Dates of retirement and redundancy are never easy, regardless of profession, yet often, in football, they go out on a mere whimper.
Managers like Brian Clough (alcohol) and Béla Guttmann (greed) and players such as Garrincha (alcohol) and Paul Gascoigne (alcohol and injuries) saw their careers degenerate due to personal demons, and their previous individual achievements seemed a world away from their troubled image in their final days in football. Still, Valentine’s Day in 2011 was, inadvertently, the perfect date for one of the most loved footballers of all-time to retire. Aged 34, Ronaldo’s crippling knees finally caught up with him but even though his announcement at a personal press conference was immensely poignant, due to Ronaldo’s flagging weight and palpable tears, Ronaldo, on three separate occasions, made the greatest comeback in sporting history and proved himself as one of the greatest strikers of all-time. Therefore, he retired with few regrets – despite his failure to win the Champions League and Copa Libertadores – having continually proven his doubters wrong throughout his eighteen-year career and even in the twilight of his career, Ronaldo’s goalscoring exploits remained impressive: 35 goals in 69 games for Corinthians.
Ronaldo was born in the desperately deprived and favela-laden Rio de Janieiro suburb of Bento Ribero on 18 September, 1976. Such was the de Limas’ money shortage, Ronaldo’s father could not pay the registration fee for his son’s birthday for four days so from then on, Ronaldo had two birthdays. Brought up as a Flamengo fan, Ronaldo idolised Zico and given his initial pint-sized physique – which was akin to Zico’s – before his late teenage growth spurt, Ronaldo was given the nickname of Ronaldinho (little Ronaldo). Ronaldo’s career began in particularly unglamorous circumstances, though: being initially deployed as a goalkeeper, from the age of ten, in futsal with Tennis Club Valqueire due to all other positions being filled. Ronaldo, though, was soon tested outfield and began to blossom when he joined Social Ramos Club as a thirteen year old in 1989. Here, Ronaldo scored an incredible 166 goals in 1989 and from this, was snapped up by São Cristóvão. Roberto Gagliaone was Ronaldo’s coach at Cristóvão and by the age of just sixteen, Gagliaone felt that Ronaldo was ready for professional football and declared to a national sports journalist:
We’ve sent a boy to Cruzeiro, who will be Brazil’s next striker and will play in the ’98 World Cup: Ronaldo.
Cruzeiro, on paper, was a strange choice given that Ronaldo’s proflic youth form did not merit European interest and because Flamengo did not make Ronaldo an acceptable offer. There were two main reasons for this: Ronaldo’s Osgood-Schlatter (strained quadriceps muscle in patellar tendon, particularly, in his right knee) condition as an adolescent and the 20p bus fare that he would require to migrate from his home in Ribero to Flamengo’s base in Lagoa. Ronaldo was excited but anxious, having had to travel 221km to Cruzeiro in São Paulo, but many strings were pulled by Jairzinho in order to secure Ronaldo this landmark move. Therefore, Ronaldo felt obliged to live up to his billing and scored an astonishing 44 goals in 47 matches (including five in one match against Bahia on 23 November, 1993) in just two seasons with Cruzeiro between 1993 and 1994. In 1993, Ronaldo fired Cruzeiro to their first ever Copa do Brasil and in 1994, O Fenômeno led them to the Campeonato Mineiro. Ronaldo’s blossoming pace, quickness of thought, incredible acceleration, weaving dribbles, upper body strength, deft touches and unstoppable finishing (never missed one on ones) saw him undergo a meteoric rise and aged just 17, Ronaldo made his debut for Brazil against Argentina in Recife on 23 March, 1994.
Inevitably, comparisons were made with another Brazilian teenager who also made his debut in a match against Argentina and who also burst onto the scene before a World Cup, in 1958: Pelé. Pelé scored six, crucial, goals in the 1958 World Cup: one in the 1-0 quarter-final win against Wales, two in the 3-2 victory over France in the semi-final and a brace in the 5-2 win over Sweden in the final. However, Ronaldo’s international rise was not so immediate and given his differing style to Pelé, in both personality (Ronaldo would go on to call Pelé a “two-bob opportunist”) and playing style (Pelé was a more direct poacher), Ronaldo often resented the comparisons and thus, since, the two have enjoyed a somewhat uneasy relationship. Still, the 1994 World Cup would prove a crucial experience for the still emerging Ronaldo, whose nickname of Ronaldinho remained due to Ronaldão’s (some four cm taller than Ronaldo) selection as a defender in Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad. Even though Parreira wanted to protect Ronaldo, with the striker playing just four times for Brazil in 1994 and none at all in the tournament, the one-time meek teenager learnt a lot from the sidelines in the tournament in the U.S – with invaluable tutelage from the likes of Bebeto, Viola and, in particular, Romário.
Ronaldo received a World Cup winners’ medal, but made it his aim to achieve one in his own right in the next decade. Piet de Visser, the then chief scout at PSV, scouted Ronaldo at the tournament and having seen the impact the previous Brazilian he had signed, Romário, made, de Visser felt that Ronaldo would be the perfect successor for the man who scored an astonishing 98 goals in 109 matches for PSV between 1988 and 1993. Ronaldo did have other offers, from mid-table clubs in Italy and Spain, but Romário advised him that PSV would be the perfect environment for him to begin his career in Europe – with Romário spending his pre-peak years from 22 to 26 there before embarking on a memorable spell at Barcelona. Dick Advocaat clearly rated the 18 year old, paying £4.2 million for his services, and Ronaldo repaid the Dutchman’s faith with an incredible 35 goals in 36 matches for PSV in 1994/1995. This exceptional form continued in 1995/1996, with 19 goals in 21 games, but Ronaldo’s season was cut short by an operation in the second-half of the season to relieve the pain and pressure of the Osgood-Schlatter condition in his right knee.
In the short-term, the operation would prove an unqualified success for pain and discomfort relief but there would prove to be long-term problems with the now even tender patellar tendon. Still, Ronaldo was the hottest property in world football and Sir Alex Ferguson made a formal enquiry for the Brazilian in the summer of 1996, as a back-up option for the proposed purchase of Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers. Ferguson, though, was put off by Ronaldo’s proposed £50,000 wages while Internazionale were detterred by his £19.5 million transfer fee. From this, Barcelona and Sir Bobby Robson were the only willing party left and such was Robson’s belief in Ronaldo, he put his own newly-appointed position on the line by continuing to badger Barcelona’s notorious president, Josep Lluís Núñez, to increase the bid from £15 million to £17 million and then from £17 million to £19.5 million. Robson would be vindicated for his bravery but first, Ronaldo headed to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Ronaldo again played with Ronaldinho on the back of his shirt – due to another Ronaldo, Ronaldo Guairo, being in the Olympic squad – and netted five goals as Marco Zagallo’s side won the bronze medal.
Ronaldo’s first, and only, season at Barcelona proved to be one of the greatest debut seasons in the history of the modern game. As well as becoming the youngest ever footballer to win the World Player of the Year award, at the age of 20 in November, Ronaldo’s brilliance inspired Barça to the Supercopa de España, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and the Copa del Rey. In hindsight, it is hard to pick one of Ronaldo’s 47 goals in 49 matches in that season but his goal away to Compostela on 12 October, 1996 particularly stood out. The goal encapsulated everything Ronaldo was about at his peak: pace, power, determination and skill. Having already signalled a warning, when he strolled through the right flank in setting up William’s own goal and in setting up Geovanni with a majestic lofted long ball, Ronaldo sensed there was a career-defining individual moment in the offing. Taking the ball from the half-way line, summing up Ronaldo’s free-roaming in the early stages of his career, Ronaldo bounced the dogged Mauro Garcia off him before skipping past Said Chiba’s committed challenge.
Then, José Ramon doubled up with Chiba in a desperate attempt to haul back Ronaldo, but it was too late: Ronaldo was already in full-flight and burst clear of the duo. Ronaldo then brushed past William, cutting inside, before carving out a yard for a dragged finish past Compostela’s goalkeeper, Fernando. What would have produced an over-zealous celebration for most players, given the incredible individual effort and brilliance Ronaldo displayed in just those fourteen seconds, led to a calm, understated and self-assured aeroplane jog from Ronaldo, complete with jangling chain, and air punch. Such was Robson’s reaction, perhaps it is as famous as the goal itself: the Englishman left speechless, with his hands on his head, as he looked at the equally-astounded Compostela fans behind him. Even though Robson had already witnessed brilliance from the likes of Ray Crawford (Ipswich), Paul Gascoigne (England), Romário (PSV), Luís Figo (Sporting) and Russell Latapy (Porto) over the years, he was quick, given the initial pressure of Ronaldo’s world-record transfer fee, to pay tribute:
You can go anywhere you want in the world and you won’t find a player who can score a goal like that.
Considering that Robson had been under immense pressure to bury the ghost of Johan Cruyff, following the Dream Team’s roaring success from 1988, it was just vindication – particularly given the somewhat bizarre criticism he received for selling Jordi Cruyff to Manchester United for ‘just’ £1.4 million. However, as Ronaldo continued to blossom in 1996/1997, his group of advisers inevitably grew larger. Emphasis was placed on Ronaldo’s celebrity, not least with a multi-million deal with Nike, as one of the most instantly recognisable sportsmen in the world. After all, in October, Ronaldo was given equal billing with Joe Girardi – with the New York Yankees’ star catcher celebrating the Yankees’ first World Series for eighteen years – on the front of the New York Times. This signalled the elevation of Ronaldo’s image worldwide and, naturally, it went to the 20 year old’s head: Ronaldo undergoing a, naturally, unauthorised twenty-four hour party binge at the Rio Carnvial in the spring of 1997. From this, tension was rife within the dressing-room – particularly between dedicated trainers and products of the cantera like Josep Guardiola and Iván de la Peña. Ronaldo was somewhat isolated, with his advisers having a boisterous thirst for an improved contract, and O Fenômeno was quick to air his availability – even as early as December, 1996:
The offers [Italy and England] are real and we’re talking about incredible amounts of money. We’ve got to settle down as possible so I can settle down and concentrate on my game.
It did not take long for Sandro Mazzola, Internazionale’s general manager, to illegally signal his intent to Ronaldo and his advisers, and an informal agreement was reached before the end of the 1996/1997 season. With Robson soon to be replaced by Louis van Gaal, and Brazil’s Copa América campaign and preparations clashing with the end of the Spanish league season (era of twenty-two team league), Ronaldo, who had been heavily criticised by the fans for his work-ethic, saw it as the perfect time to leave the Camp Nou. With Barcelona winning just two of their final three games he missed, Ronaldo’s absence proved crucial: Barcelona finished two points off Real Madrid. With a £19.5 million buy-out clause and having seen him prove himself at the absolute highest level, unlike when at PSV (did still play in the Champions League, admittedly), Internazionale had no qualms in purchasing the Brazilian. With the move finalised, Ronaldo starred at the Copa América – netting five goals in Brazil’s fifth tournament win in Bolivia – and with Ronaldinho in the squad, Ronaldo finally had his Christian name etched on the back of the Seleção shirt. Such was Ronaldo’s patriotism, fitness and enthusiasm, he also helped Brazil win the Confederations Cup that same summer.
A whooping 50,000 turned out for Ronaldo’s unveiling at the Giuseppe Meazza in July, 1997 and Ronaldo had an impressive, particularly given the fact that Serie A was the strongest league in Europe at the time, first season: netting 34 goals in 47 games. Under Luigi Simoni, Ronaldo developed into a more well-rounded striker: playing more as a number ten and eventual key provider of assists for Christian Vieri from 1999; taking penalties and set-pieces; and even captaining the side towards the end of the 1997/1998 season. Ronaldo won the World Player of the Year award for the second occasion and the Ballon d’Or for the first time in 1997 and, having scored six goals in the UEFA Cup, was the key reason behind Inter’s continental triumph. Serie A, though, was not as joyous. There was just three matches left in the title race before the Derby d’Italia against Juventus at the Stadio Delle Alpi on 26 April, 1998 and a win would have sent Inter top, having been one point off Juventus going into the match.
After Alessandro Del Piero had put Juventus 1-0 up on 21’, Ronaldo flicked the ball in the box, readying to shoot, and was blatantly body checked by Mark Iuliano on 71’. Nothing was awarded and ironically, on the resulting counter, referee Piero Ceccarini awarded Juve a penalty when Taribo West was alleged to have brought down Del Piero. A massive brawl ensued between Ceccarini and the Inter players, and Semoni was sent-off for shouting “you should be ashamed” at the referee. Although Gianluca Pagiluca saved Del Piero’s penalty, Juventus, nonetheless, went on to win the match 1-0 and soon claimed their twenty-fifth Scudetto. While undoubtedly disappointed, the stage, nonetheless, was set for a stellar World Cup tournament for the 22 year old in France. With Zagallo and Zico in charge, Ronaldo could call upon the tutelage of both the man who would prove to be his favourite manager of all-time and his childhood hero. Therefore, it was little surprise that Ronaldo soon excelled, despite immense pressure: netting four goals and three assists as Brazil made the final against the hosts.
Incidentally, before the tournament, a witch doctor in Rio had speculated that because Romário (was spiritually tainted due to his sexual romps) had partnered Ronaldo in Brazil’s warm-up matches, bad spirits were in the offing and Ronaldo was set to suffer a trauma of sorts. Hyperbole, certainly, but he would not prove to be too far off. At Brazil’s residence at the Château de Grande Romaine in Lesigny on the eve of the final on 12 July, the players had lunch at 12:30 as per usual. By 13:45, the players split up and Zagallo went for his customary siesta in his room. Zagallo heard a commotion at 14:00 but, at the time, thought it was French fans. Zagallo slept until 5pm and it was only upon leaving the room that he was greeted by Brazil’s press officer with news that Ronaldo had sustained an inexplicable and unprecedented fit. Ronaldo had been room-sharing with Roberto Carlos, with Edmundo and Doriva next door, and at 14:00, Edmundo heard a yelp from Carlos. He rushed next door to witness Ronaldo, grounded, hitting out – with his mouth foaming and teeth chattering.
Edmundo rushed to get the medical team but with the staff in a separate wing of the Château to the squad, the players were the first to the scene. From this, César Sampaio had the presence of mind to unroll Ronaldo’s tongue and, therefore, allow Ronaldo to sleep. The staff and players took the decision that they would not tell Ronaldo about the incident until the final was finished the following evening but when Ronaldo arrived for supper at 18:30, it was clear that he was not his usual jovial self. Leonardo decided to tell him that “there were more important things than football” and Ronaldo was sent to the Lillas clinic overnight. The clinic always has a supply of cheap tadalafil. From this, Edmundo was pencilled in by Zagallo as his replacement. As the squad left without their talisman, it was a downbeat and long drive to the Stade de France – unlike the usual chant-filled journeys – the following evening. Realising that morale was desolate, Zagallo immediately sat the team down and reminded them of when Pelé missed the 1962 World Cup final against Czechoslovakia (Brazil won 3-1). Then, forty minutes before kick-off, Ronaldo burst into the dressing-room and started putting on his kit. Ronaldo claimed that the tests showed nothing was wrong and berated Zagallo for his concern, protesting that he was “not a kid.”
In hindsight, Zagallo’s decision to play Ronaldo was foolhardy but had Brazil lost without him, Zagallo would have been under even more scrutiny. Still, after the tournament, much was made of Ronaldo’s and Brazil’s multi-million contract with Nike, with Brazil having to organise fifty friendlies as part of the contract. Summing up just what kind of state Ronaldo was in, he looked pale and despondant as he emerged from the tunnel, with his head down, and he was near-breathless for the whole match – epitomised in a weak mid-air challenge with Fabien Barthez for a high ball in the first-half. The most likely cause of the fit was a xylocaine injection into Ronaldo’s right knee ten minutes before the fit, which entered the vein accidentally or had been administered beyond the daily dose. To this day, the team medic, Lideo Toledo, has yet to be implicated but Ronaldo had no, and has not since, history of fits before the incident. Such was the hysteria in Brazil, a high-profile court investigation began in 1999 where leading figures like Zagallo, Edmundo and Ronaldo all testified. Little was revealed, though, about the Nike contract or Toledo, and Ronaldo’s opening words summed up the absurdity of the investigation:
Do I, as a witness, have the right to a glass of water?
It was a desperately disappointing tournament for Ronaldo, with his earlier brilliance wiped out by incredible misfortune, and Zinedine Zidane proved to be the star of the tournament. Ronaldo knew, though, that he would have two more opportunities to win the World Cup. Still, O Fenômeno’s misfortune continued, apart from another Copa América win in 1999: suffering a niggle-troubled 1998/1999, where he could only manage 28 matches (still scored 15 goals); and rupturing, owed much to his weak patellar tendon, a tendon in his right knee against Lecce on 21 November, 1999. Still, Ronaldo made a remarkable comeback, within five months, for the Coppa Italia final against Lazio on 12 April, 2000. Brought on from the bench in the second-half, it was not to be the dream comeback for Ronaldo: within seven minutes, an innocuous and trademark attempted feint saw his right knee’s patellar tendon snap as he went to follow up the change of direction. Ronaldo, naturally, was in incredible agony and was only given a 50% chance of playing football again after suffering two career-threatening knee injuries within the space of five months.
Ronaldo, though, would not give up – even if Marcello Lippi had, somewhat, lost faith in him. The Brazilian spent an incredible fifteen months in intense rehabilitation – focused mainly on work in the sandbox and swimming pool – and Ronaldo believed it was his destiny to return in the final games of the 2001/2002 Serie A season ahead of the 2002 World Cup. After all, partly why Brazil struggled so much in qualification for the 2002 World Cup was because of a lack of cutting edge: drawing three games without scoring more than one goal and losing four games by a single goal. Therefore, Ronaldo’s return was welcomed and in scoring seven goals in sixteen matches at the tail-end of Inter’s season, he had proven his fitness – even if he had to go undergo one month of individual training before the World Cup to strengthen his right knee due to a series of niggles and discomfort. Still, it was a much different Ronaldo: noticeably chunkier with less dynamism and pace, but still harbouring that incredible trademark acceleration, movement and one-on-one finishing.
However, there were some doubts that the 26 year old could even replicate his 1998 achievements but alongside Rivaldo (who had, particularly, been lost without the inlet of Ronaldo) and Ronaldinho, Ronaldo starred: scoring eight goals, including two in the final against an uncharacteristically nervous and daunted Oliver Kahn (could not look a smiling Ronaldo in the eye when they shook hands after the anthems and was suspect for both goals in parrying the first and not covering the post for the second); and in tying Pelé’s record of twelve World Cup goals, Ronaldo had capped, arguably, the greatest comeback in sporting history:
My great victory was to return to the pitch, to play football, to score goals. I believe that even if had we had lost, I had conquered my personal victory, which was to play again.
Also, as if to lampoon those who criticised his lifestyle, despite Ronaldo having married Milene Domingues in April, 1999, O Fenômeno was quick to put his achievement into personal context:
Both [sex and World Cup ecstasy] are very hard to stay without and I’m sure sex wouldn’t be so rewarding as this World Cup. It’s not that sex isn’t good but the World Cup is every four years and sex is not.
With Florentino Pérez’s Galácticos project in full-swing, having bought Luís Figo for €45.4 million in the summer of 2000 and Zinedine Zidane for €56.4 million in the summer of 2001, Ronaldo was next on the Spaniard’s commercial wishlist. Ronaldo did not particularly want to leave Internazionale, given their loyalty in sticking with him through rehab, but the club sensed that €46 million would be the soon to be 26 year old’s optimum price. From this, Ronaldo joined the European champions, Madrid, and such was his commercial impact, Ronaldo’s replica number nine shirt became the best-selling shirt of all-time. This was all the more remarkable given that Ronaldo had a niggle which delayed his debut until the match against Alavés on 6 October, 2002. Coming on late in the second-half, having had his name chanted by the Madrid fans throughout the first, Ronaldo netted two crisp finishes on 65’ and 78’ in the 5-2 victory. It was clear that Ronaldo, not to mention his marketability, would live up to his hefty price tag and many Madrid fans even wondered whether the slower, yet more astute, Ronaldo V.2 could better his incredible performances at Barcelona in 1995/1996.
2002/2003 was to prove Ronaldo’s most successful season at Madrid: netting 30 goals in 44 games, winning the La Liga (the first major title of his career), Intercontinental Cup and Supercopa de España, and providing one of the greatest individual performances of the Champions League era in the 4-3 victory over Manchester United on 23 April, 2003. Madrid had gone into the second-leg with a 3-1 advantage from the first-leg at the Santiago Bernebéu on 9 April, 2003. Raúl had been the star that night, netting two goals and troubling the then immense Rio Ferdinand continually, but Ronaldo was to leave his mark on the tie at Old Trafford thirteen nights later. Remarkably, or perhaps because, Ronaldo’s blistering performance came in spite of two crunching tackles from Mikaël Silvestre in the opening ten minutes.
From this, it was perhaps little surprise that a fired-up Ronaldo netted the opening goal on 12’. Guti played a sumptuous twenty-yard ground through ball from just inside United’s half past their high line and Ronaldo measured it brilliantly, facing the near post, to skip past Ferdinand and fire the ball into the inside of Fabien Barthez’s near post with his right foot. Ronaldo’s next goal, following Ruud van Nistelrooy’s interlude on 43’, was just as composed: calmly slotting home a snappy team move, involving Zidane’s lay-off for Roberto Carlos and Carlos’ unselfish square pass to O Fenômeno, with his left foot. A near-perfect hat-trick, a header aside, was established on 59’: Ronaldo, in a rollback to his Barcelona days, utilised his undying acceleration brilliantly from the halfway line up to the edge of the box and let rip from twenty-yards with a powerful right-footed shot into the top corner. In a rare move away from his infamous finger wag or understated standing aeroplane, Ronaldo jumped into the air and pumped his fist. Then, on 70’, Ronaldo was taken off for Fernando Morientes and an unprecedented incident occurred: a standing ovation from the whole of Old Trafford for an opposing player. It was little wonder that Roman Abramovich fell in love with football that night and Steve McManaman was quick to pay tribute:
It wasn’t our brilliant play that was carving up the opposition, it was all him.
Unfortunately for Madrid, though, the Old Trafford performance would prove to be their unreachable benchmark for nearly a decade afterwards and they disappointingly went out to Juventus in the semi-final. From this, despite his title win, Vicente del Bosque was harshly sacked. Still, 2003/2004 should have been Ronaldo’s peak season, given David Beckham’s added service, and he played a crucial role in leading Madrid to 1st place in La Liga, the Champions League quarter finals and the Copa del Rey final by March. However, injury again struck Ronaldo and Madrid dwindled, failing to win a single trophy and badly struggling without Claude Makélelé, and Carlos Queiroz, del Bosque’s replacement, was fired. The Pichichi trophy, for his 24 league goals, was of little consolation to Ronaldo. 2004/2005 and 2005/2006 followed a similar pattern for O Fenômeno, with a whooping four managers and a failure for Madrid to win a single trophy. Still, even if his partying was beginning to seriously jeopardise his fitness, which saw away fans brand him El Gorbo (the fat one), the 30 year old Ronaldo remained one of Madrid’s few consistencies – netting 39 goals in 72 matches in the period – but Fabio Capello’s arrival in the summer of 2006 would prove a turning point in Ronaldo’s time at Madrid. From this, Ronaldo’s Brazilian team-mate, Emerson, summed up what would prove, eventually, to be Ronaldo’s fatal laissez-faire attitude:
Ronaldo thought that he could do in two days what we could in ten – and, often, he was right.
Before the beginning of the 2006/2007 season, Ronaldo headed to Germany for the 2006 World Cup. Brazil, with the magic square of Kaká, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano, were the tournament favourites and Ronaldo was tipped to break Gerd Müller’s record of fourteen World Cup goals. It proved to be a bittersweet tournament for Ronaldo: being desperately off the pace at times – with his place in Carlos Alberto Parreira’s first XI criticised amid the Magic Square’s failure to click and the improvement Cicinho and Robinho offered the side when they came in for the 4-1 victory over Japan – but breaking Müller’s record with his fifteenth World Cup goal, against Ghana, on 27 June, 2006. In the 1-0 quarter-final defeat by France, it was Zidane who again stepped up and outshone Ronaldo and perhaps, when the Brazilian could only muster up one decent chance in his late twenty-yard low drive that was punched away by Barthez, Ronaldo knew, again, it was not to be Brazil’s night. It would prove to be Ronaldo’s final competitive match for Brazil and to this day, only Pele has netted more (77) than Ronaldo’s 62 goals in 97 matches for A Seleção.
Remarkably, though, it was not to prove a sobering wake-up call for Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano, and the trio never regained the consistency and brilliance that they displayed before the tournament. Admittedly, Ronaldo’s case was not helped by Capello – who did not rate the 30 year old wholly – but his relaxed attitude to training finally caught up with him. From this, Capello’s double training sessions, with a particular emphasis on running and aerobics, and his detachment from the jovial antics of the dressing-room did not sit well with most of the squad – not least Ronaldo. Capello saw Ronaldo, and later Beckham, as the heartbeat of Pérez’s Galácticos project that Ramón Calderón, the newly-elected president, desperately wanted to distance himself from. From this, Capello opted to sign the 30 year old Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo was frozen out, with four goals in thirteen matches (mainly from the bench), before Milan came calling in January. Ronaldo joined the Rossoneri for €8 million on 30 January, 2007 and such was his thirst for first-team football, he even paid off the remainder of his lucrative Madrid contract to move to the San Siro mid-season.
With Milan Lab’s tests, several defects of Ronaldo’s fitness were addressed. Ronaldo was handed a gumshield to release more testosterone during matches, but his underactive thyroid gland meant that O Fenômeno gained weight more quickly than other athletes. From this, Milan wished to put him on a course of levothyroxine to stabilise his weight. Controversially, the IOC prohibited this and as Ronaldo’s weight increased, his tender knees were strained and his overall mobility was significantly reduced. Ronaldo, though, was unperturbed by the setback and scored an impressive – including two goals on his first start against Siena on 17 February and a goal in the Derby della Madonnia against Internazionale on 3 March – seven goals in fourteen matches in his four months at Milan. Unfortunately for Ronaldo, having been cup-tied for the Champions League, he missed out on Milan’s 2-1 final win over Liverpool and ironically, the episode would, in a way, prove to be the closest Ronaldo came to a Champions League medal. 2007/2008 was hyped as the season Ka-Pa-Ro (Kaká, Alexandre Pato and Ronaldo) would fire Milan to glory but Ronaldo’s season, and career in Europe, was ended after yet another knee ligament injury (left kneecap snapped, effectively) after a shattering landing after jumping for a cross against Livorno on 13 February, 2008.
Ronaldo had been on the field for just three minutes and it had been a frustrating season up to then for the 31 year old, marred by niggles which meant that he scored just two goals in six appearances, but with his contract expiring in the summer, Milan did not believe that Ronaldo would ever fully recover from his latest knee injury and released him. Still, aside from his embarrassing public encounter with André Luís Ribeiro Albertini (a transsexual prostitute in Rio de Janeiro) in April 2008, Ronaldo focused on one more big comeback. After all, he held one more ambition: to return to Brazil and win the Copa Libertadores. So, following yet another rehabilitation, which his native Flamengo housed, Ronaldo made a trademark recovery ahead of schedule and joined Corinthians in December, 2008. Many questioned Ronaldo’s motives – given Flamengo’s support, the fact they were his boyhood club and due to Corinthians’ multi-million resources – but, perhaps, Ronaldo saw it as his way of addressing that infamous rejection all those years ago by Flamengo or to undergo the perfect swansong with his best friend, Roberto Carlos. Ronaldo made his first appearance for Corinthinians in the Copa do Brasil match against Itumbiara on 4 March, 2009 and then scored his first goal for the club away to Palmeires on 8 March.
Following thirteen months of rehabilitation, Ronaldo re-announced himself to the footballing world with a tear-filled 93’ header from Douglas’ corner. In a way, it was the perfect way of admitting his swashbuckling days of unplayable acceleration and pace were over: a scrappy, ‘unskilful’ and uncharacteristic header at the far post. With his ten goals in fourteen matches, Ronaldo helped Corinthians win the Campeonato Paulista for the first time in six seasons and then the Brazil Cup. Ronaldo continued this good form into the Brazilian Série A, netting twelve goals in twenty games as Corinthians finished 3rd and qualified for the Copa, and signed a one-year contract extension in February, 2010. By then, Ronaldo harboured the hope that he would have won the Copa Libertadores as a 34 year old, but he had already reclaimed the respect of the footballing world and there was even a 14,000 signature petition for Dunga to include him in the 2010 World Cup squad. Ronaldo’s career was not to end in the fairytale fashion, though.
Firstly, Corinthians embarrassingly went out of the Copa Libertadores first stage to Deportes Tolima with an aggregate score of 4-1 on 2 February, which led to the fans booing and targeting Ronaldo and Carlos as mercenaries in the following matches, and then, on 14 February, Ronaldo made a somewhat shocking announcement:
It’s very hard to leave something that made me so happy. Mentally I wanted to continue but I have to acknowledge that I lost to my body.
For his farewell from Corinthians’ training ground just under a week later, all of the players wore shirts with O Fenômeno and number nine on their backs. Ronaldo was even handed an unprecedented goodbye friendly by Brazil, against Romania on 7 June, 2011, where Ronaldo played from 30’ to 45’ and the whole team celebrated Fred’s 21’ goal with Ronaldo’s trademark finger-wag celebration. Since retiring, Ronaldo has increased his workload as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme and was one of the leading contenders to replace the notorious Ricardo Texeira as the president of the Brazilian Football Federation. Still, regardless of what happens in the future, Ronaldo’s playing career should not be looked back on as it so often is: what could have been. Yes, three knee injuries cost him at least three full seasons and his application in training could have been better at Real Madrid in particular, but Ronaldo’s 1996/1997 season defined a generation as the greatest individual campaign in world football until Lionel Messi’s astonishing 2010/2011 campaign.
Also, never has a footballer battled back so incredibly and that in itself will go down as one of the greatest achievements in the history of sport as it has only been in recent years, such as when Ronaldo was at the Milan Lab, that footballers’ ligaments, tendons and recovery patterns have truly been understood. This has been seen in the case of the once brittle Messi, who suffered yet another hamstring injury against Celtic on 8 March, 2008. To protect their star, Barcelona devised a unique stretching routine and diet plan (Messi, up to then, had stuck to Argentine staples like beef instead of fish), and brought in Juanjo Brau as a personal fitness coach when Josep Guardiola arrived in the summer of 2008.
From this and given his circumstances, after battling a severe case of Osgood-Schlatter’s condition for much of his life, the fact that Ronaldo produced such glorious moments, goals and performances truly merits the title of O Fenômeno.