In December 1992, San Cristovao coach Roberto Gaglianone told the press that the 16-year-old youth team striker that had just left the club for Cruzeiro was going to be Brazil’s next No.9.
“‘He’s going to play in the 1998 World Cup,'” he declared. “They asked me his name and I said, ‘Ronaldo.'” It was a name that would come to terrify defenders everyone. Even the most accomplished of centre-halves would be left bamboozled by the Brazilian’s brilliance.
The great Alessandro Nesta repeatedly re-watched Lazio’s 1998 UEFA Cup final loss to Inter on video in a desperate bid to work out what he had done wrong on that legendary night at Parc des Princes, when Ronaldo capped a virtuoso performance with a goal scored after leaving Biancocelesti goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani on his backside without touching the ball.
Ronaldo had tormented Nesta and his team-mates from start to finish with his sublime skills and it was only after retiring from the game did the former Italy international come to terms with what had happened.
“The worst experience I ever had was playing against Ronaldo when we lost 3-0 in Paris but I don’t think now that it was my fault,” he explained. “Ronaldo was simply unstoppable.”
It is impossible to disagree. At his peak, Ronaldo was unplayable, a unique mix of pace, power and poise. Nobody had ever seen anything like him before. Therefore, nobody knew how to contain him.
“I’ve never seen a player able to show such precise control at such a high speed,” former AC Milan ace Marcel Desailly enthused. “Watching him was like watching a character in a video game.”
He was the original ‘Playstation footballer’. As former Barcelona team-mate and current Blaugrana coach Luis Enrique pointed out, “We’re now used to seeing Messi dribble past six players, but not then.”
It is thus unsurprising to learn that Ronaldo was the idol of a young Lionel Messi. “He was the best striker I’ve ever seen,” the Argentine later admitted. “He was so fast he could score from nothing and could shoot the ball better than anyone.”
Indeed, it was the speed at which he moved that really set Ronaldo apart. Here was a striker with the strength of an old-school centre-forward but with the pace and nimbleness of a winger. As such, he simply ran straight at defenders; a man seemingly intent on proving that the quickest way to get between two points was a straight line.
“I played with him during his only season at Barcelona,” Laurent Blanc later reminisced. “It was in 1996-97 and, for me, that was the greatest year of his life (Ronaldo scored 47 times in 49 games as Barca won three cups).
“Back then he could beat a whole team on his own – he would go past players as if they weren’t there.
“I remember one goal when he took the ball from midfield and ran past eight players. It was crazy! I could not believe what I was seeing.
“It was before the injury, though, and I really don’t think he was the same player after.”
Sad but true. The first knee ligament injury changed Ronaldo, irrevocably. He lost a fraction of that blistering pace. What he did not lose, though, was his fantastic finishing ability or, his much under-rated, footballing intelligence.
Ronaldo didn’t just have quick feet. As Kaka explains, “For me, the best players are those who are able to think of a play and execute it quickest and in the best way possible, and Ronaldo has been the best at that.
“The speed of thought that he had – and the speed he had to carry out his actions – were perfect. It was something amazing.”
Indeed, even after suffering a second serious knee injury, Ronaldo remained a force of nature, which was testament to his great strength of character. The 2002 World Cup ultimately became his own personal tale of redemption.
Having lit up the 1998 tournament in France with a string of scintillating displays that earned him the Golden Ball, his hopes of a winners’ medal were dashed by a convulsive fit suffered on the eve of the final – an incident that is still shrouded in mystery.
“I don’t remember what happened but I went to sleep and, like the doctor said, it seems I had a fit for about 30 or 40 seconds,” Ronaldo subsequently revealed. “We lost the World Cup but I won another cup – my life.”
Four years later, though, he got his hands on the most prestigious prize in football, scoring eight times – including twice in the tournament decider – as Brazil claimed a fifth title.
In April 2003, he would score a hat-trick for new club Real Madrid at Old Trafford that prompted the Manchester United fans to give him a standing ovation when he was substituted midway through the second half.
Even by then, though, it was clear that he was not the same player he had been in his youth. He was noticeably heavier, no longer “lean, mean, as quick as an Olympic sprinter”, as former Barcelona boss Sir Bobby Robson had said of Ronaldo during his time at Camp Nou.
His struggles with his weight would ultimately precipitate the end of his playing career and also depressingly result in him being referred to by some as ‘fat Ronaldo’ in order to distinguish him from his namesake Cristiano. The one positive about people using that moniker is that it saves one the time of having to read or listen to anything else they have to say about the game.
The fact of the matter is that Ronaldo is one of the most important players in the history of football. He altered people’s perceptions of what a No.9 could be. He redefined the role and influenced an entire generation of up-and-coming talents.
“I put up photos of Ronaldo in my room,” Zlatan Ibrahimovic admitted in his autobiography. “Ronaldo was the man. Not only because of his step-overs and goals in the World Cup. Ronaldo was brilliant on every level. He was what I wanted to be, a guy who made a difference… Ronaldo was my hero and I studied him online and tried to take in his movements.”
It was this spatial awareness that allowed Ronaldo to continue scoring freely even after the serious knee injuries had robbed him of his pace.
“I’ve never seen anyone with better movement,” admitted Brazil legend Zico. “He positioned himself in such a way, it would make it really easy to play alongside him.
“I’d like to have played with him, and I’m sure he would then have scored 2000 goals – because I would’ve just given him the ball every time.”
And that is what made him so devastating. He always knew where the goal was; he just needed the ball. “He creates a goal-scoring opportunity where it doesn’t exist,” former Real Madrid and Spain striker Emilio Butragueno opined when Ronaldo was still at the peak of his powers.
“He needs no one to score; most strikers need the midfielders and their team-mates, but he does not. You give him the ball and he’ll score. He is so great with the ball, he is a phenomenon.”
There really is no other word for him. There may now be two Ronaldos. But there will only ever be one ‘Fenomeno’.