Stopped in the straight when the race was his own!
Look at him cutting it–cur to the bone!”
“Ask ere the youngster be rated and chidden,
What did he carry and how was he ridden?
Maybe they used him too much at the start;
Maybe Fate’s weight-cloths are breaking his heart.”
Life’s Handicap. (Rudyard Kipling)
12 July, 1998
You are 11-years-old. Tonight is the World Cup final, France and Brazil. More importantly, Ronaldo is playing.
You are maturing nicely in your budding football-watching career; you are nearing ever-closer to lasting the entire ninety minutes of a match. The minutiae of systems and tactics are still alien to you; you are far from au fait with the machinations of FIFA: you are indiscriminately here for the goals, and justifiably expect Ronaldo to provide them tonight.
Brazil having won the last World Cup, you rightly presumed they would be participating at this summerâ€™s tournament, and you are excited because this means you will get to see Ronaldo at close proximity.
Until now, you have only been able to catch a glimpse of him once a week, via Eurogoals, Eurosportâ€™s weekly round-up of the goals from around Europe, at 17.30 GMT each Monday.
This was in fact your only window into the exotic world of European football; you missed it at your peril.
You and your brother witness â€˜â€˜The Oneâ€™â€™ against Campostela perchance one such Monday night in â€™96, and watched in bated breath as Ronaldo galloped from the halfway line to score one of the best ever goals in club football.
Did the defender try to rip the jersey off his back?! You want to bask in its every detail, but itâ€™s too late, the next match is already rolling.Â Â You might now have to wait months to have this confirmed, years even. But then a knowing glance is exchanged between you and your brother, as it suddenly dawns on you both: barring a pitch-length charge from George Weah in the Italy round-up, this will surely be The Goal Of The Week. You await the end of the show in anticipation, and there it is again.
The One. Youâ€™ll never wash these eyes again.
But then itâ€™s more than the goals that has you enraptured. You are from Ireland and you have never seen someone smiling so much in your short life. Youâ€™re secretly indifferent to Ireland not qualifying because watching them is difficult. You donâ€™t know yet that Ronaldo is a multi-millionaire and you think he is just playing for the fun.
This man-child is just larking around with his mates. Awesome.
Flipping back to 1998, and the final kicks off.
Something strange is happening. Ronaldo cannot control the ball, and is subdued. Heâ€™s not looking for the ball.
You do not understand this; you are 11. There are good players and there are bad players.
Ronaldo is a good player. Youâ€™ve never seen him not score. Something is wrong; you donâ€™t know what. His mulatto complexion is pale like yours. The game ends 3-0 and Ronaldo is completely zonked with his silver medal around his neck. You donâ€™t know what happened but you know this is not the last you have seen of him and you resolve to follow this extra-terrestrial goal-machine wherever he goes.
For those of us born in the 80â€™s, our first footballing idol is hanging up his boots.
Taking a step back and taking everything into consideration, the injuries and the heartache, you can only say that itâ€™s for the best. As was the worst kept secret in football, he has been suffering from a condition known as Hypothyroidism and has been takingÂ medication to keep it at bay.
The man just did not know when he was beaten, wouldnâ€™t hear of it. He must have Chumbawumbaâ€™s Tubthumping set to full-blast while driving: “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you ainâ€™t never gonna keep me down.”
It’s almost nostalgic looking back on his halcyon days at Barca and Inter; since he returned to Brazil to play for Corinthians, heâ€™s been living the life more of a boxer than a footballer, starring in his own personal movie as the titular Comeback Kid.
And it’s that perseverance through adversity that has actually defined his career, intertwined between his greatest moments.
You can only play the cards you were dealt, and his moral courage to keep returning against all medical predictions was truly heroic. Others have justifiably retired after one, two serious operations.
Ronaldo had eight. Eight operations. And he just got on with it.
But you knew never to get your hopes up. No sooner than the “Ronaldoâ€™s back” leak was filtering out than some setback had been encountered. His final chapter took on a certain theme of ridicule, it pains me to say.
He’d lost the swagger that set him above the rest. An insipid lack of aggression could actually have resulted in further serious injury, so toothless had he’d become in the challenge.
His physical tank had been running on empty since 2006 in truth; his mental drive alone allowed him to carry on though his darkest moments. As he’s proven time and again, for every dark night thereâ€™s a bright day. Let the good times roll.
His 15 World Cup goals are a trip through the various stages of his career, conditioned by his bloating physique. They can be broken down intoÂ his 3 career-morphing forms: R9.1, R9.2, and R9.3;
1998: Having spent the entire victorious US ’94 looking on from the bench, R9.1 was chomping at the bit. Scores 4 nicely taken goals, notably a nutmegged-left footed finish in the semi-final against Holland. Plays the final after suffering an epidemic attack, fails to score. National Inquest ensues. Career in the balance and shrouded in conspiracy.
2002: Redemption. Written off having suffered two harrowing knee injuries, and carrying the emotional baggage of ’98, R9.2 arrives in the Far East now carrying the frame of a middle-weight boxer, considerably hardened; a man possessed.
What needs to be said? Just enjoy the goals.
2006: R9.3 is now in steady decline, and has surpassed his fighting weight to which he will never return, but no matter: R9.3 is now a goal-hanger, a hatcher, and R9.3 hunts as ruthlessly as ever. Against Japan, aware fodder will be up for grabs, he shoots on sight for his first and forces himself off his feet for a tapped-in second.
The record-breaking goal against offside-trap virgins Ghana is vintage Fenomeno: stepover-shimmy to the left finish. Historia.
9IKE: It was a chequered career beyond the injuries. He was a contradiction in many ways, not least in his (agent’s?) polarising choice of clubs.
Barca â€“ Inter – Real â€“ Milan. A crossing of club rivalries, rounded off with a final betrayal to those to whom he was supposed to be closest. A lifelong Menga, he signed for Corinthians at the last moment in a final and flagrant betrayal. They burned his shirt. But even they relented and forgave him in the end.
In that respect, he was always something of a cash cow, a one-stop road-show spectacular.
Roll up roll up, come one come all; see the amazing Buck-Toothed Wonder coming to a club near you for good and glories ( Terms and Conditions apply, may not actually stay stated duration).
Comparing the visceral hatred the Cules reserve for Luis Figo and even allowing for the fact that he moved directly to Real and that of the ambivalence reserved for Ronaldo at each club he disrespected and you understand the unifying qualities he possesses. It’s Ronaldo.
He had an innate ability to seduce and charm. You just couldn’t stay mad at him. Forgiven, forgiven, forgiven: You Are Forgiven.
Favourite moment? How long have you got?
Gols, gols, more gols and of course the golazos. The Iceman in one-on-one situations, he wasn’t content with waiting around for them while in his pomp. He’d simply drop off and procreate a one-on-one from thin air.
But given all the adversity life has thrown at him, itâ€™s the eminent humanity he exudes that will always stay with me. After rounding the keeper to score what itself was a sweetly taken goal while at Real, he ran straight to the touchline to embrace Del Bosque, whose mother had just passed away that week.
His demeanour on the pitch was never short of exemplary, serenity personified when the stakes were highest.
Then the hairstyles.
The Eyebrow: a conscious and corpulent symbol of his return to the top. He didn’t just walk into a Japanese salon on a whim and say “Surprise me senorita.” After 4 years of unfounded character bashing following the fallout from Paris,Â the great man was in his element once again and was metaphorically saying ”Look at me, I’m back (sh*t I never left)Â and I’ve got a big bolshy eyebrow on my head – now watch these goals, la.”
The ”Black Power” Afro, in homage to Jairzinho and Junior, symbolized his enduring attachment to the Selecao cause despite his fall from grace.
This is the end, the only end my friend
Comparing his forced retirement to that of his only contemporary rival, Zidane, who could feasibly still be playing, you take stock of the enormity of his staying power.
A 17 year career; 8 operations, smiles and frowns, ups and downs. It was a good innings.
They donâ€™t make ’em like you anymore. Well, they do, but their wings are quickly clipped.Â The fantantista striker now has to toe the line and operate as a rank and file mortal, as the system increasingly prevails over the individual.
Neymar will eventually arrive in Europe, and do great things, but he wonâ€™t be given carte blanche to express himself as aÂ Kemosabe, awayÂ from all the madness.
The debate over the greatest ever is for another day, but one thing is certain: as an out-and-out striker, we’ll never see the likes ofÂ you again.
Obrigado O Fenomeno, obrigado Ronaldo. Muito obrigado.