Johan Cruyff famously summed up football as a simple game that’s just very hard to play simply. And the Dazzling Dutchman certainly had a point: the world’s all-time greats are all joined by an ability to make the beautiful game look easy.
The toughest task in football, however, is sticking the ball in the net. That is unless, of course, you happen to be Ronaldo Nazario. Having burst onto the scene in 1993 with a five-goal glut for Cruzeiro, the sensational teenager was quickly touted as being the most naturally gifted Brazilian striker since Pele. Over the next 18 years, the Rio-born wouldn’t just satisfy all expectations; he would single-handedly write a new blueprint for what the modern striker should be.
Even at an early age, Ronaldo had everything from physical speed and power to mental mastery. By the summer of 1994, the 6ft star was already a World Cup-winner having worked his way into Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad. While the 17-year-old didn’t play a single minute in the United States, European clubs were already becoming increasingly aware of a striker that had hit 41 goals in his first 45 professional club matches. On the advice of compatriot Romario, the upcoming superstar chose Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven as his first European destination. He would soon take the Eredivisie by storm to kickstart what would become over a decade of dominance as the world’s most feared marksman: Il Fenomeno was born.
Unlike many Brazilians before and since, Ronaldo wasted no time settling into European football. In fact, it took the teenager just 10 minutes to open his PSV account; that debut goal against Vitesse Arnhem would be a clear indication of things to come. A return of 30 goals in 33 league games would see the new Eindhoven hero clinch the division’s top scorer award in his maiden campaign while he would also represent his country as Selecao finished runners-up at Copa America ‘95. Unfortunately, Fenomeno’s second season in Europe would be hindered by the first of several serious knee injuries. However, 12 goals in 13 games would further enhance his growing reputation as one of the game’s most exciting prospects.
Ronaldo would also lift his first club honour in Europe, adding to a collection which already boasted two triumphs with Cruzeiro as well as his Brazil medals, as PSV landed the KNVB Cup with a 5-2 demolition of Sparta Rotterdam at De Kuip. Despite those successes, it was evident that the Brazilian was destined for bigger and better things; a move to one of the elite leagues was imminent.
Throughout the first half of 1996, a list of potential suitors were lined up as potential destinations for world football’s most exciting and complete forward. At a time when Italian football was still considered king, Inter Milan had been considered favourites until La Liga giants Barcelona swooped in with a world record bid of £13.2m. At 19, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima had become the most expensive player in history.
Naturally, the expectations that came with the tag were huge. Moreover, his first pre-season in Catalonia was majorly disrupted by his appearances at the summer’s Olympic Games in the USA, where he would net five goals under the name Ronaldinho (little Ronaldo). A mere mortal could have succumbed to those pressures, particularly as the move from Dutch football signified a colossal step up in quality and exposure. Instead, the former Cruzerio man grabbed the opportunity to secure a status of football immortality.
Ronaldo had the world at his feet, lighting up the Camp Nou each time he stepped onto the hallowed turf. Barcelona had been in a state of huge transition before big money arrivals helped Sir Bobby Robson’s Blaugrana fire their way back into relevance. Nonetheless, it was the undiluted genius of the record signing that gave Barcelona an edge. The Brazilian’s bamboozling talents were epitomised by an iconic strike against Compostela: Ronaldo bulldozed his way to goal from inside his own half with an exquisite showing of strength, acceleration and ball control before firing past the keeper.
In La Liga, 34 goals would land Ronaldo the Pichichi award while his goals also helped fire Barca to victory in both the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Had it not been for his involvement at the 1997 Copa America, many believe Barcelona would have completed the treble; instead, the Catalonians were defeated by relegated Hercules to surrender any hopes of pipping Real Madrid to the title.
Individually, though, it had been a stunning season for the Brazilian. It wasn’t simply a case of goal ratios that wouldn’t be seen again in Spain until the emergence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Barcelona’s hero was more than a goalscorer; he was the complete striker, and had moved the goalposts regarding the expectations of a world-class forward.
Ronaldo was combining the qualities of two or three varying world-class strikers to produce a new breed of attacker. Ronaldo had the strength and aerial abilities to offer a target whilst possessing the footballing brain and technique to get involved with the play too. Above all else, he had the speed, skill and composure to score goals for fun. The sublime solo goal against Compostela would epitomise his all-round capabilities at Barcelona, but it was the quick step-over and slotted finish that had become the striker’s trademark. Essentially, the lovable bucked-tooth Brazilian had taken forward play to the next level. To be a genuine world-class talent now, you couldn’t be either or; you had to be an influencer and a goalscorer simultaneously.
Brazil won the 1997 Copa America in Bolivia, with Ronaldo being voted best player and scoring in 3-0 final victory over the hosts. After previously being named 1996’s World Player of the Year, his place at the top of football’s mountain was confirmed,. But that didn’t make him invincible.
Hostile contract disputes saw Ronaldo swap Barcelona for Inter Milan as the San Siro club triggered a £19.5m release clause, making Il Fenomeno only the third player (and most recent) player to become the world’s most expensive player twice – after David Jack in the 1920s and Diego Maradona in the 1980s. Hesitation had cost the Italian giants an inflation of nearly 50% but Luigi Simoni finally had his man, and the season in Spain proved that the 20-year-old was more than capable of shining on the big stage.
As with each of his three previous clubs, Ronaldo found immediate success, notching 34 goals during his maiden campaign in the toughest league to score. And for the second year running, he was also named World Player of the Year. Perhaps more significantly, the unstoppable attacking virtues also played a key role in firing Internazionale to UEFA Cup silverware. Ronaldo scored six goals in the competition, including one in the final victory in Paris – a city where the Brazilian would return less than two months later.
World Cup ‘98 was billed as Ronaldo’s destiny: the boy who had watched from the peripherals had grown into the star attraction and was certain to fire Selecao to its fourth World Cup triumph. An individual haul of four goals more than played its part as Brazil raced to the final, and the stage was set for Ronaldo to join Pele as the greatest ever.
Disaster struck as Ronaldo fell ill, being rushed to hospital following a convulsive fit. This pre-match scare initially saw the main star omitted from the list, but he would later be recalled. However, both player and team were a shadow of their best as host nation France eased to a 3-0 victory. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing world media investigation hit fever pitch. Sadly for Ronaldo, the disappointment was far from over.
Despite missing large chunks of the campaign, Ronaldo hit 14 Serie A goals in his second season. However, his third campaign in Milan would change his career forever.
Heading towards the new millennium, Ronaldo was still considered the world’s greatest striker. Having recently helped his country retain its Copa America crown, scoring five goals in the process, Inter Milan had hoped to see their star man fire them to a first Scudetto in over a decade. Turning 23 in the opening weeks of the season, the two-time World Player of the Year still had his peak years ahead of him, making it quite scary to think about what he would inevitably achieve in the game. But that progress came to a crashing halt in November 1999; a ruptured knee tendon meant his season was all but over.
After months of rehab, Ronaldo returned to action just weeks before the season’s climax, only to suffer a relapse. This time, the Brazilian would be out of action for the entire 2000-01 campaign as well as most of the following one too. At what should have been the peak of his powers, the Fenomeno had missed the best part of three successive seasons. It could have been enough to end any player. Thankfully, Ronaldo was more than just a footballer.
Four years after the start of his troubles, Ronaldo was back on the world stage in Japan and South Korea. Having played just a handful of matches in three years, head coach ‘Big Phil’ Scolari had been heavily scrutinised for even including the 25-year-old. Those doubts were soon put to bed when the star man opened his account 50 minutes into his side’s opener with Turkey, and would notch a further five as Selecao raced toward the final.
Preparations for the final were marred by a constant bombardment of speculation surrounding Ronaldo’s mental health, but the striker insisted all was well. After a hellacious ordeal over the past couple of years, this was the golden opportunity to put things right. And Ronaldo stood up to finally realise the forecasts that had been predicted four years earlier: the Fenomeno netted both goals in the final to deliver Brazil’s fifth World Cup trophy, clinch the Golden Boot with eight goals, and reestablish his reputation as the game’s greatest striker.
Once again, Ronaldo’s heroics weren’t all about goals. The striker’s return had galvanised the entire Brazil time following a difficult qualifying process. Ronaldo had grabbed Selecao by the scruff of the neck, dragging them to a title that should have been clinched four years earlier, and his place amongst the sporting gods had been written. Every truly great player needs a career-defining moment, World Cup 2002 was his. The legend had been reborn.
Ronaldo swiftly joined Real Madrid for €46m, becoming the latest edition in the Galacticos era. The next four-and-a-bit seasons would bring over 100 goals at the Bernabeu while the Brazilian’s first campaign also ended with a first major league triumph as Los Blancos won La Liga thanks largely to Fenomeno’s 23 goals. Meanwhile, a Champions League hat-trick at Old Trafford would even see the opposing Manchester United crowd applaud his attacking masterclass.
A Champions League winners’ medal would remain elusive, but Ronaldo was still utterly brilliant. Sadly, injuries were starting to catch up by the time he departed for a return to the San Siro, this time with AC Milan, in the January 2007 transfer window. The explosive pace was starting to fade while his influence on controlling a game wasn’t at the level which had seen him rewrite the striker’s manual. Nevertheless, an eye for goal remained evident as the 30-year-old still hit seven in his first half-a-season back in Italy.
A first full season back in Italy ended prematurely thanks to yet another major knee injury, and the damage ultimately ended the Brazilian’s European adventure. Following another extended stint of rehab, the striker returned to his homeland, where he helped Corinthians clinch a domestic double with 23 goals in his debut season. Ronaldo continued to score goals in 2010, but confirmed that the end was looming. He officially retired in February 2011, before turning out one last time in an international friendly that June.
Injuries slammed the brakes on at various stages throughout Ronaldo’s career, including what should have been his peak years. Nonetheless, the magical attacking maestro achieved no less than 13 club honours while scoring 62 international goals to land two World Cups and two Copa America’s. Alas, for a generation of worldwide football supporters, the iconic Christ the Redeemer celebration is forever etched into the memory.
His footballing CV alone confirms Ronaldo’s place as a legend of the game, but the Brazilian offered so much more than medals. At his peak, the Fenomeno was exactly that, and he treated fans to a level of attacking prowess that had never been previously witnessed. As the pioneer of the modern forward, his influence has been transparent in the careers of many 21st century greats; no matter what those stars achieve, none will send shockwaves through the football world quite like the Brazilian legend.
Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima: the greatest No.9 ever.