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Legend of the fall (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 19, 2008 10:47AM; Updated: Tuesday February 19, 2008 2:03PM
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Now in his 30s, the late-career version of Ronaldo has relied less on speed and more on cunning, positioning and opportunism.
Now in his 30s, the late-career version of Ronaldo has relied less on speed and more on cunning, positioning and opportunism.
Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
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Or, of course, there is the possibility of going home to Rio to join Flamengo. It would be the sentimental choice. Giving his son the chance to watch him in the famous red-and-black shirt might give Ronaldo the motivation necessary to hit the comeback trail once more.

But it's a move that carries risks. Brazilians can be notoriously impatient with their idols, and the Flamengo supporters would be quick to turn on Ronaldo if he wasn't living up to expectations. None of this is likely to deter the man. Part of Ronaldo's greatness is that the challenge which is too big for others brings out the best in him.

At his peak, he may well have been the fastest player ever with the ball, with awesome power and a dazzling array of tricks all produced at high speed. And then, when through on goal, he gave a lesson in how to finish, slowing down at the right moment, keeping his head still and picking his spot with ice cold precision.

With time and injuries robbing him of some of his pace, the late-model Ronaldo has shown the range of his talent; he has dropped deeper to become more involved in the buildup, always on the lookout for a quick exchange of passes and threading killer balls through the opposing defense.

The '02 World Cup Ronaldo was perhaps the most complete model, for all of his strengths were on display. He had come back from injury that many -- myself included -- thought would finish him. That year, he didn't play a single game until managing a few minutes for Brazil in a friendly at the end of March. And come June, he was unstoppable.

The international press has perhaps never fully recognized the contribution Ronaldo made to that campaign, because it had little knowledge of how awful Brazil was without him. Without a few strokes being pulled here and there, Brazil may not even have qualified for the competition.

Rivaldo, wonderfully talented but incredibly introverted, was desperately uncomfortable as the team's main attacker. This was the beauty of Ronaldo's return -- not only did the team regain one of the world's all-time best strikers, but also Ronaldo's willingness to take responsibility lifted the burden from Rivaldo. Brazil gained two players.

My favorite Ronaldo memory, though, comes from two years later, when Brazil hosted Argentina in World Cup qualification. The game took place in Belo Horizonte, in the giant Mineirão stadium where, a decade earlier, Ronaldo had first made his name with Cruzeiro.

Argentina weaved pretty patterns all over the pitch, but for the sole reason that Ronaldo was in the opposing side, it lost 3-1. He scored all of Brazil's goals. All came from the penalty spot, and each time it was Ronaldo who suffered the foul. Argentina simply could not cope with him. He charged through its defense like some member of a more powerful species.

It was a huge occasion. Ronaldo had worked out that it was probably the most important game he would ever play in front of a Brazilian audience, and as was so often the case, the big occasion proved his perfect stage.

Flamengo hopes there will be more occasions for Ronaldo to shine in domestic Brazilian soccer. I'd like to share its belief. It would be a fitting end to a glorious career.

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