With all eyes on the vast array of superstars flaunting their skills in South Africa this summer, Back Page Football takes a fond look back over the career of the World Cup’s favourite son and all time leading goalscorer, Ronaldo.
Look at the above picture. If you’ve seen it before, then you know exactly what direction this article is heading in. In what is one of football’s most famous clips, you would be forgiven for assuming the above manager has just witnessed his team concede a goal or a penalty, or even missing an absolute sitter.
Look closer. The manager in the above sequence is none other than Sir Bobby Robson, one of football’s most charismatic managers, and one of English football’s most adored sons. What appears to be utter shock and disbelief is just that – but not at a poor performance or some costly misfortune. It is in fact the sheer amazement of a man lost for words at the brilliance he has just witnessed, for Ronaldo Luis Nazário De Lima has just scored one of the greatest goals of all time.
“I was lucky enough to play for England with Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and Bobby Charlton until I was left out for some bloke called Bobby Moore. And what a privilege it was to be the manager of such great players as Terry Butcher, Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, Romario, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. I had Ruud van Nistelrooy and Luis Figo in my teams as teenagers, pitted my wits against Cloughie and Fergie, and was cheated by Diego Maradona….. The best player I ever worked with? Tough competition, but it has to be Brazil’s Ronaldo.” - Sir Bobby Robson, 2007
With journalists and fans alike currently struggling to find superlatives to throw at Lionel Messi, most of the amazement comes through the fact that the young Argentine is still only 22 years of age, as if what he has accomplished has never before come at such a tender age. Now consider the fact that at 21, Ronaldo was already the proud owner of not one, but two FIFA World Player of the Year awards, a Ballon D’or, a World Cup winners medal and World Cup Golden Ball.
Ronald’s phenomenal rise to the very top of world football began on the streets of Bento Ribeiro, a suburb of Rio De Janeiro. Spotted by Brazilian legend Jairzinho, who was at the time coaching São Cristóvão, Ronaldo was given the chance to showcase his revolutionary street skills on the field. Upon witnessing his potential, Jairzino recommended the then 16 year old to his former club Cruzeiro. In his debut season with the Campeonato Brasileir0 side, Ronaldo couped an astonishing 44 goals in as many games, wowing pundits and fans alike with blistering acceleration, powerful body balance and a close control and technique not seen since the great Pelé broke through at the very same age in 1958.
“In Brazil every kid starts playing street football very early. It’s in our blood. Every time I went away I was deceiving my mum. I’d tell her I was going to school but I’d be out on the street playing football. I always had a ball on my feet.” - Ronaldo
Soon enough, word of Ronaldo’s great talent spread to European shores thanks to his inclusion in Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning squad, and he was eventually scouted by the great Piet De Visser, regaded as one of the then best scouts in football having previously unearthed Ronaldo’s compatriot Romário. Like Romário, De Visser – now personal advisor to Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich – brought Ronaldo to Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, where he would continue his meteoric rise to stardom with a return of 57 goals in just 54 games. His impressive debut season on European soil was rewarded with an international call up to Brazil’s 1996 Olympics squad.
Mention the name “Ronaldinho” these days, and people will think of the current Milan forward and ex-Barcelona superstar. But back in 1996, “Ronaldinho”, or “Little Ronaldo”, was the nickname of PSV’s very own superstar, for Brazil already had within their ranks towering central defender Ronaldo Guiaro. The then Ronaldinho helped Brazil to a bronze medal at the Olympics, further promoting himself to Europe’s elite clubs while doing so.
It wasn’t long before one of these clubs made a move, and in the autumn of 1996, Ronaldo made his move from Holland to Spain, where he would call Barcelona his new home – following in the footsteps of some of football’s all time greats such as Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and Romário. It was during this time that Sir Bobby Robson worked with Ronaldo as Barcelona manager, leading the club to UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and Copa del Rey glory.
Another phenomenal return of 47 goals in 49 games elevated the Brazilian to the throne of FIFA World Player of the Year, becoming the youngest player to ever receive the award in it’s history. At 20 years old, Ronaldo was displaying a standard of finishing the world had never seen before. It was beginning to be taken for granted that, should the striker receive the ball anywhere within 20-30 yards of the goal, the keeper would be tested, with Ronaldo usually coming out on top. It was on October 12th, 1996 in a Spanish League encounter with Compostela that Sir Bobby Robson was left dumbfounded at the ability of Barcelona’s number 9.
“I love to score goals after passing all the defenders as well as the keeper. This is not my speciality, but my habit.” - Ronaldo
Money was beginning to talk in football, and in 1998, Barcelona accepted a then world record bid of £18 million from Inter Milan for Ronaldo. Never one to back down from a challenge, Ronaldo made the move to the Italian giants. His debut season was typical of
what the world had come to expect from it’s star player – 34 more goals followed, and more records were broken as Ronaldo became the first player to ever win back to back FIFA World Player of the Year awards, while also scooping the prestigious Ballon D’or.
Ronaldo travelled to France for the 1998 World Cup as the most exciting footballer the world had seen for decades. Guiding his team to a final showdown with the hosts, he had already bagged 4 goals and 3 assists. It was surely written among the stars that Ronaldo would crown an incredible year in his life with the ultimate prize in football, and go down as the greatest player of all time. But nobody could guess what would happen next.
“We lost the World Cup but I won another cup – my life” - Ronaldo (about the 1998 World Cup Final)
On the 12th July 1998, the day of the World Cup Final, Brazil and France submitted their team sheets 72 minutes before kick-off. Upon receiving the team sheets, referee Said Belqola – the first African man to ever officiate a World Cup Final – was aware of one noticeable absentee from the Brazil side. Ronaldo was not in the squad. Something strange was clearly happening in the Brazil dressing room, as the team failed to take to the field for the customary pre-match warm up, while football association officials scurried throughout the stadium. Belgola, bemused at Ronaldo’s exclusion, sent his assistant down to the Brazil camp to confirm the official team selection. When he returned, Ronaldo’s name had reappeared, and all seemed right in the world of football. But it clearly wasn’t.
Ronaldo performed like a shadow of the player who had plundered his way to more than 80 goals and countless awards in the previous two years. Zinedine Zidane guided France to a comfortable 3-0 victory. The Brazilian PR machine was in overdrive, with the initial cover story being that Ronaldo had been carrying an ankle injury. These reports soon made way for new stories that the striker had been suffering from an upset stomach. More excuses were unfolded, ranging from food poisoning to personal problems in his love life. Eventually, the devestating truth was revealed by Brazilian team doctor Lidio Toledo: Ronaldo had been rushed to hospital after suffering a convulsion in his sleep the night before the final.
“I don’t remember what happened but I went to sleep and, like the doctor said, it seems I had a fit for about 30 or 40 seconds.” - Ronaldo
Things would go from bad to worse for Ronaldo, who had seemed to be recovering from his World Cup scare at the start of the 1999/2000 season with Inter. 14 goals in 19 games pointed to the striker being back to his best. But on November 21st 1999, tragedy struck Ronaldo again, as he ruptured a tendon in his knee during Inter’s Serie A clash with Lecce. A devestating injury, it would have a particularly huge effect on a player such as Ronaldo who was known for his frightening pace and acceleration. After surgery and 5 months of rehabilitation, the Brazilian made his return in the Coppa Italia final against Lazio, but any hope of a fairytale comeback were shattered after he suffered a second, more serious injury to the same knee after just 7 minutes on the field.
He would not play again until the end of the 2001/2002 season – over one year later – grabbing 7 goals in 16 games for Inter and doing enough to persuade Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari to include him in his squad for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea. Having redeveloped his game to replace his reliance on speed and agility, Ronaldo was a different player post-injury. Now relying on strength, an improved eye for goal and a genius only acquired through experience, he unveiled his new style of play to devastating effect – guiding Brazil to the final once again and a showdown with Germany. All the pre-match talk focused on Ronaldo overcoming his demons from 1998 – and overcome them he did. He grabbed both Brazil’s goals on his way to a second World Cup winner’s medal, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer with 8 goals.
His performance’s earned him another world record transfer fee, this time €39 million, as Real Madrid added him to their ever growing line-up of Galacticos. Despite being sidelined until midway through October, Real Madrid’s fans welcomed Ronaldo with a heroes reception – chanting his name in matches he did not even attend and breaking records for merchandise sales. Doing what he had always done best, Ronaldo thanked the fans with 2 goals on his debut. He would go on to contribute 30 goals on the way to winning La Liga with Madrid. Despite a succession of injuries, Ronaldo would go on to score 104 goals in 184 games for Madrid over the course of 5 years at the club, including a stunning hat trick away to Manchester United which earned him a standing ovation from the Old Trafford faithful.
Ronaldo was again selected for Brazil’s 2006 World Cup squad, and despite not being the stand-out star in the team this time round, was still the talk of the media as he sought to break Gerd Muller’s record of 14 career goals in the World Cup. He achieved just this, with a trademark goal against Ghana on June 27th, grabbing his 15th goal in a World Cup finals tournament. Brazil would go on to be eliminated by France in the quarter finals.
Ronado fell out of favour with Madrid manager Fabio Capello in 2006, and following the signing of Ruud Van Nistelrooy from Manchester United, his days at the Bernabeu were numbered. On January 27th 2007, Ronaldo signed for AC Milan in a deal worth €7.5 million. In typical fashion, he would score 2 goals on his first start for the club against Livorno. At Milan, he set an unusual record as the only player to ever score for both teams in the Milan derby, having previously scored in the fixture for Inter in 1998/1999. Having kept up his incredibly scoring record that had followed him throughout his career, Ronaldo added a further 8 goals in 20 appearances at the San Siro, but tragedy would soon strike once again.
On February 13th 2008, in a league match against Livorno once again, Ronaldo was stretchered off the field after suffering a ruptured kneecap ligament following an innocuous attempt to win the ball. It was the third time Ronaldo had suffered such an injury, and not even the famous Milan Fitness Lab held much hope of him ever recovering – Milan did not renew his contract at the end of the season.
“My life has always been a series of challenges and I’m psychologically prepared, but this is the biggest challenge of my life.” – Ronaldo
Out of action for over a year, Ronaldo vowed to prove everyone wrong and return from his third career-threatening injury. A return to his homeland saw the superstar sign for Corinthians, where he received a heroes welcome upon his unveiling. Despite being sidelines for 13 months, Ronaldo helped himself to 27 goals in 50 appearances, helping his team to a league and cup double on the way, with renewed calls for him to be restored to the Brazil squad once again for the 2010 World Cup.
Having recently announced his intention to hang up those famous Nike boots after the 2011 season, Ronaldo can look back on a turbulent career full of goals, trophies, awards and accolades. But the more you hear from the man himself, the more you get the feeling that these are not important to him. Having been written off prematurely three times already in his career, you suspect he takes pleasure in proving his doubters wrong. Silly accusations of being “passed it” and “too overweight” have followed him around for years, but when you consider that in Ronaldo, we have a player who has been forced to completely redevelop his game three times having been injured for a cumulative total of more than 36 months, would we really be surprised should the comeback king do it once more? Having vowed to end his career at Corinthians, Ronaldo has promised to repay the club’s faith in him by delivering the trophy that has evaded them for so long – the Copa Libertadores. Would we really begrudge the man such an honour? Not at all, because for everything Ronaldo has achieved throughout his career, he has achieved it all on his own merit.
It’s been said that for all a player’s hard work and desire, history only remembers the statistics. If that’s the case, history will certainly remember Ronaldo, for as much as I hate to end an article in statistics, 412 goals in 601 appearances says more than any superlative I could pluck from the dictionary. And here’s a tip – he ain’t finished yet.
“I will celebrate, but I know new goals and objectives will come and I am ready to take them.” - Ronaldo