The article was originally published just after Ronaldo’s announcement to walk away from the game.
On June 7, 2011, Ronaldo will be seen in the Samba strip one last time.
“I can’t take any more, I wanted to continue, but I can’t do it anymore. I think of an action, but I can’t do it the way I want to. It’s time.”
These words drew the curtains on the career of one of the true greats in contemporary football. But more than the inevitability of the swansong of a legend, it was the timing and the manner in which it happened that has left one with a feeling of poignancy.
This was a man who produced sublime moments seemingly at will – a man who shredded defenses with the finesse of a rapier and brutality of a machete. A man with artistry and savageness in equal measure. His devastating pace, bamboozling dribbles with the control of a ballet dancer and breathtaking finishes left the whole world mesmerized.
The greats in any sport usually take one of the two paths – either they take a bow at the top level choosing to go out with their heads held high or they keep on prolonging their departure till they become a parody of their own legacy.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima did neither. He chose to go after being threatened by the very fans who were chanting his name one year back. His late night parties, growing belly and spate of injuries turned his devotees into his own persecutors.
The Beginning and The Rise of Ronaldo:
South America seems to be God’s own place for producing footballing geniuses. No other place on this earth has managed to provide such a vast array of dazzling footballers, with each one more artistic than the other. It was thus befitting that one of the all time greats, Ronaldo, hailed from Brazil to grace the world of football.
Born in a poor neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, he initially plied his trade in the streets like all of the country’s greats. But a genius like his cannot go unnoticed for long. It was from Sao Cristovao, his youth team where he was slowly building his reputation as a break-through talent, a football agent named Jairzinho scouted him for Cruzeiro, from where his journey to greatness began.
Within a single season at Cruzeiro, he got the world’s attention which saw him move to Europe and he landed at PSV Eindhoven. It didn’t come as a surprise to find the 18 year old’s name in Brazil’s 1994 world cup squad. Though he didn’t get a chance to show-case his talent on the football pitch, it may not be an exaggeration to state that a player who is selected to play for Brazil can never be “just good”. He was indeed much more than “just good”; he was phenomenal. In his time at PSV, he scored at an average of little less than a goal per game (42 in 46). At a tender age of 19, it was time to move again to an even higher level.
A Fleeting Spanish Sojourn
His talent on display in Dutch Eredivisie was enough to set the transfer market on fire as he was signed by Spanish giants FC Barcelona in 1996 for a world record transfer fee of $19.5 million. Under the tutelage of legendary Sir Bobby Robson, Ronaldo took the world by storm. The 1996-97 season was a defining moment in his career where his performance with the Catalans made the world swoon over him. Although he won UEFA Cup Winners Cup, the league glory eluded him despite scoring 34 goals in a single season as Barcelona finished second behind Real Madrid.
Unfortunately for Barcelona, he couldn’t renew his contract with the club as a series of bitter episodes involving the Board of Directors and his own agents led to him leaving for Inter Milan for a fee of $27.9 million, yet another world record transfer. He was just 20 years old when he left Camp Nou but till today, that one magical season with Barcelona is the one that is still looked upon with nostalgia and awe.
The Birth and Reign of Il Fenomeno:
Italy embraced Ronaldo and called him “Il Fenomeno” as he resumed with Inter Milan in the same vein in which he had left Barcelona. He was top class for Inter as he helped the legendary Milanese club to UEFA Cup triumph in 1998. Modern football has become cautious; defenses have become stronger; goals per games have come down significantly; combine that with a league renowned for “Catennacio” and boasting of the likes of Maldini, Nesta and Cafu at their prime, there is one statistic which stands out: “34 goals in 47 official games”.
Yes, it was Ronaldo, who set that piece of statistic in a season that gave true meaning to the phrase “Goal Machine”.
Seemingly the Beginning of The End
He was the face of the World Cup when Nike started their campaign – “The chosen one”, if one may use the clichéd phrase. And in the run up to the final he didn’t disappoint his bevy of fans and the marketing managers of Nike who had placed all the proverbial eggs in his basket. 4 goals and 3 assists in 6 games only re-enforced what was evident to even the most uninitiated that he was truly a phenomenon.
Yet, it was at the biggest of stages, the World Cup Grand Finale, that his decline began. Hours before the kickoff, he made the entire world panic when he went into a convulsive fit. Frothing at the mouth and unable to move, his teammates feared he was dead. The then Brazilian coach Zagallo even removed his name from the team roster only to re-submit the starting 11; only 30 minutes before the scheduled kickoff. Rumors of pressure from Nike persists, though the company vehemently denies any involvement.
Sleepwalking through-out the match, a man called Zinedine Zidane made all the headlines, on a stage which was deemed to be his very own.
Buckling Knees and A Crumbling Dream
If the World Cup final was where his nightmare began, he was back in Italy where it became an integral part of his life for the next four years. A spate of knee injuries, the second of which saw Ronaldo sprawling on the pitch, screaming for help with tears in his eyes, prompted sports journalists all over the world write his obituaries. Barely featuring for the 4 years, it was feared that his career was over before he could reach the dizzying heights he deserved.
Reclaiming the Centre-stage
He did come back from his injury just before the World Cup 2002, but he was not quite the same Ronaldo. Bereft of pace, short of match fitness and a history of debilitating injuries made his world cup hopes seem like a pipe dream.
However, Luis Felipe Scolari, the then Brazilian coach, took a punt on him and Il Fenomeno did deliver, and boy, he delivered in style! The adage “form is temporary but class is permanent” could not have been more apt in his case.
Scoring 8 goals in 7 matches en-route to lifting the World Cup, he delivered on the biggest stage of them all. He scored twice against the best goalkeeper in the world cup and made sure 1998 did not happen once more.
Re-birth As A Galactico
Once again Ronaldo returned to Spain; only this time it was to a team culturally opposite to Barcelona. Ronaldo loved glamor and when it came to big teams, there was no team bigger than Real Madrid at that time, who had just won their 3rd UCL in 5 years.
Perez’s Galaticos beckoned and Ronaldo obliged. He scored a brace in the final match of his debut season which helped Real win the La Liga crown. He later on went on to add another La Liga title in his kitty with the Spanish greats. Also he featured once more in the World Cup in 2006 and broke the great Gerd Muller’s record of 14 overall goals in the biggest stage of world football and forever inscribed his name in the Hall of Fame. Another highlight of his stay was the sublime hat-trick against Manchester United,which brought the Old Trafford crowd to its feet, who realized that they had just witnessed a very special player. A must watch for all the fans.
But from there, it all went downhill. Though the goals kept on coming, it was his lifestyle that drew severe flak. From “O Fenomeno” he became “O Gordinho” or “The fatty”. Eventually Capello dropped him in favor of less talented but more hardworking Ruud Van Nistelrooy, leading to his departure to Italy once again.
During this stay at the Santiago Bernabeu, he featured 127 times in the famous white shirt and scored 83 goals. Not bad for a striker who was considered to be past his prime by that time.
The Twilight Years
Once again, Ronaldo crossed the cultural barrier, and returned back to Italy; this time changing his loyalty to AC Milan instead of their city rivals Inter.
However, there were to be no blaze of glory this time around. His ignominious episode with 3 transvestite prostitutes still makes him the butt of jokes everywhere. His injuries and lack of work rate made him a liability in the eyes of Rossoneri, who tore up his contract at first chance they got.
He returned to train with Flamengo but decided to join their rivals Corinthians, making him one of the most despised men in Brazil. Eventually, his failure to win Copa Liberetadores made him the target of the fans’ ire and he decided to call it quits. Even here, his quality was quite evident.
An Unfulfilled Promise
It seems foolish to use the words “An unfulfilled promise” for a man who is the only footballer to be voted FIFA Player of the Year thrice and has won every accolade to be won except the UCL. Yet, one still wonders “what if” his best years had not been blighted by injuries.
The number of goals may be for the history, but it was his skills on the ball that earned him the respect of the defenders and the rivals. He had sublime skills on the ball, his dribbles left defenders with their asses on the ground and his runs left them struggling to keep up with him, let alone catch him. He was simply unstoppable. He was pure joy, a true Samba spirit. A child in a man’s body with an endearing goofy smile that captured hearts worldwide and made him Nike’s most marketable sporting icon at that time.
Very few can draw a genuine admiration from everyone who loves this game. One such remarkable player is Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima – the Il Fenomeno. A man who made beauty, agility, pace and intelligence all to rhyme perfectly with his game.
There is only one Il Fenomeno and the fans are going to miss him. Here’s an earnest “thank you” from Team TheHardTackle for the memories and the ecstasies.