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Posted: Tuesday May 12, 2009 11:09AM; Updated: Tuesday May 12, 2009 12:24PM
Tim Vickery Tim Vickery >
INSIDE SOCCER

Still something like a phenomenon

Story Highlights

Ronaldo looks like the star of old just months into his comeback at Corinthians

Three-time World Player of the Year was hired to get team to Copa Libertadores

Slammed for his work ethic, Ronaldo now being mentioned for a nat'l-team recall

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Just two months into his Brazilian comeback, 32-year-old Ronaldo already has helped Corinthians win the São Paulo state title.
Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images
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Ronaldo is coming home. It might be this Sunday when his Corinthians travels to face Botafogo in the Brazilian Championship. Or we might have to wait until the following Wednesday and the second leg of the Brazilian Cup quarterfinals away to Fluminense. Either way, the great striker will be returning to his home city of Rio de Janeiro.

Ronaldo has never played at senior level for one of the Rio clubs. At the age of 14, he first caught the eye in the junior team of tiny São Cristóvão, whose pokey little stadium now has signs outside stating, "The Phenomenon was born here." But he didn't stay long, and never played on the first team. Good performances in the 1993 South American Under-17 Championships boosted his value, but when his agents negotiated with the big Rio clubs, none would accept their terms -- that they would continue to own part of his registration.

So instead he moved a few hundred miles north to join Cruzeiro in the city of Belo Horizonte, and the goals started flowing. His form won the goofy teenager a place on the Brazil squad at the 1994 World Cup, after which he moved across the Atlantic. (Incidentally, it was at exactly the same time that I made the reverse journey. I've often pondered how badly Brazil made out in that swap.)

Ronaldo went to the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven, exploded as a global star in Spain with Barcelona, then went to Italy with Inter Milan, back to Spain with Real Madrid and back to Italy with AC Milan. On the way, he picked up fame, fortune, women, FIFA World Player of the Year awards and some horrific knee injuries -- the last of which effectively ended his European adventure.

He came back to Brazil not entirely sure that his career could be continued. If he could regain fitness, it was assumed that he would sign for Flamengo. Ronaldo supported the club as a boy, going along to the Maracanã stadium to watch Zico, who grew up near him in Rio's working-class North Zone. He had often talked about his desire to end his plying days in the club's striking red and black colors, and was training with them in his first, tentative efforts to get fit.

So it was a surprise to everyone -- especially the Flamengo directors -- when last December he suddenly signed with Corinthians of São Paulo. Ronaldo complained afterward that Flamengo had not made him an offer. But the club's position was clear and perfectly understandable -- especially for an institution deep in debt. It wanted to wait until it was sure that he indeed could recover from yet another knee problem, and then offer him terms.

With Corinthians, it was different. The club was prepared to sign him up immediately -- in effect, pay him while he was still recovering. It was a gamble, but one it had a special reason to take. Corinthians had just won promotion back to Brazil's first division, and was looking for a way to keep the momentum going. This was particularly important because 2010 is the club's centenary -- an event that is taken very seriously in this part of the world.

Corinthians' major objective is to win the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of Europe's Champions League. In effect, it's a continuation of local rivalry. São Paulo FC, Palmeiras and Santos all have won it. Corinthians, the most popular club in the state, never has. The fans rioted in frustration last time it was eliminated, by Argentina's River Plate in '06.

The dream scenario, then, is for Ronaldo, now 32, to lead the team to Libertadores triumph in 2010 -- which means it has to qualify for the competition this year. There are two ways in: finish the Brazilian Championship, which got underway last weekend, in the top four places, or -- and this is the shortest route -- win the Brazilian Cup.

This explains why Ronaldo was rested in Corinthians' league opener last Sunday at home against Internacional, and conceivably could be left out of the trip across town to Botafogo. Corinthians wants to keep him fresh for the cup games -- at home against Fluminense on Wednesday, and then away in the Maracanã a week later. Get through that one and the team has reached the semifinals, with a place in next year's Libertadores in sight.

The club's precautions are probably justified. Since he has gotten back out on the pitch, Ronaldo has exceeded all expectations. For a while, the headlines were all negative. Photos of him in nightclubs in the wee hours reinforced an impression that he was now a celebrity rather than a footballer. Indeed, it seems that he was rushed into action in order to counter this impression, and to help the club clinch sponsorship deals needed to pay his wages.

But once he has crossed the white line, no one has doubted that he is indeed a footballer -- of truly outstanding gifts. It used to be said of him that he was all explosion and nothing else, that once he lost that devastating acceleration, he would be nothing. Time has proved that this is emphatically not the case.

Even way back then, when he was still a callow youth, what stuck in the mind was not just his awesome pace and powerful running with the ball -- it was the way that he could slow down when closing in on goal, keep his head still and hit the target with such icy calm.

That ability, of course, stayed with him after his speed diminished. He is one of the all-time great finishers -- a point proved by the two recent goals against Santos that effectively won the São Paulo state title. One was quickly controlled and drilled in from the edge of the area, the other was an inspired chip above a goalkeeper who had advanced too far -- two gorgeous finishes, both with his "wrong" left foot.

Experience also has given him more knowledge and brought more variety to his game. He can make use of the slightest gap and pick his moment to shoot through the legs of a defender, he can drop deep and get involved in the build-up. In flashes, he has looked terrific.

As well as his own desire to come back, it's surely appropriate to pay tribute to Brazil's physiotherapists and physical preparation specialists. In '02, Inter Milan seemed unable to get him fit, and then Brazil had him firing on all cylinders in the World Cup. And now, for the first time in years, he has managed a sequence of games without breaking down.

Of course, there are plenty of questions still to be answered. Can he perform at a high standard over time? And can he do it at a more competitive level than the São Paulo State Championship and the early stages of the Brazilian Cup?

The Rio crowd will be anxious to find out. There is, of course, a feeling of betrayal among Flamengo fans that Ronaldo opted for Corinthians. And supporters of the other Rio teams will be sure to remind him of his unfortunate escapade in the city with transvestites a few months ago.

Rio is also the base of the CBF, Brazil's federation. After the '06 World Cup, there were rumors of Ronaldo no longer being welcome on the national team. His conduct during the Germany campaign wasn't seen as sufficiently professional, it was said. He had turned up overweight, had not been well disciplined and had been a negative influence on others. Indeed, after the tournament, Dunga was appointed as national-team coach on a work-ethic, team-ahead-of-stars ticket.

Now everyone denies that any such boycott of Ronaldo exists, and Dunga says he is closely following the progress of Corinthians' new idol. There has been speculation that Ronaldo could be handed an international recall.

If so, next month's Confederations Cup -- competitive but not excessively so -- could provide evidence of whether Ronaldo still has a future with Brazil. But it comes with what potentially is a huge problem. The action in South Africa takes place as the Brazilian Cup is coming to a climax. Provided Corinthians gets past Fluminense, it is hardly likely to ditch its 2010 strategy so that its star can play in a not-very-important international tournament.

Ronaldo has been able to dribble around most things, but finding his way through the problems of Brazilian soccer's confused calendar could be too much even for him.

 
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