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Joy to the World
Steve Rushin
June 15, 1998
No one else plays soccer with the infectious glee of Ronaldo, the nonpareil striker who aims to lead Brazil to its unprecedented fifth World Cup title
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June 15, 1998

Joy To The World

No one else plays soccer with the infectious glee of Ronaldo, the nonpareil striker who aims to lead Brazil to its unprecedented fifth World Cup title

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Brazil is famous for large steaks and small bikinis and the national motto, Never put off until tomorrow what can be put off until next week. Call the Brazilian soccer federation in May, and you are put on hold to jaunty Christmas carols before being disconnected. If it seems that Brazilians are having more fun than the rest of us, there's a simple explanation: They are.

So it is only natural that the word alegria would be ubiquitous in Brazilians' vocabulary. "It is," says an interpreter for Ronaldo, the 21-year-old Brazilian who is the finest soccer player on earth, "a kind of 'exuberant joy' "

"When I'm on the field, training or playing, it is alegria, pure alegria" says Ronaldo, resplendent in a blazer and tie in his agent's office in Milan, where he plays professionally for the Italian club Inter. Alegria exhibits itself on the practice pitch when Ronaldo declines to head the ball during header drills, preferring instead to stop it with his chest, then juggle it with his feet. "Brazilians don't like to head the ball," explains an observer at the Inter training ground, "because you can't hog the ball with your head."

But then Inter didn't commit as much as $110 million to Ronaldo over 10 years, through 2007, so that he might pass the ball. "The only tiring the coach expects of me is to score," says Ronaldo. "The way I score doesn't matter. As long as I keep my scoring numbers high, they let me do what I like to do."

So he scores, serially and spectacularly, for his club and for his country. In Italy teammates fall to their knees when Ronaldo gets a goal and buff his right boot with imaginary shoeshine rags. It's an act that he notices only later, while basking in the glow of televised highlights. "That particular moment is difficult to describe," Ronaldo says of the instant following a goal. "Because you are out of this world. You can't hear anyone. You don't see anyone. You are blind, you are deaf, you just want to run and scream."

You have achieved, in a word, alegria. Arjen Tamsma, a Dutch employee of Nike who has moved to Milan to be Ronaldo's minder in Italy, sums up his charge in a single sentence. "He is happy," says Tamsma, "like a kid with a ball."

Ronaldo Luiz Nazário De Lima is, in every sense, the biggest name in his sport. Twice in the last two years a panel of more than 100 national-team managers, polled by FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has named him World Player of the Year. It's a title with few rivals in the international arena: pope, for sure; president of the U.S., perhaps.

Ronaldo replica shirts are sold on Las Ramblas in Barcelona and on Copacabana Beach in Rio. He grins bucktoothed from the covers of three Chinese magazines on newsstands in Beijing. When former England star Sir Bobby Charlton recently said of Ronaldo, "He's the best player in the world without question, and I think he'll prove it in the World Cup," he did so on a talk show in Tokyo. Before an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia last December, every member of the Brazilian team shaved his head, hoping to throw Middle Eastern media and fans off Ronaldo's scent.

No man can aspire to live a normal life under such circumstances. "And in Italy this is more difficult because of the pressure, the way the entire country feels soccer, lives soccer—much more than anywhere else," says Ronaldo, whose navy-blue blazer bears the Inter crest, as does his club tie, which is now unknotted. Seated at a burnished conference table in the offices of Branchini Associati, he looks like a prep schooler at the end of a long day.

When Ronaldo appeared in cyberspace in January to promote a Rome-based United Nations food bank, the server took six million hits in 30 minutes, then crashed. Ronaldo does something similar, taking six million hits in 90 minutes of play, whenever he takes the field in Italy's Serie A, the most diabolically defensive-minded league in soccer. The difference: He seldom crashes.

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