In the 1990s, a kid burst out of Bento Ribeiro and blazed a swoosh-shaped trail across Europe, becoming the greatest striker of the modern era In April 2008, a man was reported to the Rio de Janeiro police for threatening three prostitutes. Although the case was later dropped when it appeared he’d been a victim of extortion, the escapade cost him $4.8 million in lost endorsements, led to a temporary break in his engagement to his long-term partner and saw him savagely criticised and satirised by the Brazilian media. His fans, though, didn’t give a toss: they only cared that he was recovering from knee surgery and, all being well, would soon don club colours in his homeland.
The man, of course, was Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima. Otherwise known as O Fenomeno, Originaldo and, to some heathens, Fat Ronaldo. The kid who burst out of Bento Riberio and blazed a swoosh-shaped trail across Europe. The footballer who made Sir Bobby Robson dance like your Dad at a wedding after too many Pernod and blacks.
The bastard offspring of a beaver and a hollow point bullet who smiled at defenders before turning them to jelly. The greatest striker of the modern era who won three FIFA World Player of the Year awards, a brace of Ballon D’Ors, and scored over 400 career goals. Of course, we all remember the big moments. That goal for Barcelona, his seizure on the morning of the 1998 World Cup final and resulting horror-show of a performance, the glorious redemption in the Land of the Rising Sun four years later. We can talk rabidly about the time he scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford and was serenaded with a standing ovation and we can easily recall his outrageous double-dummy that won Inter the UEFA Cup. Yet as time passes and his career becomes nothing more than a collection of YouTube videos set to appalling house music, and his deeds are crunched into numbers that are trotted out by people who prefer to lionise raw data over raw talent, we have missed the point.
As Dads sit on sofas across the country, shaking their heads at his appearance on a Pokerstars ad which elicits murmurs of ‘Fat’ Ronaldo from the kids, we have forgotten not only that he was the most exciting player seen on a football pitch in at least the last 25 years, but that every time he crossed the white line he played with a childlike joy that is rarely seen in the paid ranks. Ronaldo approached pretty much every one of his 600-odd games like a puppy who has just seen water for the first time, and is going in headfirst no matter how many times you call or whistle and, if he drowns, well f*ck it, because it was fun while it lasted.
Even towards the end of his career, with millions in the bank and knees that hated him, his delight at getting on the ball and taking the pss was palpable. Watching him elicited feelings like that first grope at your teenage disco or climbing a podium on your original lads holiday and reaching for those fcking lasers. It was a shot of pure adrenaline that could eviscerate cynicism, shred club loyalties, and render whole pubs mute. Whole actual pubs full of men wearing ill-fitting jeans covered in today’s paint and yesterday’s curry left speechless by a bald blur with teeth like a Disney character.
In remembering only the milestones and tragedies in our endless search for bite-sized pub-chat, we have allowed some of the greatest things ever seen on a football pitch to slip down the cracks of our bleary-eyed storytelling. We have forgotten one of the Titans. Brazil’s victorious 1994 World Cup-winning squad were an enigmatic bunch. There’s Dunga, a man who rattled into tackles and played simple give and go football (which is fitting when you consider he was a mere moustache away from being the third Chuckle Brother). Branco, the left back of the 40-yard free kick and a barnet that was lost to the world of 80s Glam Rock. Romario, the penalty box king who had the air of a lorry driver cruising for action in the bogs at a roadside cafe.
It was amongst this throng that Ronaldo first smiled at the world. Minutes after Roberto Baggio sent his penalty into orbit, as Franco Baresi broke down in tears and members of the Brazilian backroom staff performed somersaults in gaudy shell suits that Paulie Walnuts would’ve considered beyond the pale, Brazil’s 17-year-old reserve striker walked up the steps to get his hands on World Cup. “And there’s the number 20, the wonderkid Ronaldo,” said the American commentator.
“We haven’t seen him, but they say he’s a special one.” Think of any great South American talent and their childhoods are often seen as fuel for their inexorable rise. Luis Suarez playing in a sewer-lined gap next to a prison, Maradona bouncing a ball on his head on a patch of rutted dirt, Garrincha crippled by rickets and losing his virginity to a goat. Whether true or apocryphal, these tales stoke the need for a certain type of poverty tourism in the minds of Western football fans and journalists who, basically, lament the fact that you can’t find the next Bobby Charlton, living on a diet of mouldy bread and coal, playing one-and-in against a stinking outside toilet.
Ronaldo’s story has often been burnished to fit this narrative. Yet despite acknowledging that he saw the effects of poverty first hand, he came from a loving family where both parents worked and there was mostly enough food to pass around. Sure, he gave his Mum his first pay packet so that she could reupholster the sofa that had been his childhood bed, and his Dad climbed to the top of a hill to listen to that debut match for Cruzeiro on a long wave radio, but he wasn’t the ragged favela kid that some reports would have you believe. Not that it makes his early exploits any less remarkable.
In the 14 months that preceded USA 1994, Ronaldo had bludgeoned 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro. Watch them back now and they are a beautiful portrait of the artist as a young man. Skinny, shaven-headed, and with the gait of a child wearing his Mum’s highheels, he turns brutish Brazilian defences to dust with sheer brilliance and desire. Towering headers, first-time finishes, stepovers followed by screamers – they’re all there… But there are two in particular that serve notice of what was to come. On November 7, 1993, Ronaldo exploded into the public consciousness by scoring five goals in a 6-0 win against Bahia.
If the first four – a brace of penalties bookending a shimmy and finish and a towering header – show that he was well on his way to being the complete striker, then the fifth encapsulates his fun side. After the ball goes dead in the box, the Bahia keeper starts messing around and taunting the Cruzeiro fans. Caught up in his role as pantomime villain, he lets go of the ball for a split second. Ronaldo, lurking, reacts before the keeper can reclaim it, accelerates past him, taps it into the net, and runs off pissing himself laughing.
Think of all the difficult places you found yourself in at age 17: getting scowled at by your girlfriend’s dad over egg and chips, buying a bag of twigs off a nutter with his name tattooed on his knuckles via a school compass and a broken biro, heading to the back of Kwik Save for a fight you don’t want but definitely have to have to save face… None of them can compare to a Copa Libertadores tie against Boca f*cking Juniors.
In the reverse fixture at La Bombonera three weeks previously, Ronaldo had the sht kicked out of him by Cesar Luis Menotti’s Boca team. Popping up in the deep and wide attacking positions that would become his trademark, he taunted and traumatised defenders into several acts of classic South A m e r i c a n thuggery.
He wouldn’t have to wait long for his revenge. Early in the second half, on April 6 1994, Ronaldo received a ball 50 y a rds from the Boca goal. After taking a touch, he drives at one defender and leaves him trailing, beats two more Boca players with an inside-chop before turning on the afterburners to leave the last man floundering. Composing himself, he gives the keeper the eyes, sits him down with a roll of his studs, and buries the ball into the bottom corner with his left foot.
Less than ten seconds from start to finish, it was a goal that we would see countless times in his career. It was also one that lit the touch paper of a national campaign to have him included in the 1994 World Cup squad and had European scouts scurrying home to deliver gushing reports to the men in shite coats. Had Ronaldo played in the 1994 World Cup, it’s likely we’d be talking about an entirely different career. Alex Ferguson recently revealed that he was a whisker away from bringing him to Old Trafford, only to be scuppered by draconian work permit stipulations.
Imagine the state of that team with Ronaldo in it: fed by Giggs and Cantona and backed up by a snarling central midfield, he would’ve turned the Premier League’s band of shitkickers to mince and consigned Alan Shearer to a life of cliché on late-night Eurosport. Louis van Gaal also thought he’d got his man, salivating at the prospect of alternating Ronaldo with Patrick Kluivert and Kanu at Ajax and sending him dizzy with obtuse tactical instructions. Yet acting on the advice of Romario, Ronaldo chose to move to PSV Eindhoven for a fee of £3.83m, which was not only same price as Liverpool spunked on Phil Babb that summer, but also one that made him a very rich man when he trousered a 15% cut. Despite the 5-4 scoreline, the UEFA Cup tie between Bayer Leverkusen v PSV played on September 13 1994 is hardly remembered as a classic, but he didn’t disappoint. It was the first time the wider European public had got to see him for 90 minutes.
“The Ronaldo show started and he scored three goals,” remembers Frank Arnesen, then PSV’s Technical Director. “But it wasn’t about the goals even; there was one detail in the game that was incredible. He received the ball in his own half. The ball is played to him and the German right-back assaults him from behind in a dangerous way.
He lifts the ball with the outside of his left shoe, around the defender, and jumps. Ronaldo passes him by on the other side and starts a solo. He moves past three or four men, one man two times. Then all of Europe knew about Ronaldo.” Watch the game now and it is a performance that no teenager, especially one only a month into his career in Europe and still deaf to his team-mates’ instructions, had any right to give. The pick of the hat-trick was undoubtedly his second goal: a quivering belter hit from 30 yards that screams into the top corner and leaves the Leverkusen keeper, Rüdiger Vollborn, shaking his Friar Tuck haircut in absolute disbelief. The wobbled heads, twitching arseholes, and broken souls of opposition defenders were a common sight that season as Ronaldo finished with 35 goals in 36 games in all competitions. One of his most memorable performances, though, came in a game where he failed to score entirely and PSV were battered 4-1 at home by the Ajax team he turned down.
Van der Sar, Reiziger, Blind, Rijkaard and de Boer rank up there with history’s very best club defences. Unlikely to win any beauty contests, they marshalled that Ajax team to an unbeaten league season, and though records state that they shut out Ronaldo on his home turf, the footage shows four world stars being legged all over the show by a whirling dervish in red and white.
Sensing early on in the game that he’s got the beating of Michael Reiziger, there’s something of the hungry lion stalking a runt antelope in the way he continues to drift towards the left-wing position. Reiziger was a fine right-back, yet by the time he’s been nutmegged twice, turned inside out on numerous occasions and left flummoxed by a peach of a body swerve, he resembled a sad clown slumped in his van after a particularly testing birthday party. No one is spared the treatment: he makes Rijkaard look like a reversing tanker on at least two occasions, leaves de Boer in a flustered sweat, and causes Edgar Davids to gurn like a man feeding the pigeons in Amsterdam’s lariest techno club. Only a display of world-class goalkeeping from Big Edwin and some frankly blinkered refereeing stop him from crowning this 90-minute bloodletting with a goal.
For various reasons, Ronaldo’s second season at PSV was less successful. Although he still managed 19 goals in 21 games and won the Dutch Cup, he ran into strife with the authoritarian Dick Advocaat for an alleged lack of discipline on the training field, and, more importantly in the arc of his career, suffered the first serious injury to his right knee. These days, thumbs-up Instagram footage of footballers recovering from injuries all takes place in the same pristine club gyms filled with rows and rows of identikit equipment.
This was the 90s, however, and watching Ronaldo do a passable impression of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV in what appears to be someone’s living room serves as a stark reminder of how much the game has changed in the ensuing two decades. Interviewed after a gruelling set of leg weights, Ronaldo delivered a quote that not only highlights his love for the game, but also hints at the depths he must have constantly sunk to in the injury ravaged middle years of his career. “I need football, I need to score,” he says with the pleading eyes of a cow about to feel the death kiss of a bolt gun. “Football for me is… my life. If I can not do this then, then…” He finishes by mumbling something about it being terrible, but the furrowed brow and forlorn expression point to something far deeper.
Thankfully, he returned to full health to make a handful of appearances before the season ended. By now, though, he wasn’t the rookie who had joined PSV through the back door and set the Eredivisie ablaze, he was the most sought-after striker in European football, not only for his gifts, but for his star quality and huge marketing appeal. It soon became clear that, despite saying he wanted to stay another year at PSV to repay them for sticking by him after his injury, Ronaldo would be joining one of Europe’s top clubs.
The Mike Tyson pre-Buster Douglas was an absolute monster of a fighter, and it may seem a stretch to compare what Ronaldo did in 1996-97 with his march through the Heavyweight division. There was, of course, no joy with Tyson, just cold stares, concussive punches, and the lateral head movement of a king cobra. That said, in terms of both raw excitement and superiority over opponents in their pomp, they’re cut from the same devastating cloth. Some years after Tyson’s heyday, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates waxed lyrical about the young Iron Mike in the New York Review of Books. “To see Tyson’s early fights, both amateur and professional, is to see young boxers stalked, cornered, and swiftly beaten into submission by a younger boxer.
To see these fights in quick succession, the shared incredulity of the boxers who have found themselves in the ring with the relatively short, short-armed Tyson, their disbelief and astonishment at the sheer force of their opponent as he swarms upon them, is to witness a kind of Theatre of the Absurd.” Ronaldo’s season at Barcelona ran along similar lines. Now weighing 12 and a half stone and fitter than a gypsy’s whippet, Ronaldo spent a year making every opponent and team he faced look like relics.
These men were meant to be his peers, yet they appeared out of time; physically inferior without a hope of stopping him. If you watch the highlight reels, you’ll instantly be drawn to the ridiculous footwork and incredible acceleration that he uses to leave them floundering. Look again and you’ll see that he’s turned up to a knife fight in a f*cking tank. Swarming in packs they charge, grab, kick, and push to no avail. With granite thighs and torso allied to his fast twitch athleticism, they simply didn’t stand a chance. Defenders bounced off him like bumper cars at a fair, scattering in his wake as he repelled them with hip, forearm and elbow, physicality bristling from every part of his body. A Theatre of the Absurd played out three times a week, ninety minutes a pop, across Spain and mainland Europe.