Valentine’s Day 2011 saw an announcement anticipated but met with sorrow around the football world and mourned with open grief in his native Brazil. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima stated at a hastily arranged press conference in Sao Paolo that he was retiring from the sport. The 34-year-old was clearly distraught and broke down several times as he explained the reason he can no play longer the game so dear to him.
I’ve lost the struggle against my body
This was a grim statement and fuel for the cynics that hilariously christened him “Fat Ronaldo”, so he would not be confused with the Portuguese impostor. On hearing the news, I expected a raft of tributes, obituaries and gushing appraisals of a career that touched the lives of millions. Unfortunately this was not the case.
I would be the first to admit my Portuguese is decidedly ropey. People were publicly weeping in the aftermath of the news and I could safely assume that there countless articles dedicated to Ronaldo in his native tongue. But a number of frantic hunts using various search engines for any pieces in English brought little joy. There were plenty of articles with details of his press conference, but nothing that really captured how much of a phenomenon Ronaldo really was. Maybe there are not the words to fully capture how explosive, lethal and unique Il Fenomeno was.
The statistics do Ronnie a certain amount of justice. 352 goals in 515 games spread across the seven clubs he represented with great distinction throughout his 18-year career. 62 goals in 97 appearances for Brazil, leaving him second in the all-time top scorers list for A Seleção behind a certain Pele. Most goals in World Cup Finals history with 15. But these most impressive figures only tell part of the story. It was the manner in which he achieved them and the obstacles he overcame that blew us all away.
His sole season at the Camp Nou, 1996/97, in the colours of Barcelona will linger long in the memory. 47 goals in 49 games from a 20-year-old in his first campaign in the Spanish top flight was an awesome return. But there it seemed like there was more to come. Though his power, pace and direct running may seem at odds to the tiki-taka style that Barcelona have implemented from the days of Rinus Michels right through to Pep Guardiola’s modern-day side, Ronaldo and Barca seemed a perfect fit. The goals flowed, with one effort against Compostela showing the skill and determination that would define his career. But a contract dispute led to a £19 million move to Internazionale in the summer of 1997. That year spent in Catalonia would be the height of his club career on a personal level.
Shortly after moving to Italy, there was a change in Ronaldo’s physique. He was not moving at the sprinter’s gallop of his Barca days, and seemed to have bulked up the top half of his body at an alarming rate. This was blamed as a reason in the injuries that plagued him in years to come. Not that Inter were too bothered, with a UEFA Cup to toast, sealed with trademark Ronaldo goal following a bewildering step-over. He seemed all set for the upcoming World Cup in France to showcase his talents on the grandest stage of all.
Following a relatively smooth passage to the final, aided by four Ronaldo goals, Brazil went into the 12 July 1998 showpiece against the hosts in a positive frame of mind. They were peaking at just the right time, though the draining semi-final against Holland took a physical toll. But the mental toll proved to be greater for 21-year-old Ronaldo. The build-up was feverish, the media attention intense. In this pre-internet and 24-hour-news age, it was impossible to see how there could be any more coverage on this match. The majority of the chaos was directed at Brazil’s number 9, and it almost proved too much. Initially left out of the starting line-up following a mysterious fit hours before the final; he was reinstated less than an hour before the match. An underwhelming display, not surprising in the circumstances, from the striker was a mere footnote in a 3-0 France victory. For one so young, the enormous pressure was too much to bear. Mystery still surrounds the hours before the final, but one can only imagine the torment Ronaldo went through.
Horrific knee injuries then further stalled his progress. On his comeback in April 2000, following 5 months on the sidelines, in a Coppa Italia tie against Lazio, a distinctive Il Fenomeno burst ended in him collapsing in agony on the Stadio Olympio pitch in agony. I challenge anybody to few view this clip and not feel more than a hint of sympathy for the distraught Brazilian. The reaction of Lazio’s Diego Simeone and Fernando Couto gave an indication of how serious the situation was. Major doubts were raised about Ronaldo’s career. Would he ever play again?
Redemption came in more ways than one in the 2002 World Cup. A rather functional A Seleção had struggled to even qualify for the tournament. But with their iconic number 9 back, with an even more iconic haircut, they were a different proposition. Ronaldo’s eight goals, particularly his two in the final against Germany, were met with joy all around the globe. From the depths of mental anguish in Paris 1998, to the physical despair and torment of his career-threatening injuries, he came back in a way than the most outlandish Hollywood producer could struggle to fathom.
The courage, persistence, mental strength and bravery he conjured up from within him to reach such heights again cannot not be complemented and revered enough. Coming back from the horror of the France ’98 final, after which the entire world was wondering what happened and those knee problems is testament to the character of the man. While not always the most disciplined when it came to training and looking after himself following his comeback in 2002, the four year from 98 -02, he endured more anguish, pain and scrutiny than most great players go through in a lifetime. The fact Ronaldo came back in such a victorious and epic manner deserves far more recognition than he gets. We see him often tarred with the same brush as Ronaldinho, a player whose most arduous career obstacle seemed to be what hairband to sport, but in terms of heart and desire there is no comparison.
Ronaldo always played with a smile on his face, his dentures constantly prominent for the majority of his time on the pitch. It was his happy demeanour that brought him so many admirers world-wide. The fact that he was enjoying the game, but people watching him could see it, almost feel how much pleasure he was getting out of earning a living from a game that is adored by millions across the planet. His imagination and ice-cool finishing on the pitch, aligned with his array of tricks and unerring runs into space made him all the more lovable.
His final farewell on a football field will be in June, as Brazil take on Romania in a friendly in preparation for the Copa America in Argentina. If his press conference is anything to go by, it will be an emotional affair. His admission of suffering from hypothyroidism, a disease that affects one’s metabolism will mean he will face another battle to keep his weight at a manageable level. With his final big day to come in June, Ronaldo will want to look the part. It will be a fitting farewell for the greatest striker of our time. There is one last chapter to write in his remarkable story.