Ronaldo was simply a phenomenon
Ronaldo is regarded as an underachiever despite winning two World Cups
Before knee injuries and weight issues, Ronaldo was virtually unstoppable
At heart, Ronaldo was gregarious and fun-loving in his attitude on and off the pitch
Ronaldo has left the building. No, not that Ronaldo, the other one. Fat Ronaldo. By the end, he didn't even have exclusive use of his own name anymore; some other guy had come and taken it from him. A prefix had become necessary, a defining trait -- and a pretty sad one at that. Fat Ronaldo. Does it really have to be this way? Can't we agree on Brazilian Ronaldo instead? Or Original Ronaldo? The Original and the Best?
Because, make no mistake, Original Ronaldo was the best. The pity is that he was not the very, very, very best. Or that if he was, it was only briefly. He was brilliant but he could have been completely and utterly bloody brilliant. Every. Single. Game. For years and years. Even in the aftermath of his retirement, when everyone wants to remember the best of him; even now, at a time in which people are reacting as if he has just passed away -- and it was a tearful Original Ronaldo himself who described this as his "first death" -- there is a tinge of regret.
It is as if we want to judge him for what he could have been but wasn't. Even though what he actually was, was extraordinary.
There is something quite bizarre about acting like Ronaldo underachieved when he won two World Cups (albeit his role in the first was nonexistent) and reached a third final -- only to miss out through a fit that ended up debated in the Brazilian parliament, a fit that took a country's chances with it. When he won three World Player awards. When he has scored more World Cup goals than anyone else. When he scored 62 in 97 games for Brazil and more than 350 club goals. And yet, there is something logical about it too. What might have been.
Had it not been for two terrible knee injuries; had it not been for a laid-back attitude to life and a fairly casual relationship with his clubs. Had he not thrown money away and built destructive relationships. Had he not departed Barcelona -- something he did in tears after his agents fixed up a deal with Inter Milan. Had he not been occasionally selfish, mistreating teammates and coaches. Had he not walked out on his clubs. Had he stuck around -- after all, Ronaldo played for Inter and Milan, Barcelona and Madrid, plus PSV, and never won the European Cup (Champions League). Had he not had an equally casual relationship with training.
When players ran around the pitch at Madrid's training ground, Ronaldo was always last -- despite literally cutting off the corners, giggling as he did so. For every 400 yards his teammates ran, he would do 300 at most. One former Real Madrid coach describes his physical condition as "an insult, absolutely indignant for a professional."
The truth is, he was fat. For a footballer, at least. "My body has given up on me," he said this week. If you were being unkind, you'd point out that he gave up on his body too. When Real Madrid faced Arsenal in the Champions League in 2006, Pete Jenson wrote in The Times: "Ronaldo used to be a big game player, now he's just big -- a legend in his own lunchtime."
After one match at the Santiago Bernabéu, in which Madrid collapsed to a dreadful defeat, a victorious opponent, seeing Ronaldo stroll from the stadium, a mock bank note stitched into the back of his jeans, remarked: "Look at fatty there; he's Madrid's problem."
Thing is, was that player right? Sometimes it was hard not to look at Ronaldo and think: "My God, if you tried ..." But that might be unfair: He fought his way back from a horrific knee injury at Inter and, in the very first game, picked up another one. It is yet another injury that has finally seen him give up now; he has battled back from plenty more. In that sense, he did try.
There is another question too: Would Ronaldo really have been any better if he had tried? If he had been stricter? If his effort had been greater? If he hadn't gone out, if he hadn't chased girls -- and, maybe that's the problem: He never chased -- or eaten or drank exactly what he wanted? Or would he have just been less happy -- and, as a result, less of a player? Some think regimenting him, contrary to orthodox thinking, would have destroyed him.
When Fabio Capello took over as Real coach in 2006 (for the second time), he asked Ronaldo: "Aren't you ashamed of being so fat?" Ronaldo was more sensitive about criticism than people realized -- and he is far sharper, far more clever than his playful exterior suggests too -- but for most of his career he would have responded: "No." The problem was that could not last forever. Time catches up with everyone -- and with some quicker than others.
Until that season, Ronaldo was simply better than everyone else. More talented, more decisive, more confident. He knew he was bloody good. Why run? In his first season (2002-03), he and Iker Casillas won the title for a Madrid side that was nowhere near as good a team as selective memories like to think.
A new arrival couldn't believe his eyes during preseason one year, screaming "Run, you fat [expletive]!" at Ronaldo as he ambled about. Ronaldo told him to piss off. "You run," the Brazilian replied, "I don't. I score goals." Five minutes later, Ronaldo had scored, and offered a cheeky: "That OK by you?" It was classic Ronaldo. Even teammates saw the logic in it. A smiling Míchel Salgado recalls players telling the coach not to force him to train: "Ronaldo would say, 'Don't worry, I'll get you two goals' -- and then he would go and get two goals."
Ronaldo's charm made it easier to take. He was genuinely funny, a goofy kid. (Perhaps the problem was that he never grew up). He was hard to dislike. Cheeky as heck. On one occasion, Madrid president Florentino Pérez asked him why he couldn't lead a quieter, more domesticated life like Luis Figo, why he had to go out so often. Ronaldo replied with a wink: "If my wife looked like Luis Figo's wife, I'd stay at home more often."
He could be awkward at times, a touch arrogant. But his teammates spoke highly of him, even as his lack of effort could infuriate them. He was, most agree, genuine. He would do anything for a laugh. Comedy photo shoots were his forte. This is the cheeky scamp who grinned his way through covers dressed as an astronaut, chef, flamenco dancer, Viking and even Hannibal Lecter. Asked in one interview, "Kylie or Britney?" he responded with a grin: "Both. Together."
People remember the escapes to the Rio carnival, the transvestite incident, the wedding that wasn't a wedding, that birthday party, the frankly surreal triangle haircut. But he wasn't just fun off the pitch; he was fun on it too. People also -- and "also" is the word, not "instead" -- remember his football. This week there has been a sense of taking joy from the silly stuff, from the sheer fun of it all. Yes, we talk about commitment to the cause and professionalism, but deep down maybe we all love an errant bon vivant who still manages to be better than anyone else.
By the time he left Real Madrid in 2007, the truth is that he was on his way down; when he missed a penalty, one sad headline sighed: "Not even from the spot." But he had scored 30, 31, 24, and 15 goals in his first four seasons. Even in the last of those, when the decline was clearly detectable, he was again running at better than a goal every other game. When he was one on one with the goalkeeper, you knew -- just knew -- that he would score. He was so natural, so cool, so utterly in control. He would dip the shoulder, step over, and bang!
And who could forget Old Trafford, April 23, 2003, when he departed to a standing ovation? A thunderous hat trick brought Manchester United fans to their feet, and drew admiring chants of "Fergie, Fergie sign him up." That was a reaction that he rarely got from Madrid's fans, more enamored with the work rate, commitment, attitude and nationality of Raúl, with whom Ronaldo was engaged in a barely disguised war. But they still knew he was brilliant. This week, they celebrated him as one of their greats too.
So did Barcelona. Ángel Cappa described Ronaldo as "like a rhino -- but with talent." Real Madrid director general Jorge Valdano once famously remarked: "When Ronaldo attacks, it is like the whole herd attacks." He was unstoppable. At that stage, Ronaldo had not joined Madrid. He had been a Barcelona player only one season -- and that was a crime -- but he had left a huge impression on Spanish football. In 1996-97, Ronaldo was unreal. So good, it embarrassed the rest of the league.
He could have embarrassed everyone, everywhere. He was so good that had he done that throughout his career, he might just have been deemed the best player ever. And perhaps that is the crux of the issue, the sad realization with which the celebration of his special talent is tinged this week. But is that fair? Shouldn't we just look back on what he did do and go: "Wow!"
That season Ronaldo was unstoppable. He just blew you away. He scored 47 in 49 games. You watched him and wondered how he had done it; you knew you'd never seen anything like it. Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, the Cup Winners Cup and the Spanish SuperCup. It scored more than 100 league goals -- Ronaldo got 34 of them. When Barcelona effectively lost the league, it did so in Alicante against Hércules. Ronaldo was back in Brazil. "That day our beast was missing," said Pep Guardiola, saying it all.
Watch the goals again and it is incredible just how often he went around the keeper -- something that adds a kind of childish pleasure, a sense of sheer superiority, to his goals. People talk about walking the ball in; Ronaldo so often did. All it lacked was his getting on his hands and knees and heading the ball in from the goal line. He was slim and powerful, skillful, fast and deadly. He was ridiculously good.
One goal against Valencia was the perfect demonstration of his power: Two players closed in like sliding doors on the subway, and Ronaldo just bulldozed between them, watched them bounce off and tumble to the floor, then slotted the ball home. Against Deportivo, he was sitting on the floor when the ball dropped to him; before you realized it, he was up, beyond the defenders and the ball was in the net. The cover of Marca newspaper one day merely showed his face and nothing else, no headline, no news. In tiny letters in the bottom corner, it said: "More than words."
But the best of all, the defining moment, was that goal against Compostela when he ran from inside his own half as players tried to hold him back, tugging at his shirt. It was like a man playing against kids; the physical difference was astonishing. It was like rugby player Jonah Lomu simply handing off a whole family of Underwoods. It was him against the whole Compostela team. Powerful and skillful, beautiful and bestial. A rhino with talent, indeed.
When Ronaldo finally put the ball into the net, the camera panned to his coach, Bobby Robson, on the touchline. Barcelona's subs were on their feet, amazed. Robson had his head in his hands. He simply could not believe what he had seen. And nor could anyone else.
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