This is a story of a man who was too much of a genius for his own body to handle. His body might have let him down, but stories of his greatness live on in the footballing world.
Before Cristiano Ronaldo, there was another Ronaldo. Ronaldo Nazario, popularly known as O Fenômeno and nicknamed as R9. The Brazilian prodigy who took the world by storm. A player known for his elegance and talent who became one of the greatest of all time but still could have been so much better only if his body had allowed it.
After his impressive performances for a local futsal team, Ronaldo was signed by Cruzeiro at the age of 16. Jairzinho, Brazil’s 1970 World Cup hero, recommended Ronaldo to the club. Ronaldo went on to score 44 goals in 47 games for the club. After his ridiculous goal-scoring exploits in Brazil, Ronaldo was signed by PSV Eindhoven in 1994 after being recommended by another Brazilian legend, Romario. Even the legends knew how gifted and talented Ronaldo was and what path would take him to be the greatest. In his two seasons at PSV, he scored 54 goals in just 58 games.
It was only a matter of time before one of Europe’s big clubs came knocking, as Barcelona made a record-breaking signing by paying £13.2m for the striker. In his first and only season at Barca, he almost kept a goal a game record, scoring a staggering 47 goals in 49 games, winning domestic cups and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. He was also the LaLiga top scorer that season with 34 goals in 37 games, numbers that had never been seen before until the likes of Messi and Cristiano came into the picture.
Ronaldo became the youngest player to win FIFA World Player of the Year at 20. Ronaldo played like a winger but in the centre of the pitch. Defences were mesmerized by his skill and qualities at such a young age. He was technical, intelligent, quick and robust. He was an unstoppable beast. Imagine Ronaldo’s stature and technical ability combined with Messi’s dribbling and talent in a single body. That was Ronaldo Nazario.
After some disputes over his contract, he grabbed a move to Inter for a world record fee of £19.2m. His sensational goal-scoring form remained the same as he netted 25 goals in Serie A and was named Serie A Footballer of the Year after securing yet another FIFA World Player of the Year award and the prestigious Ballon d’Or at the age of 21, making him the youngest ever Ballon d’Or winner till date.
Christian Vieri: “Ronaldo and I went clubbing most nights, getting drunk even though we had practice in the morning. While I was gasping for every breath, he was there drinking a coffee whilst smiling. He needed no practice – he was the best footballer in the world.”
Ronaldo’s red-hot form continued as he scored 4 goals and got three assists in 6 games. He posted similarly impressive figures in the following year, and going into the 1998 World Cup, Ronaldo was the best player in the world. Brazil faced France’s hosts, but every child wanted to be him. Nike’s first-ever Mercurial boots were commissioned for Ronaldo in the 1998 World Cup.
The final raised many controversies as Ronaldo was absent from the starting line-up 72 minutes before. It was chaos, and the media were left stunned by his absence. However, after a lot of pleading, he was reinstated in the line-up. France eventually won the World Cup by 3 goals to nil, and questions were raised about Ronaldo’s health as many reporters stated that the striker “sleepwalked” through the final.
It was later revealed that Ronaldo had suffered a significant health scare and was not fit to play. Ronaldo received the Golden Ball award as the best player of the tournament thanks to his outstanding performances leading to the final. Ronaldo later reflected: “We lost the World Cup, but I won another cup – my life.”
Before his first knee injury, Ronaldo bagged 115 goals in 134 games between 1994 and 1999. On 21 November 1999, Ronaldo was forced to limp off the field as he had ruptured a tendon in his knee.
His return to the side lasted only six minutes after suffering a complete rupture of knee-cap tendons. Due to injuries, he missed the whole 2000/01 season, making him absent from almost two seasons.
After two successful operations, Ronaldo returned to the 2002 World Cup. The knee injuries took away the explosiveness that made him such a powerful and technical footballer, but he was still a prolific goalscorer after his injuries. He had scored against Maldini, Nesta, Thuram, Roberto Carlos, Hierro, Cafu, Blind and De Boer.
Having missed out on his chance of lifting the World Cup in 1998, Ronaldo had some unfinished business coming into the tournament. If his performances in 1998 were good, then his performances in 2002 were even better. He turned his dream into reality when he netted two goals past Oliver Kahn to lead Brazil to their fifth World Cup title. Ronaldo scored against every other team except against England in the quarter-finals. Once again, Brazil was in the final facing Germany this time.
Real Madrid signed Ronaldo as a part of their Galacticos era consisting of stars including Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham. He won the FIFA World Player of the Year award for the third time in 2002 and dedicated it to the medical team that helped him recover from injuries. Fans had to wait for his first appearance due to injuries but scored within 1 minute on his debut against Alaves.
In the second leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final, Ronaldo scored a match-winning hat-trick against Man United at Old Trafford and was given a standing ovation from fans of both sides. In his 5 seasons at Real Madrid, he scored over 100 goals for the club, making him the fifth foreigner to do so.
Ronaldo left Real Madrid for AC Milan after being the club’s top goalscorer in his four full seasons. He won 7 trophies in that tenure alongside a third Ballon d’Or. Despite winning numerous trophies for club and country, Ronaldo failed to win the UEFA Champions League, arguably the best player to achieve this feat.
Ronaldo admitted that his body had broken down after facing severe injuries throughout his career. In 2008, Ronaldo suffered a season-ending injury on the same knee at Inter in 1999 and 2000. He returned to his home country, and after completing a brief stint at Corinthians, he announced his retirement from football.
Gianluigi Buffon: “If it wasn’t for the injury, I think he would be talked about on the same level as Pelé & Maradona.”
Zlatan: “Ronaldo is the greatest. He was as [good as] Pele.”
Many players have achieved more individually and collectively, but nobody came close to replicating Ronaldo’s skill, strength, technical ability and sheer brilliance on the football pitch. Truly One of a Kind.
A Legend. An Icon.