There aren't many ways you can describe a two-time World Cup winner, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and all-time leading World Cup finals goalscorer. But for Ronaldo Luís Nazário De Lima—commonly known as Ronaldo—"Il Fenomeno" was the closest thing world football could come up with. And truth be told, he was phenomenal—forever a legend of the game.
Ronaldo was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1976. Like so many other legends of the game, Ronaldo was rarely seen without a ball at his feet from a young age. In a documentary about his life aired on Sky Sports, he was described as a "naughty" young boy by neighbours. However, it was clear to them that he had football running through his veins.
Incredibly enough, Ronaldo was unable to trial for Rio's top clubs initially because they refused to pay for his bus fare to the trial itself. As such, he was picked up by local side Sao Cristovao. Coach of Ronaldo's side at the time Roberto Gaglianone commented on Ronaldo's incredible pace and decision making on the ball. He like many around him knew that Ronaldo's emphatic scoring rate at the club would not go unnoticed for long and sure enough, two years after he signed at Cristovao, Cruzeiro came calling.
A legend was about to be born.
While his move to Cruzeiro was short-lived, Ronaldo netted 57 times in 59 matches for the club over the course of two years. At just 17 years of age Ronaldo had already won his first piece of silverware with the Brazilian side—the Copa do Brazil.
Remarkably, in 1994, the boy from Rio was called up to Brazil's World Cup squad. At the tender age of 17, many argued he was not ready for the world stage, but more began to draw comparisons between Ronaldo and Pele. The Selecao took down Italy in the final, and although Ronaldo did not feature during the campaign in the USA, he had already gained experience far beyond any other player his age.
Unsurprisingly, the World Cup exposed Ronaldo to a plethora of interest from Europe and following the 1994 World Cup, he transferred to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven for a fee of £4.2million. It seemed by this stage that almost a goal a game was becoming the norm for Brazil's latest sensation; and by the time he had finished with PSV he had scored 66 goals in 70 appearances.
By this point he had amassed more silverware than most professional footballers do in their lifetime, with five titles—including a World Cup.
But he was on the move. Barcelona the destination for a then-record fee of £19.5 million.
Now, if ever there has been a greater debut season for a club anywhere in the world, I am yet to have seen it. I mean, listen to this: 47 goals in 51 matches, top scorer in the La Liga, winner of the Copa Del Rey and Supercopa Espana, UEFA Cup winner and FIFA World Player of the Year, not to mention runner-up for the Ballon d'or.
Football journalist Sid Lowe described Ronaldo as "too good for the league" (La Liga) during his time at Barca and following disagreements regarding wages, Ronaldo was lured away by Serie A giants Inter Milan.
Inter became his base in the lead-up to the 1998 World Cup. He was effective there, netting 39 times in 56 matches for the club in his first season. However, his and Brazil's eyes were on something much bigger than the glory he was tasting with Inter.
France 1998 was about to get underway. And at 21 Ronaldo carried the hopes of a nation into the tournament.
Brazil cruised through the competition reaching a final with France. Ronaldo was at the centre-piece of all things good for the (then) four-time World Cup winners. It seemed impossible that Brazil not win the competition. I mean, Ronaldo had already netted four times and notched up three assists, he was unstoppable.
But the night of the World Cup final, things went horribly wrong. Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit and was ruled out of the match against France. The hopes of a nation were dashed, until just minutes before kick-off, when Ronaldo walked into the Brazil dressing room and demanded he be included in the starting squad.
Manager Mario Zagallo included Il Fenomeno in the starting XI and although Brazil lost 3-0 to an impressive French outfit, Ronaldo played in the World Cup final—albeit a shadow of his best.
Returning to Italy, he continued to shine for Inter, until, on November 21, 1999, Ronaldo suffered a knee injury against Lecce. A ruptured tendon, surgery and grueling months of rehabilitation came to fruition when Il Fenomeno returned in April the following year. But it was no use, he went on to miss the entire 2000-01 season in order to preserve his career.
As far as comebacks go, the Brazilian International's return from injury to play in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, is right up there with the greatest in sporting history. With practically no playing time under his belt, Ronaldo came to Korea with many critics disputing his selection in the national team.
In just one month, Ronaldo single-handedly wrote himself into the history books, taking home the Golden Boot with eight goals and leading Brazil to their record fifth World Cup crown. The critics aforementioned had no choice but to praise the Brazilian superstar.
He netted the only goal in Brazil's semi against Turkey and a double in the final against Germany. Ronaldo was, at this point, the best striker on the planet...all after being sidelined for an entire season.
It would prove to only be a matter of time before Ronaldo became the next Galactico and when a €46 million fee came the way of Inter Milan, Florentino Pérez had his man. All in all, he scored 118 goals in 194 matches for Real Madrid. Despite his phenomenal talent and goal-getting, he was still criticised—this time for weight issues.
Such criticism carried over into the 2006 World Cup where Carlos Alberto Parreira was urged by many not to include him in Brazil's line-ups. Despite this, Parreira stuck with Ronaldo, and although Brazil were dispatched by France, Ronaldo netted three times to become the all-time leading World Cup scorer with 15 goals over three tournaments.
The press, along with the signing of Ruud van Nistelrooy at Real Madrid eventually forced Ronaldo out of the Spanish capital. AC Milan picked up the "overweight" striker, but interestingly enough, Ronaldo's weight gain was nothing of his own doing.
In a piece written on Ronaldo on BackPageFootball.com, the issue surrounding Ronaldo's weight gain is probably best summed up:
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.
At Milan he only produced 10 goals in 21 appearances.
They say lightning never strikes in the same place twice, but for Ronaldo a third injury to his knee saw him effectively end his career at Milan, but it wasn't the end, not yet at least.
In 2009, he recommenced training with Brazilian side Corinthians. He played in Brazil for three years, scoring 35 times in 69 matches. Regardless of his diminished—yet still impressive—goal scoring rate, his sheer determination to recover from three separate serious injuries is testament to his character and footballing talent.
Unfair criticism, excessive doubt and unfavourable media attention, did not do anything to aid Ronaldo's staggered career. For a player who missed so much football due to injury, his record is unfathomable. By the end of his career, Il Fenomeno's goal scoring figures were as follows: 490 goals in 715 matches...truly remarkable.
It is scary to think just how much more impressive Brazil's No. 9 could've have been had he not been sidelined for extended periods. We talk of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo being prolific scorers—and they are—but Ronaldo, in my opinion is still a step ahead of them both.
Messi and Ronaldo (Cristiano) are great players in a healthy world game, but Il Fenomeno will always be remembered as a legend from an era where the world game was filled with remarkable players.
The most complete forward to ever step foot on a pitch, Ronaldo Luís Nazário De Lima, a true legend of the game.
"Legends of Football" will be a regular article on Bleacher Report reflecting on the greats to have ever stepped foot on the pitch. If you would like to request a player/s to be covered, feel free to leave them in the comments below.
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