Ronaldo. Fat Ronaldo. O Fenômeno. Bald Ronaldo. R9.
Whatever you call him, he was bloody good, and he is the most iconic number 9 of all time. Whether it be his trademark specialities such as the hair, the nicknames or the skill moves, or the fleeting fraternities of spells at various European giants, or his iconic tournaments for Brazil, Ronaldo etched the memories of football fans across the globe no matter who they support.
In most of these Advent Calendar pieces we have looked the career of an individual in whole, or a certain aspect that makes them so iconic. For Ronaldo, there is too much ground to cover. Thus…
Let’s have a look at NINE pivotal moments of his career that have made Ronaldo the most iconic #9 of all time…
Early beginnings at Cruzeiro
“The first time I saw him play was at Cruzeiro. He was still a kid. It was in a game where he ended up scoring five goals. From that point on he showed he was truly a phenomenon” – the words of Brazil legend Cafu.
Ronaldo went on to earn the proverbial keys to the city wherever he has been in his playing career, but his time at Cruzeiro truly set the foundations.
Having being born and raised in a forlorn suburban town called Bento Ribeiro, about an hour from Rio de Janeiro, the future star of football went on to play football in the streets whenever, wherever. This was the case up until he joined Cruzeiro, where he spent a short but sweet period before moving on.
As Cafu mentioned, Ronaldo scored five goals in one match for Cruzeiro, as a fresh faced teenager facing up against Bahia. It was the beginning of what went on to be an illustrious career…
From Cruzeiro, Ronaldo moved on to PSV Eindhoven, where he was still pretty unknown in Europe upon his signature.
The PSV years
“Never in my life have I seen an 18-year-old play in this way” – German legend Rudi Völler, speaking about Ronaldo after his Bayer Leverkusen side defeated PSV 5-4 in a frantic Uefa Cup game, where the Brazilian netted a hat-trick by the hour mark.
It was at the Dutch club that Ronaldo set the benchmark that is still talked about to this day. When a young player comes through the ranks and starts earning plaudits – Gabriel Jesus for example – the comparisons to Ronaldo are quick, but ultimately mis-measured and incorrect. Ronaldo was 18 and he was doing all this. Some of the best players of the last decades weren’t at Ronaldo’s level from such an early age – not Lionel Messi, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, neither Diego Maradona or Alfredo di Stéfano.
He had it all – the lightning pace, the stopovers, the implausible impression that he was faster with the ball than without it, the aerial ability and upper body strength – it was all there.
It was here that one of the greatest strike partnerships of recent decades blossomed: Ronaldo and Romário. As a 17-year-old, Ronaldo was taken to the World Cup for mere experience, but he was often seen on the sidelines celebrating the goals of his senior, Romário. It was not the sole reason, but the fact Romário was at PSV when Ronaldo joined definitely played a part – coincidentally or by design, Ronaldo wanted to follow in the footsteps of Romário, his mentor.
Ronaldo left PSV as a goalscoring machine, with 42 goals in 46 Eredivisie games. Despite all this, he was still young, and a bigger move beckoned. Despite this, he did not leave as a legend, there were feuds between himself and the hierarchy, when he stated he would be happy to play for Barcelona ‘ate de graca’ (for free) as well as calling his coach Dick Advocaat ‘stupid’.
It wasn’t quite for free, in fact it was a world record fee of €19.5m, but Barça was where Ronaldo was destined.
The best individual season of La Liga history
Short and sweet – a phrase that has become rather cliché in the vocabulary of many football fans and writers, used often to describe a stint at one club where a player has performed but left after a short amount of time. Ronaldo’s time at Barcelona is a microcosm of the phrase in its literal meaning.
Spanish historian and journalist Sid Lowe described the season as: “Possibly the best individual season I have ever seen”.
He packed a lot into that season, too. So let’s pose a question: how can one score 47 goals in 49 games, lift various major trophies and still end up hated by the supporters of that team? Ronaldo did just that.
Four hat-tricks, seven braces, nearly a half-century of goals, all in one year. Oh, and one more thing, he was still only 20.
Despite all the goals, many of them superhuman runs and exquisite finishes, Ronaldo didn’t satisfy everyone.
Jose Mourinho, Bobby Robson’s assistant and translator, said: “You can’t get away with sleeping for 89 minutes of the game just because you score one fantastic goal.”
After some contractual disputes, Ronaldo left Barcelona, with tears in his eyes. He had conquered Holland, now Spain, Italy awaited…
The disappointment of ’98
It’s the biggest game in football: Brazil v France in the World Cup final in Paris. Ronaldo, the best player at the tournament, is not even on the bench? Why?
Some time after lunch on the day of the game, Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit while at the team hotel. He began frothing at the mouth and his whole body violently convulsed.
The whole incident went so far it was even debated in the Brazilian parliament. More bizzarre, forty minutes before the kick-off he showed up with the all-clear, insisting he should play.
Mário Zagallo agreed, starting Ronaldo. France won the game and the favourites Brazil were left in tears, but the mystery of what happened in that hotel still haunts Brazil to this day.
Zagallo was heavily scrutinised for starting Ronaldo, but if he hadn’t, and France had won, the same questions would arise over why he wasn’t on the field.
The injuries and the Inter diaries
In the 90’s, AC Milan were the team to beat in Serie A. Inter were cast pretty much into the shadows of the city, and were nothing more than ‘the other Milanese team’ at the time. Massimo Moratti became president of the club and made some ambitious signings such as Youri Djorkaeff, Nwanko Kanu and Diego Simeone. Then came Ronaldo.
He wasn’t just a signing, he was a statement. This was at a time where Serie A was the best league in the world, and where calcio was at an all time high.
Ronaldo was a man for big games, and none came bigger than the Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Inter, with four games to go in the season, and one point separating them. Juve went on to win the title, but with a fair share of moral injustice, as Ronaldo should have been awarded a penalty for a foul by Mark Iuliano.
The following season, the injuries started, leaving Inter fans to question ‘What could have been?’ when looking back on the Ronaldo Inter years. Inter would eventually end their long wait for a title – the Scudetto – but not with Ronaldo by their side.
It wasn’t to be for Ronaldo at Inter, but he launched an infinity of love which was reciprocal… until he joined AC Milan later in life at least.
That haircut and Ronaldo’s redemption
Ronaldo entered the 2002 World Cup with one thing overshadowing it: injuries. He had to divert attention somehow, and he did this with a ludicrous hair-cut.
Ronaldo said: “I decided to cut my hair and leave the small thing there. I come to training and everybody saw me with bad hair.
“Everybody was talking about the hair and forgot about the injury. I could stay more calm and relaxed and focused on my training.”
After the ghosts of Paris in 1998, Ronaldo had a point to prove. That’s exactly what he did. There are no official stats on how many newspapers led the following day with headlines of ‘Ronaldo’s Redemption’ or something along those lines, but you can bet there were many.
So, let’s explore the finest moment of Ronaldo’s career…
Yokohama, 29 June 2002: it’s the night before the biggest match of football since 1998, when Ronaldo had his fit and ultimately started the downfall of the Seleçāo. Ronaldo and his attacking accomplices, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, warmed up in the Yokohama International Stadium strutting their skills, trying to out-samba each other with audacious wizardry and tricks in the Japanese drizzle. The three R’s had all had their part in Brazil’s journey to the World Cup final – Ronaldinho’s chip on Seaman, Rivaldo’s faked injury controversy, Ronaldo’s goals – they were all tasked with making this time different than last, to end four years of questions, conspiracy theories, inquests and debates. They were incredibly calm, almost that they knew that sometimes in sport, upsets can happen, but sometimes teams are just too good to lose.
1998 was supposed to be the coronation of Ronaldo as the king of football, but it wasn’t to be. But on that night in Yokohama, the demons of four years prior certainly urged him on as he upped his game and drove Brazil to a famous victory, with two goals against a Germany side that included the likes of Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and many other all time greats. Ronaldo had fought through many injuries and other difficulties, but he fought back.
Ronaldo became an icon, a World Cup winner and more.
A true Galactico
an exceptionally skilled and celebrated soccer player often signed by Real Madrid in Florentino Perez’s first term at the club
At a time Madrid were struggling in La Liga, the fans called for a more radical approach and Florentino Perez represented that, with his transfer policy to purchase at least one galactico every summer. Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, the list went on.
Ronaldo’s most memorable club stint is at Real Madrid, especially in his first couple of seasons before multiple injuries plagued the end.
In fact, when you think of that era, Ronaldo is one of the first players to enter your mind, am I right?
In his debut, Ronaldo scored a double against Alaves, the first of which came 61 seconds after entering the field. He sealed the 2003 La Liga title with 23 league goals in his first season.
The highlight of his Madrid career probably came at Old Trafford in 2003…
Performance v United in 02/03
Sometimes, away players silence stadiums. Their performance has been so good that the home crowd is silenced, frustrated perhaps, but with no words to add on the matter. Other times, extremely rare occasions, players don’t silence home crowds, they bring them to their feet. That’s what Ronaldo did to Old Trafford – ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ – with his performance 2002/03.
Real Madrid rocked up in Manchester with a 3-1 aggregate lead from the Bernabéu, but in the Ferguson era, that meant little, giving the tendency his side had to turn games on their head. But then again, this was no normal side about to take to the turf at Old Trafford. This was Real Madrid, and this was the side with the best player in the world at the time – Ronaldo.
After stints at various clubs around Europe, it was this game that truly cemented his name in the minds of neutral football fans, and here he would himself recognise his greatness as a footballer.
Ronaldo scored a history hat-trick to first silence Old Trafford, but then bring it to its feet.
As he was substituted, he received a rapturous applause from all corners of the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ – the performance they witnessed was like a dream in that it was too good to be true, but in reality it was a nightmare, as Ronaldo tormented their hapless defence.
Sadly for Madrid and Ronaldo, injuries plagued their run to the final, and it wasn’t to be.
The end, the successes, the regrets
Throughout his career, Ronaldo had a unique ability to fight back from injuries and setbacks, but towards the end of his Madrid career, it seemed it wasn’t to be.
After Madrid, Ronaldo moved to Milan and finally Corinthians, where he finished his career. He still scored goals, but he wasn’t the force he once was.
So, what legacy does O Fenômeno leave behind?
It seems strange to label the career of Ronaldo as one that didn’t live up to its potential. The player that scored over 400 goals, that won multiple trophies in various leagues, that conquered the world with Brazil, it could’ve been much more.
Ronaldo reinvented forward play – never before had we seen forwards drop in like he did, run at defenders with innate speed, but also have innate strength to out-muscle opponents, all together with a unique finishing ability. Forwards before and after Ronaldo had mastered one of his traits, but R9 had it all.
As it stands, he goes down a revolutionary, but we have to finish on the question: without the injuries and other setbacks, could Ronaldo have achieved more?