I can’t remember when I became a fan of Ronaldo.
The real Ronaldo, Brazilian Ronaldo, O Fenomeno.
I just remember his name has been associated with football excellence for a generation.
In keeping with form, the public and media often would focus on Ronaldo’s off-the-field issues. What really happened in France hours before the 1998 final? Why did he break up with his model girlfriend? Why would a man who dates models have prostitutes in his room and what sad luck they were transvestites?
I won’t give them any further attention. Life is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and despite the best of intentions all sort of things can go wrong, as most people can attest.
There is as much to laud as there is to learn in reflecting on Ronaldo’s career. Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of football players, with a Brazilian threatening to play on the national teams of every football nation on the planet. Many of them don’t achieve the level of success O Fenomeno achieved. Quite simply, his gift—the goal scoring that came so easily to him as a child—opened the way.
It is no wonder, however, that Ronaldo beat the odds to rise to the proverbial top. I would look at videos of Ronaldo in his prime and be utterly amazed at the pace and power that separated him from the other footballers of the day. His game was characteristic of fantastic control—dexterous, powerful running with the ball; strong, unstoppable shots on goal.
The comparison would be somewhat like a man playing among boys.
By the time I came to football seriously through the exploits of Ronaldinho, the Brazilian midfielder nicknamed after him, the years 1994-2002 had been kind to Ronaldo. He had been on two World Cup teams, won one and had racked up three FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
Along the way, he scored goals at an unprecedented rate in Brazil, at PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Inter Milan and for Brazil’s national team. He nearly went to Ajax—can you see him on the 1994 champions league winners? What a potent team he would have made it! He’d won a UEFA Cup Winners Cup, UEFA Cup, several league cups, player of the year awards and top scorer awards.
What could he leave for an encore?
Florentino Perez’s would then extend the ultimate compliment. His Galactico plan would bring him to the team all footballers aspire to play for, Real Madrid. I would spend many Classicos cheering Barca but secretly hoping Ronaldo would play well.
The first season at Real would be the last we saw of O Fenomeno at his best, when he scored 20 goals in 23 appearances on the way to winning La Liga.
His coaches were in wonder at his speed and power, but one coach ominously foretold the end at the beginning. In Chris Taylor’s "A Beautiful Game: A Journey through Latin Football," one of Ronaldo’s coaches warned that his game was so dependent on power and speed that an injury would be his end.
Injuries and perhaps also playing in the Italian League, where hard defense and tough tackling are the standard fare, might have cut a great career short, as his old coach had predicted. However, Ronaldo was to show that the words of "experience" do not have to define us.
In life, a little rain must fall. One knee injury can be hard enough to recoup from at any stage in history. In the '90s, especially so. Ronaldo battled back from three—a testament to the will and the desire of the man to play football.
Perhaps this feat is the real measure of his greatness: The will to continue playing against the odds.
After the initial season with Madrid, he would show flashes of brilliance—such as the hat trick against Manchester United in the Champions League—but he would not return to the heights of previous seasons.
Many a Madridista and commentator would take aim at his ever more portly figure. Ronaldo showed his utmost class by only revealing after retiring his hypothyroidism, a condition that slows the metabolism. A stint with AC Milan and a return home to Brazil would follow.
Eventually, there comes a time in an athlete’s life when he simply cannot continue. “I’ve lost the struggle against my body,” he said. “I can’t go up the stairs without feeling pain.”
As a sidebar, the public may cry out at the obscene amounts of money our sporting heroes command. But when one considers that at the young age of 34, Ronaldo has the legs of a much older man and probably many medical bills, one cannot help but be moved.
Additionally, when one considers that the most productive years of a sportsman’s life have been given to sport and that employment may not be possible after retirement, one must give pause to reflect.
"I don’t know how my life will be from now on," said Ronaldo. "I am going to miss that sensation of playing, of leading from the front."
We will also miss you, Ronaldo. I join the world in acknowledging you with a tinge of sadness—the man both former Inter manager Luigi Simoni and Inter owner Massimo Moratti hailed as the greatest striker ever.
So here’s to you, O Fenomeno.
Only now that you've finally stopped playing, stopped scoring, stopped winning, stopped leading from the front, do we realize how special you really were. A gifted athlete, a model of determination and persistence, the striker who broke the mold and set the standard. Thanks for the memories.
"I gave my life to football and made incredible sacrifices. I don’t regret anything."