On the night of Oct. 12, 1996, Ronaldo, who had recently turned 20, was playing for Spanish giant Barcelona in a match at Santiago de Compostela. He had just retrieved the ball in his own half, 55 yards from the opposition goal, when he was tripped from behind by a Compostela defender, who then grabbed the back of Ronaldo's jersey and hung on for several yards, as if water-skiing on grass. Shaking himself free with the vigor of a wet dog, Ronaldo slalomed through four other defenders before finally losing the ball behind him in the penalty area. Whereupon he wheeled around and blasted the ball past the keeper in one unfathomable motion. By the time the ball was in the net Ronaldo was on his can, the shot having forced him backward like the recoil on a rifle.
In those 12 seconds all his goods were on display: Ronaldo is faster with a ball at his feet than most defenders are sprinting after him. At 6 feet and 175 pounds, he's large by soccer standards, well-muscled and nearly impossible to knock off the ball. Most strikingly, he throws out electricity like a downed power line.
Of the manifold double takes captured that evening on Spanish television, the best belonged to Ronaldo's coach at the time, white-haired Bobby Robson. When Ronaldo scored, Robson, the two-time World Cup manager of alegria-impaired England, shot off his own bench as if an ejection seat had been detonated beneath him. He first turned to the Compostela crowd, enlisting them as witnesses. (The opposing fans were giving Ronaldo a raucous standing ovation.) He then turned back to the field. "Oh, my god!" the cameras caught him muttering to nobody. He looked shocked in the clinical sense, a victim of trauma, "Un-believable." His mouth was a circle, a rictus of disbelief.
Further analysis of such skills is superfluous. "A divine gift," Ronaldo's father, Nélio, has called his son's rare abilities, and Ronaldo is content to leave it at that. Asked the source of his outrageous talents, he says, "Mainly, it is God."
The son of god, his arms extended from his sides, stands rigid watch over Rio from His place atop Corcovado, the statue's pose mimicked by Ronaldo in Rio-wide billboards for Pirelli tires. The youngest of three siblings, he was raised in Bento Ribeiro, a Rio suburb that is very poor by U.S. standards, modestly so by Brazilian. His house was without windows or doors. Which is not to say it was without an exit.
Nélio receives poor reviews, having been variously described as "a Rio drug addict" (The Times of London), "an alcoholic" (the Washington Times) and "a cartographer with the state telephone company" who separated from his family (Ronaldo's official bio in press kits put out by Nike, which he represents). Ronaldo still sees his father and doesn't care to pile on. The son wishes to stress that his childhood was a happy one. "I was never a child of the streets," he says, "but my family was very poor."
At 13, around the time of his mother Sonia's divorce from Nélio, he wanted to play for Rio's most popular club, Flamengo, but the team refused to pay the fare for his 45-minute crosstown bus ride to practices. Whoops! By 15, Ronaldo was playing for Cruzeiro, a first-division professional team in the city of Belo Horizonte, for which he scored 58 goals in 60 games.
Before his 17th birthday he moved to Europe and the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. In the Netherlands, Ronaldo would score 55 goals in 56 games over two seasons, learn Dutch in twice-weekly lessons from a minister and, in 1996, be sold to F.C. Barcelona for a then world-record transfer fee of $20 million. He led the Spanish league with 34 goals in his single spectacular season in Catalonia, and last summer he was sold to Inter for a world-record $30 million. He finished the 1997-98 season as the second-leading scorer in Serie A, with 25 goals in 32 matches, even though he was sometimes sextuple-teamed.
The rewards of all this are handsome. In addition to having received a reported $14 million signing bonus from Inter, Ronaldo gets $5 million a year from the club and has a contract with Nike worth another $15 million over 10 years. When he became engaged to Brazilian model Susana Werner—the marriage was rumored to be on for this August and is now rumored to be off—he could reasonably speculate that the pope might say his wedding Mass.
Ronaldo drives a silver Ferrari. In Barcelona he had a house overlooking the Bay of Casteldefells, which reminded him of Rio's Guanabara Bay. In Milan only one thing reminds him of Rio. "The traffic," he says. Italy has no traffic laws, or none that are observed, which is just as well, because Ronaldo has no place he can reasonably go in Milan. He spends a lot of time at home, playing on the computer and reading his notices each week in the Dutch, Spanish and Brazilian press.