A cell phone bleats, and Ronaldo is summoned from the room. His agent, Giovanni Branchini, is asked if his client is always so relaxed. "If you don't do like that, you get overwhelmed by everything," says Branchini. "It is sad sometimes. You have a bad day—yesterday was a bad day, nothing went right with his club, with himself, with the other results—but if you are a sportsman, you know that this is your life. You have to go on and think of the next game, the next possibility to forget such a day. I think football stars learn this quite early, and by themselves. Otherwise, they could not survive such pressure."
The previous day's match—second-place Inter at sixth-place Parma—had been among the worst of Ronaldo's professional career. Late in the second half Ronaldo took a penalty shot. The goalkeeper, Gian Luigi Buffon, deflected the ball and, though it was still in play, left the goal and leaped onto the cyclone fence separating Parma's rabid supporters from the field. He hung there like Spiderman, shaking the fence and stirring the crowd as the ball moved to the other end of the pitch, where Parma scored. Minutes later, the final whistle sounded on Inter's 1-0 loss, and Buffon ripped off his jersey, revealing a red Superman S on his T-shirt.
Parma's Argentine forward, Hernán Crespo, was invited afterward to disparage Ronaldo, but he responded by enunciating very clearly while eyeing reporters' notebooks: "He is still the best player in the world." Nevertheless, Ronaldo was lampooned on national television that evening. A Milan cabbie passed a cemetery, pointed to the gravestones and said, "Ronaldo!"
So it goes. When Ronaldo was enduring a six-match goal drought with Inter in December and January, team owner Massimo Moratti said, "Do I think Ronaldo is in crisis? It definitely seems so to me, and perhaps it would be a good idea if he understood this and got it into his head."
A few weeks later Ronaldo scored all four Inter goals in key back-to-back victories, and Inter manager Gigi Simoni said unequivocally, "Ronaldo has proved he's the best player in the world." "I Love America," says Ronaldo, and for one simple reason: America doesn't love him. Little more than a year ago he walked the streets of New York City unrecognized, shedding fame as if it were a feckless defender. "Then," he sighs and says, "I made a mistake."
Ronaldo turned at random down a midtown Manhattan street. "The one street," he says, "with all Brazilians." All alegria broke loose on that block of West 46th Street known as Little Brazil. "The Brazilians, they were all going crazy," he says, a smile curling at the corner flags of his mouth. "The Americans, they didn't understand what was going on."
It's ever thus with Americans and soccer. Last October, when the Chicago Bulls played exhibition games in Paris, a Spanish journalist asked Michael Jordan if he knew who Ronaldo was. "I don't know," Jordan said dismissively.
"He's the best soccer player in the world," the man replied, his face falling like a flesh soufflé.
"Sorry," sniffed Jordan. "I do know Pelé."
The exchange drew horse laughter from some 500 members of the European press and amused Ronaldo in Italy, where he told interviewers that he was a fan of Jordan's and even owned a Jordan highlights video. "Sometimes when I watch and I see what he does," said Ronaldo, "I cry."