The IBWM Tribute to Ronaldo

Jack Lang hails one of the all-time greats.

“I’m here to announce that I’m bringing my professional career to an end… it was beautiful, marvellous, and emotional.” So, eighteen years after they had begun, ended the playing days of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, perhaps the most iconic footballer of the modern game. Speaking at Corinthians’ Joaquim Grava training centre on Monday, the man affectionately known in Brazil as O Fenômeno confirmed that he would be unable to fulfil his contract with the São Paulo club; rather than continuing until December as anticipated, the severity of his muscular and thyroid problems had forced him to retire with immediate effect.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Ronaldo’s bleary-eyed farewell represented a somewhat ignominious final chapter to his (otherwise inspirational) story. To British eyes (stiff upper lip and all that), the sight of a 34-year-old man bursting into tears of lament at his own broken body may have seemed an inappropriate curtain call. In reality, it was anything but. Ronaldo’s display of grief was accompanied by frequent moments of heart-warming charm (“I made a lot of friends, and I don’t remember having had a single enemy”), a fact which meant that the announcement was entirely of a piece with his time as a professional; his was a career which so often threatened to veer off into tragedy, yet always maintained an intrinsic redemptive quality.

Ronaldo’s mythic trajectory dates back to 1976, when he was born in Itaguaí, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The third child of street vendor and an ice-cream parlour assistant (I really should be trying harder not to make this sound like a religious parable), Ronaldo was named after his godfather, the doctor who rushed his mother to hospital on September 18th. In hindsight, that man’s nickname – Ronaldo Valente (Brave Ronaldo) – would also have been an appropriate mantle for the youngster.

After playing for a number of youth sides, a twelve-year-old Ronaldo impressed while on trial at Flamengo (his boyhood club, and that of his idol Zico), but was forced to settle for the more modest São Cristovão due to his inability to pay for daily transport to the former’s training complex. The setback proved a minor one. Three years and a hatful of goals later, his playing rights were bought (for just $7,500) by businessmen Reinaldo Pitta and Alexandre Martins, who had been tipped off by former seleção hero Jairzinho. Aided by Ronaldo’s impressive displays at the South American U17 championship, the pair saw their investment return a healthy profit; in 1993, Cruzeiro paid $50,000 for 55% of the player’s registration.

Still just a teenager, Ronaldo took the step up to senior football in his stride; he finished top scorer in the 1994 Minas Gerais state championship, a feat which earned him a place in Brazil’s World Cup squad later that year. Despite not getting onto the pitch in the USA, the experience was an instructive one for the striker, who had signed for PSV Eindhoven for $6million just before the tournament. Sharing a dressing room with players such as Romário and Dunga, the young Ronaldo observed the kind of winning attitude that would later catapult him to the top of the sport.

In the four years that followed (allow me to assume some familiarity on the part of the reader, and refrain from providing an in-depth chronology of the European years of the forward’s career), Ronaldo became the best player in the world. To be sure, the lanky, gangling youth who emerged at Cruzeiro was already a thrilling prospect; lightening-fast, skilful, and with a coolness in front of goal that was the envy of men twice his age. In Europe, however (at PSV, and particularly at Barcelona and his in his first year with Internazionale), Ronaldo transformed himself into an altogether more potent threat, allying his natural finesse with a brute physicality in a manner that no player since has come close to matching.

As well as having the pace to evade all but the most determined of tacklers, the increasingly bulked-up Ronaldo had another option in his armoury; eyeing up defenders in his path, one could almost hear him chanting the words to the children’s song Going on a Lion Hunt (“can’t go over it… can’t go under it… can’t go around it… have to go THROUGH IT!”) before steamrollering his way towards goal. This pure animal ferocity, coupled with an astute positional sense and an unerring ability to find the corners of the net, marked Ronaldo out as the paradigm of athleticism in the modern game; he was a player who fundamentally altered out expectations of what footballers could do on the pitch.

Despite its undoubted benefits (135 club goals in four seasons, four goals in World Cup 1998), however, Ronaldo’s increased corporal prowess came at a high cost. A series of knee problems, dating back to his time in Holland, blighted his time in Italy; a particularly heartbreaking moment came in April 2000, when he broke down against Lazio in his first game for five months. That second injury kept O Fenômeno out of action for over a year, and raised doubts over whether he would ever recover.

Ronaldo put such reservations to bed in emphatic style in the 2002 World Cup, racking up eight goals and propelling the seleção to an unparalleled fifth title. The tournament was a redemptive one for Ronaldo; not only did he draw a line under his fitness woes (and the gruelling work that recovery from them entailed), but he finally emerged from the shadow land that was created in the wake of Brazil’s 1998 final loss to France. The helpless cocoon of a man which (for whatever reason) appeared at the Stade de France that night was, four years later, replaced by a glorious (if admittedly still goofy-looking) canary-yellow butterfly. I recall beaming from ear to ear when Ronaldo slid his second goal past Oliver Kahn; it wasn’t Brazil I was happy for, it was him.

If the years since that fateful night in Yokahama look like a postscript to this tale, they still provide ample interest. Ronaldo’s big money move to Real Madrid proved a relatively successful one; although he never managed to win the Champions League, he did pick up two Spanish championship medals (the only national titles of his career), and scored an impressive 104 goals for Los Blancos. It was during this period that Ronaldo secured the record for which he will likely be best remembered; his three strikes at Germany 2006 took him past Gerd Müller as the top World Cup goalscorer in history. A brief (and again, injury-plagued) spell in Milan followed, before O Fenômeno finally returned to his homeland.

Controversy followed Ronaldo across the Atlantic; after regaining fitness by training with Flamengo, he proceeded to sign for Corinthians, bitter rivals of the Gávea club. Flamengo, claimed Ronaldo, had remained sceptical over his fitness, and had failed to offer him a concrete deal. The fallout from this period lasted throughout the player’s time with the Timão; he was roundly booed and insulted during the handful of Campeonato Brasileiro and Copa Libertadores clashes between the two clubs.

Ronaldo has also been widely (and, on occasion, savagely) mocked in the media; both for his declining physique and for events in his private life. I shall say nothing about the latter (such puerility hardly merits response), but with reference to the former, I think Ronaldo is due some sympathy. True, he was hardly the picture of health during his time in Brazil, but his slackening figure was, at least to some extent, beyond his control; as he revealed on Monday, his weight gain was partly the result of his hypothyroidism (which football regulations prevented him from regulating with hormones).

Despite such issues, the Brazilian public at large will look back fondly on Ronaldo’s spell at Corinthians. Even without the devastating pace that had defined his spell at Cruzeiro, Ronaldo was able to exert significant influence on matches, taking up a more creative role and, as ever, finishing with aplomb when presented with a sight of goal. His experience helped a young team to win the Paulistão and Copa do Brasil in 2009, but his time at Corinthians would ultimately end in disappointment; the Timão choked in the later stages of the Brasileirão last term, and were last week knocked out of the Libertadores (a competition that they were desperate to win) by Colombian side Tolima. A win in the that game would have probably encouraged Ronaldo to battle on until the end of the year, but the prospect of another arduous season without silverware evidently proved too much for the veteran to entertain.

At the end of a career which has been peppered with misfortune, Ronaldo will be remembered as a player who overcame adversity, and did so with a smile on his face. O Fenômeno was a footballer who never lost the adolescent joy of kicking the ball, of attempting a dribble, of scoring a goal, even when he was playing at the highest echelons of the game. In this sense, Ronaldo’s career – a cycle of momentary tragedies and redemptive ecstasy – stands as a fitting metaphor for Brazilian life more generally. His story, with its intriguing dual-character, perfectly maps the cultural history of the (still nascent) country from which he hails. This, I posit, goes some way to explaining his popularity, both in Brazil and worldwide. I, for one, can think of no higher praise for the man.

To read more from Jack, visit his fine Brazilian football blog, Snap, Kaka, and Pop! You can follow him on Twitter @snap_kaka_pop.