link up play was great, he was a pleasure to watch, but by the winter break, 14 league games in, Ronaldo had five league goals. Hardly a great return on investment for a €46 million acquisition. He was also goalless in the Champions League by the winter break.
Ronaldo came out for the second half of the season like a man possessed. He scored against Valencia, Celta Vigo and Athletic Bilbao. He got his first Real Madrid hat trick in an away game to relegation-fodder Alaves and scored his first El Clásico goal in a home derby with Barcelona. He finished the season with two braces against city rivals Atletico Madrid,
before seeing the year out with a couple against Athletic Bilbao. After a lousy start at the Santiago Bernabéu he ended the year with 23 league goals as Los Blancos won the league title with 78 points on the board.
These last two goals, his brace against Bilbao, were two of the biggest goals of his career. Not the best goals and certainly not as important as his World Cup final strikes a year previously, but these two goals sealed the title for Real Madrid. They had a well-balanced side, mixing superstars with workhorse players, yet they had slipped up in many a game
throughout the season and went into their final match in desperate need of a victory.
In Europe Ronaldo was making his mark. No goals prior to the winter break was a concern, but he scored two crucial goals in the second group stage of the Champions League, against Borussia Dortmund and Lokomotiv Moscow to ensure progression to the knockout rounds. This set up a tie against Manchester United. After a 3-1 win for Real at home, the return leg would go down in football history…
Old Trafford stunned
Ronaldo opened the scoring at Old Trafford. Donning a glorious all black kit, Guti fizzed a ball into space, engaging Ronaldo into a footrace with Rio Ferdinand. Predictably there was only one winner in this, who stuck a fiendishly hard shot from the edge of the penalty box beyond Fabian Barthez, cancelling out the United away goal from the first leg.
Ruud van Nistelrooy equalised for United and with the Red Devils in the ascendency it was looking more and more likely that they would peg the Spanish giants back. They worked tirelessly, but on minute 50, Real were ahead again. Ronaldo had a brace. It was Zidane played a lovely pass behind the defence for the overlapping Roberto Carlos to control. He took one touch to control it and another to cross to Ronaldo, who stroked the ball into the nearly empty net first time to put Madrid ahead.
Ronaldo’s first two goals were the mark of a good striker, his third was that of a football god. Ronaldo collected a pass from Figo some 40 yards from goal, dribbling fast, yet calmly, towards the opposition box. For a player who was at his most lethal in the box then, the defenders held off. O Fenômeno struck a devastating shot from over 25 yards out, rocketing it past Barthez and into the back of the net. The shot had the oomph of a Mike Tyson punch. That strike wasn’t a shot, it was an assault on the defence, and one that couldn’t be defended.
Ronaldo was substituted off the field with twenty minutes left to play. At the time Real Madrid were 3-2 up and 6-3 up on aggregate, with three away goals. The tie was looked to be over. As he trotted off the pitch the cheer went up, he applauded the travelling Real Madrid fans and they cheered him. What is unusual about this game is that Manchester United fans applauded Ronaldo. He had scored a hat trick to knock them out of the Champions League, yet they weren’t angry as such, they were shocked. They had witnessed the best player in the world play the perfect game: it was glorious to watch.
The United fan in them may have been annoyed, but the football fan had to show gratitude to what was just a master class.
Champions League glory proves elusive
Sadly for Ronaldo injury curtailed the next fixture in the Champions League. He scored against Juventus in the semi-final but missed the second leg as the Italians beat them 3-1. Real Madrid were playing arguably the best football in Europe that season and naturally felt aggrieved to fail to reach the final.
This feeling of disappointment was felt a lot during Ronaldo’s spell at Real Madrid. The next three years saw Real Madrid win the Supercopa de Espana, in August 2003. In 2004 they finished 4th in La Liga. They finished 2nd in 2005 and again in 2006, though this time significantly behind their rivals. They lost in the Champions League Quarter Finals to Monaco in 2004, fell to Juventus in the Round of 16 in 2005 and lost to Arsenal at the same stage in 2006.
From an individual point of view, Ronaldo was excelling. He was their top scorer for the next three seasons, following his remarkable debut season for Los Blancos. 31, 24 and 15 were his haul between 2004 and 2006, though the lack of balance in the team saw the players medal collection feel like a distant memory.