I’ve been waiting for an excuse to start a blog for a little while now and whilst the debate about Wilshere’s role for England nearly stirred me out of inactivity and Arsenal’s dramatic victory against Barcelona could have had me writing, in the end it took something more poignant to inspire me. Something that takes me right back to my childhood: the recent retirement of a true footballing legend.
I was born in November 1988, and I don’t think it was until the 1994/95 season of the still young Premier League that I fully grasped professional football and made sure that I recorded Match of the Day onto my VHS tape to follow my beloved Arsenal to a 12th place finish with my favourite player Paul Merson going into rehab (the kind of introduction to football that could have come straight from the pages of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch). The world cup in the USA in 1994 came along just too early for me, my clearest memory of the tournament being that I owned a football that had “USA ’94” written on it as opposed to any of the competition itself.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, USA 1994 came along just too early for a 17 year old wonder-kid who had scored 12 goals in 14 appearances during his first season for Brazilian side Cruzeiro. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, not yet known as simply ‘Ronaldo’, was named in Brazil’s squad for the tournament but unlike Pele who had starred in the 1958 world cup at the age of 17, Ronaldo did not play a single minute. Despite this, there was a huge amount of excitement about the youngster making a name for himself and after the World Cup he moved to Europe with PSV Eindhoven.
What this means of course is that Ronaldo’s career took off at the exact time that I become obsessed with football as a kid. For me there was no ‘before Ronaldo’. In his first season in Europe he scored 30 goals and in the 1996/97 season he was at Barcelona, scoring 47 goals in 49 games for them (one goal every other game is often used as the benchmark for a good return in the modern game), won the UEFA cup and had been named the Fifa World Player of the Year. He was 20 years old.
By the world cup in France in 1998 Ronaldo was widely regarded as the the best player in the world as well as being a household name. Now playing for Inter Milan, he had proved how deadly he could be in yet another top league receiving the nickname Il Fenomeno from the Italian press and had been a star for the Brazil national team for a couple of years. By the end of his career he would have 97 caps for his country, scoring 62 times.
The aura of the Brazil national team should not be overlooked as a factor in what made Ronaldo such an icon, especially to someone my age who was too young to remember the more pragmatic tactics employed by the side Dunga captained to victory at USA ’94. As Hugh McIlvanny said in his match report from the 1970 world cup final “Other teams thrill us and make us respect them. The Brazilians at their finest gave us pleasure so natural and deep as to be a vivid physical experience” (taken from Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid) This is the view popular culture still holds for them and at 9 years old I was either oblivious that this was not necessarily gospel or simply had no interest anything but that idealised view of futebol arte. Brazil was were Garrincha, Pele, Jairzinho, Zico and Socrates had come from and now (more importantly perhaps) they had Ronaldo as well as the likes of Romario and Roberto Carlos. They played in yellow shirts and blue shorts and they were magnificent.
The Ro-Ro strikeforce of Ronaldo and Romario, the star of the previous generation, had destroyed Australia in the final of the Confederations Cup of 1997, both men scoring hat-tricks in a 6-0 victory for example. This moment in the history of Ronaldo’s career and in my life will forever be immortalised in Nike’s France ’98 advert where they flaunt their samba skills in an airport, the first of the great Nike football adverts.
As it turned out, France ’98 would be a low point in Ronaldo’s career. After reaching the final, he apparently suffered some kind of fit before the game and was off the pace for the entire match; team mate Roberto Carlos claiming afterwards that he was far more worried about his friend’s health than the outcome of the final. France won 3-0. I lost no sleep about the result, France were the underdogs and Arsenal’s Emmanuel Petit who had helped us to win the Premier League and FA Cup double that year had scored the third.
The following season Ronaldo ruptured a tendon in his knee and was out for almost five months only to injure it again just seven minutes into his comeback game. After this, he was never the same player again, which when you consider what he achieved later seems ridiculous but that is just testament to how good he was to start with. In Japan/South Korea in 2002, sporting one of the strangest hairstyles ever seen, Ronaldo finally led Brazil to victory in the world cup, scoring 8 goals in the process. He scored against every team they played against except for England who were cruelly knocked out by a freakish free-kick by the new emerging star Ronaldinho (literally meaning ‘little Ronaldo’) which sailed over the head of Arsenal keeper David Seaman. I could have cried. (Debates about whether it was deliberate roll on to this day – given how good he turned out to be… it probably was.)
Ronaldo’s club career now took him to Real Madrid who were going out of their way to sign the best players in the world for their ‘Los Galacticos’ project including his Brazil team mate Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane (the only person to equal Ronaldo’s record of 3 Fifa Player of the Year awards) and eventually David Beckham.
It was in 2003 however, that something happened which blew me away. Manchester United, who were on course to catch Arsenal at the top of the Premier League that season (they succeeded), a team that much to my annoyance I was used to watching win week in week out had drawn Real Madrid in the Champions League, a competition United had won in 1999. It was a huge clash with Real Madrid winning the first leg 3-1 at the Bernabeu. The second leg at Old Trafford was one of the matches that I remember most vividly; United won 4-3 with two late David Beckham goals (still a United player at this point) but Ronaldo scored an exceptional hat-trick to single handedly knock United out (6-5 on aggregate). It was one of the greatest performances I had ever seen. “He’s unreal isn’t he?” exclaimed Ron Atkinson as Ronaldo’s third goal sailed in from distance whilst his commentary partner Clive Tyldesley observed that “He’s just the best player in the world, that’s what he is” as Ronaldo was substituted to a standing ovation from both sets of supporters late on in the game. Truly unbelievable.
In the 2003/04 season Ronaldo and Real Madrid were on course for a treble before injury ruled him out for the end of the campaign. Madrid ended up winning nothing despite all their other star players. Fitness concerns and weight issues meant that by 2006 his time at Madrid was coming to an end and perhaps so was his career at the very top. None of this however stopped Carlos Alberto Parreira, the manager who led Brazil to victory at USA 1994, from playing Ronaldo at the 2006 world cup in Germany, where he scored 3 times to beat the prolific German ’60s/70s striker Gerd Muller’s record of 14 world cup goals. Despite this, after the tournament Madrid signed Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo found himself surplus to requirements.
AC Milan would go on to sign him the following January, another huge club and incidentally my favourite Italian team. Whilst his time at AC Milan is not usually considered a huge success, he still managed to score 9 goals in 20 games and became the first person to score for both clubs in the Milan derby having scored for Inter against their city rivals 8 seasons earlier. Milan did not renew his contract however after he suffered yet another knee injury.
By 2008 Ronaldo was no longer world class, unfit and unwanted his career could have ended there. Even Ronaldinho, the young Brazilian player who burst on to the scene with the nickname ‘little Ronaldo’ before going on to become one of the world’s best players had seen his star fade by this point (ironically also moving to Milan as a result) and was being eclipsed by the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Fortunately, at the end of the year Ronaldo signed a contract with the Brazilian side Corinthians.
Making his debut in 2009 he won league and cup trophies in his first two seasons and appeared once again in continental competition, this time the Copa Libertadores. From 2010 he was joined by Roberto Carlos and to me it did not matter that Ronaldo looked more overweight than ever and had grown a bizarre light brown afro at one point or that Carlos was the wrong side of 35 years old; there they were, competing in the South American equivalent of the Champions League. Occasionally a youtube clip would find its way through to me of one of them scoring, for example Roberto Carlos scoring direct with the outside of his foot from a corner and Ronaldo running over to congratulate him.
All was right with the world. Everything made sense. That is until just over a week ago. Corinthians were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores and amid threats from angry fans Roberto Carlos left to play for Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia and Ronaldo announced in an emotional press conference that the injuries and fitness issues had finally caught up with him and that he was hanging up his boots for good. How was this possible? In the words of another great striker Gabriel Batistuta: “For me, Ronaldo is football“. Alessandro Del Piero meanwhile wrote on his official website that “His announcement struck me even if it didn’t surprise me” and I think that is the point that I am trying to make. He could not go on forever but to lose such an icon of the sport, a true great who achieved so much over so any years should give any fan of football pause for thought. This was a player who scored 247 league goals in 343 league appearances over 18 years, scoring near as makes no difference a goal a game at the highest level in his pomp. He gained almost a hundred caps for Brazil whilst playing for arguably the greatest teams in Europe: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan. World cup record goalscorer and world cup winner. In many ways his record is untouchable and the scary thing is that were it not for the injuries he may have achieved much more!
If, like me, Ronaldo has also been there with you every step of the way as a football fan from USA ’94 to February 2011 then the news of his retirement should strike you all the more. Perhaps there are a group of people born around 1979 who felt the same way when Maldini retired but if you are around my age no player has defined the sport you love as much as Ronaldo.
Del Piero goes on to say:
“Ronaldo was one of the players who I respected the most. What Ronaldo did will forever remain in the history of football and in the eyes of the people who love this sport, independently of the colour of their shirt, of their support, of the flags. Players like Ronaldo belong to everybody. It was touching to hear Ronaldo say, amid the tears, in his goodbye press conference the phrase ‘it’s like I am dying’ because the footballer Ronaldo won’t be there anymore. But luckily for him a new life starts now. Thanks for what you did on the pitch and for being a great opponent, Fenomeno.“