A footballing phenomenon hangs up his boots this week as Brazilian legend Ronaldo calls time on a sensational career. In the first of a 5 part series to be played out over the course of this week, Kevyn Doran takes a trip down memory lane and looks at the special moments that defined a superstar.
Part 1: Perfection
Wednesday, 23rd April 2003
It’s a feeling you’ve never felt before – a foreign cocktail of emotions that even without company are difficult to cope with. At first you can’t quite put your finger on why the usually dominant rage isn’t burning inside you. I mean, all the ingredients are there. There’s that insufferable fog of inferiority descending, where you know you’ve been well and truly beaten. I don’t care what the purists say, a thorough walloping hurts just as must as defeat soaked in injustice. There’s that sinister dread slowly rising – when you realise your rival supporting mates will have a go at you because of the result. They don’t care that their team didn’t get this far, they don’t care that in your mind, their team will forever be a poorer, weaker version of the team you love- all they want to do is prod and tease you. Bye bye European glory, bye bye the dream opportunity of a cup final on your own turf. The final ingredient is also there – the hopelessness. Now I can’t speak for others, but I know that when my team are in action on the European stage, I simply don’t care about domestic honours. I’m all about the there and then – I want victory that night, and I’ll sacrifice a league victory the following weekend if it means I get it. These are all the feelings I experience when my beloved Manchester United get eliminated from the Champions League. They’re feelings I’ve felt too many times considering the relative dominance my team has enjoyed. They are feelings that, when coupled together, add up to a me that does not simply not care about communicating with the world anymore. Football barely exists for the rest of the night, and it will be lucky if I acknowledge it’s existence in the morning.
So why on this night in particular, are all these usually empiric emotions – although noticeable – lying dormant inside me? My team has lost a tie of huge proportions against those we had so often been measured against,and yet I’m looking forward to conversing with my Liverpool and Arsenal supporting comrades the following day? Why is this? Well, it’s because there are other, more dominant emotions trumping those of despair. You recognise fascination – you’ve experienced that before. There’s a healthy dose of awe in there too, there’s no doubt about that. Admiration can be felt, almost like a second skin, but there is one more feeling that you’re unfamiliar with. It’s a feeling you’re not supposed to recognise because of it’s very nature – it’s rare. It’s unheard of. It might just be a once in a lifetime emotion – if you’re lucky.
It’s a feeling that seduces your goosebumps and brings every follicle of hair on your body to attention – the assertion that you just have witnessed something truly, truly special by an artist at the pinnacle of his creative genius. When Wet, Wet, Wet sang about the feeling of love in their fingers, toes and all other extremes, this is what they really meant. Love is too common, give me the beholding of genius and witnessing of perfection any day of the week.
The tie itself was as epic a non-final as you will find. The immovable object and the unstoppable force both wish they had the respective statures of Manchester United and Real Madrid. Few teams strode into the Theatre of Dreams with an aura of arrogance and brilliance better than that of their hosts for the night, but Real Madrid and their army of Galacticos had an air of showbiz that football had never quite seen before. Their imperious history dwarfed that of United, and they arrived adorned by players head and shoulders above anyone else in the world. Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Iker Casillas – these were no mere mortals. These were superstars who carried more skill in their frames than expectation on their shoulders – no mean feat considering the club they represented.
Perhaps none carried that expectation more than Ronaldo, for expectation in football is often measured by the amount of zeros beside your name. The poster boy for the Nike generation, Ronaldo truly earned his millions for his story resembled that of fairytale. From the slums of Rio De Janeiro to the glamour of Madrid, from career-threatening injury to record breaking prominence, Ronaldo was at the time the most popular player on the planet – he had a celebrity that dwarfed that of David Beckham, and it had been reinforced in part by his performances at the World Cup a year earlier, but mostly because of his current employer (both sporting and commercial).
Meetings between two such powerhouses often threaten to descend into a war of attrition rather than a competition of artistry, and such occurrences often dissolve the occasion of all hype. Indeed, both teams had met in the same competition 3 years previous yet few recall the two-legged meeting with much outstanding fondness. The game started a somewhat cagey affair, and could have ended early for Ronaldo had Mikael Silvestre been more sinister in his intentions to rough up the Brazilian. The Frenchman ploughed through the back of Ronaldo, who crumpled to the ground in apparent agony. Hearts in Brazil and Madrid were united in their skipping of a beat, as when Ronaldo went down, instant prayers were always offered in the hope that there was no recurrence of the injury that stole from the world a sublime talent for so long.
It was Silvestre again who prodded the ball away from Ronaldo on 9 minutes after he had turned on a sixpence on the edge of the area, a move that was so often followed by the rippling of a net and the familiar wagging of a finger. It was one of the few times a Manchester United defender would come out on top against Ronaldo that night, for just 2 minutes later, the Brazilian found himself in a foot race with the most expensive defender in the world, Rio Ferdinand. Guti nestled forward a through ball that only Ronaldo could get, who found himself heading away from goal. Forget about holding the ball up, or bringing it back infield – the first thing most players would do is simply take a touch and establish control of the ball. Not Ronaldo. No, for quick thinking is not just found in great players. I would hope that any professional footballer contracted to a club has the ability to think quickly. What makes players like Ronaldo great is not their ability to think quicker than the opposition, but their ability to think better. With a thunderous first time shot that echoed countless goals he had scored throughout his career, Ronaldo had the ball inside Fabien Barthez’ near post before the World Cup winning goalkeeper could even react – his futile dive more for show than substance. Old Trafford was stunned. There would be no respectful round of applause just yet however.
Having established fear, Ronaldo would toy with the United defense for the remainder of the game. He would receive the ball and literally walk with it at his feet, inviting a cautious Rio Ferdinand who was already on the ropes. He had built up an unusual understanding with Roberto Carlos that night. Not unusual because of their relationship – the two are long time best friends even to this day, but rather unusual because a striker would typically expect limited exchanged with his left back. But then again, Roberto Carlos was no normal left back. Ronaldo and his friend were playing keep away all night, the striker often appearing to deliberately drift towards left back just to play a one-two. It was that connection that would inevitably lead to Ronaldo and Madrid’s second goal of the night. After stroking the ball around the United penalty area for what seemed like an eternity, Zidane split the defence on the left hand side of the box, sending Carlos through on goal. There was never any doubt in my mind watching, just as there was never any doubt in Ronaldo’s mind that Carlos would not shoot. He centered the ball to his friend, who gracefully side footed into an empty net. Ronaldo was out in front again.
United displayed a never say die attitude that would capture the headlines on any other night, against any other team lead by any other player. But Ronaldo had taken this occasion by the scruff of the neck, and he was not letting go until he had etched his name in history. For the third time that night, he put Madrid in front with the pick of his three goals. Picking the ball up just beyond the centre circle, space offered itself to Ronaldo in the form of a scared United back line afraid to close down a player on top of his game. Even the typically relentless Roy Keane backed off, and by the time he attempted to save face with an attempt at closing him down, Ronaldo had looped the ball over Barthez from 25 yards out in sublime fashion. The finger wagged for the third time that night, and as the camera focused in on the back of his jersey – as if we needed reminding who has scored – the history books had a new chapter.
With the tie beyond a hapless opposition, Ronaldo exited the game with 20 minutes remaining. This was no roll of the dice to put one final nail in the red coffin, nor was it a signal to shut up shop and see out the remainder of the game. This was offering a standing ovation to a sensational individual and a sensational performance. The travelling Madrid fans applause was matched by that of their English counterparts. They were helpless not to applause – what else can one do having witnessed that?
Great players are easy to identify. They are the ones who conjure up moment sof magic on the grandest of stages. Admittedly, a Champions League quarter final is not always that grandest of stages. But that night, you got the sense that if Hollywood did football, it would look something like this. The splendor of this beautiful game is that we do not need a script when we can simply place our hopes and expectations in the hands of a player like Ronaldo, and trust them to come up with something infinitely more sensational than the most revered of scriptwriters.
I could write forever and I still could not fully explain the feeling I experienced on that Wednesday night in 2003. All I know is it is the single best feeling I have ever felt watching a game. Since then, I’ve seen my team defeat rivals with the last kick of the game, I’ve seen them rewrite the record books and I’ve seen them conquer the world and dominate for years.
Yet, none of that comes close to the feeling I got when watching Ronaldo at his very best for 67 minutes on a Wednesday night while he destroyed my team. It’s a funny old game.