In today’s beautiful game, the name “Ronaldo” is synonymous with the Portuguese forward, who over the past decade has plagued the opposition across the globe for both clubs and country. This modern day icon has been part of a two-man pursuit to be the greatest player the game has ever seen. With his perpetual archrival, Lionel Messi, pushing him all the way, football fans have been the beneficiary of witnessing some incredible sporting moments.
However, if you are of a certain age and think of the name Ronaldo, you’ll cast your memory back to almost a quarter century ago, as the original version was achieving new heights for Barcelona, AC Milan and Inter Milan. The “real” Ronaldo was dominating the pitch, becoming the world's greatest player at the time.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, dubbed O Fenômeno ("The Phenomenon"), was signed from PSV Eindhoven by the legendary manager Bobby Robson. His stint at Camp Nou was far shorter than Barcelona fans would have hoped for, and even though he only spent a season in Catalunya, he certainly left his mark.
During his relatively short time with the club, his performance during the 1996/97 season was nothing short of extraordinary. It was arguably one sensational goal that earned him the nickname ‘El Fenómeno.’
The setting was at Compostela with Barcelona already 2-0 up. The stage was set for the Brazilian to unleash his raw power on a defense that did not know what hit them, or what was about to run through them. After picking the ball up in his own half, it was time to turn on the afterburners.
As he begins his strike, he uses his brute strength to shrug off two players with ease. One defender attempts to slow his charge by pulling his shirt, but that does little to stop the determined man with only a singular goal in mind. After charging toward the box, he bulldozes into the opposition’s penalty area before finally firing the ball past the unfortunate Compostela goalkeeper.
This was an electrifying goal, and one that announced he had truly arrived on the world’s stage. He was given a taste of this glory in 1994 as a member of Brazil’s World Cup winning squad. Although just a 17-year-old, he would not play any role in his nation’s eventual march to global dominance, but instead watched keenly from the sidelines. This lesson in success was invaluable.
However, four years after Brazil’s triumph in the United States, Ronaldo did join the ranks of a fearsome squad in 1998 that sought to retain their mantle as champions of the world. If they were to accomplish this, he and the teammates would have to do so on French soil.
Their march to the final reinforced their status as tournament favorites, and even though they were up against hosts France, neither pundits nor punters gave the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps any chance of winning at the Stade De France. Initially removed from the team sheet, Ronaldo would be confirmed to start just an hour before the game was due to begin. Although he played, his physical effort fell far short of the mark.
France was on a mission and the best generation Les Bleus had ever seen was culminating toward the defining moment of their careers. Zinedine Zidane alone scored two first-half headers on the way to the French eventually winning by three goals to nil. This was a night to remember for France, a night to forget for Ronaldo. Although there was undoubtedly crushing disappointment for the then Inter Milan forward, there is nothing better than a great sporting redemption story.
Ronaldo suffered a series of devastating injuries following the World Cup loss to France. In November 1999, he injured his knee, requiring surgery to repair. Just five months later, and six minutes into a match, Ronaldo attempted a step-over which resulted in a reinjury that proved worse than the first. He severed the tendons surrounding his kneecap, exploding the kneecap, which ended up in the middle of his thigh.
Following surgery, the swelling was so extreme that the knee itself was the size of a football. The likelihood of a full recovery to pro player status was less than plausible. Through willpower, therapy and sheer grit, he recovered.
This next chapter was written in 2002 as the World Cup was staged in Asia for the first time in history. With Japan and South Korea sharing hosting duties, this would be the opportunity for “R9” to scale to the top of football’s mountain. When you also consider the severity of the injuries he suffered while at Inter Milan, absolutely no one (not even the German supporters who witnessed their side lose in the final itself) could begrudge Ronaldo’s World Cup winning efforts.
His extraordinary contribution crescendoed in the tournament decider, as he scored twice past the typically efficient Oliver Kahn in the German goal. By the time the second had been successfully deposited, the memories of four years prior disintegrated.
This comeback put Ronaldo at the top of the footballing hierarchy. Although his star may not have shone for long in terms of a lengthy career, it did burn incredibly bright. He is considered by many to be the best they have played with or against, including Zinedine Zidane (Real) and Youri Djorkaeff (Inter). For many, he will forever remain the “real” Ronaldo.
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