Ronaldo: in praise of a footballing genius

Forget about the weight. Forget about the fact he only had one working knee. Even forget about the meetings with transvestite prostitutes. The statements coming out of Brazil today that Ronaldo has retired is even worse news on Valentine's Day than getting dumped by the missus.

"The head wants to go on but the body can't take any more. I think of an action but I can't do it the way I want to. It's time to go."

With these words, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima retires from football after a seventeen-year career filled with wonder, awe and perhaps, more importantly, injuries. Ronaldo has really been in semi-retirement for some time. Having been back in Brazil with Corinthians since 2009, he's hit the headlines more for his partying than his performances. But the man who played with such distinction for Barcelona, Madrid and both Milan clubs leaves the game as truly the greatest player of his generation.

With 350 club goals to his name, mostly at the top eschelons of world football, Ronaldo's place in the pantheon of all-time greats is safely secure. FIFA World Player of the Year three times. Ballon d'or winner twice. The highest goalscorer in World Cup history with 15 goals. And up-front in UEFA's All-Time Starting XI. It's safe to say he was fairly good. And with an astonishing return of 62 goals in 97 appearances for the Brazilian national team, he's worshipped as a hero back home as well.

Yet statistics and awards alone don't do justice to a player which the Italians nicknamed 'O Fenomeno'. In his pomp, Ronaldo was a force close to unstoppable. Between 1995-2002 there was not a player on earth who could touch him. And for three of those years he was out with a series of knee injuries. His record of 51 goals in 49 games for Barcelona is still a record; even after Messi's exploits last year. And to think, he was only 20-years-old at the time. Not as inventive as Zidane or as technically exquisite as Messi, Ronaldo's style was more head-down-charge at the defenders. (This goal against Valencia is the perfect example.)

Using quick-feet, exceptional close-control, blistering pace and the strength of an ox, he frequently went past three of four defenders, emerged unscathed on the other side and gently rolled it past the goalkeeper. It's difficult to think of a more complete centre-forward, ever. Perhaps only Marco van Basten comes close. And it was the sort of style that made Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid all pay world-record fees to make him their player.

Of all the highs in his glittering career - the year at Barca, the goals at Inter, pre-final '98 World Cup - Ronaldo's zenith was probably the 2002 World Cup. He had football's most abysmal haircut and yet still managed to score six goals in the tournament; the first time this had happened since Gerd Muller in 1974. That he had just returned from 22 months out with a succession of knee injuries made it even sweeter. Two goals in the final against Germany completed a remarkable turn-around for a player who, four years earlier, looked as if his career would end in complete tragedy.

The 1998 World Cup final has gone down in football folk-lore. It was the day when France finally accepted its immigrant population and over a million-strong partied on the Champs Ellyses. But it was also the day when a young footballing icon collapsed under the pressure of expectation, in a quite literal sense. He'd already scored five goals in the tournament, and at only 22 was the lynchpin of the Selecao. But the night before the biggest game of his career, Ronaldo collapsed at the team hotel suffering a convulsive fit. The pre-match team-sheets had Ronaldo as 'not playing', but an hour before kick-off he was back in the team. Des Lynam frantically trying to explain the situation is one of my earliest footballing memeories. And the performance of the young striker is regarded as one of the saddest moments in World Cup history. Evidently unfit to play, the sight of this great striker wandering aimlessly around the Stade de France was genuinly upsetting. Rumours have since sufficed that Nike may have forced their poster boy to play at all costs.

His goalscoring turn-around in Japan/South Korea persuaded the Galactico-era Real Madrid to take a punt on the increasingly large Ronaldo. But true to form, three months in, and the knee injury that had blighted him for the previous two years returned. As Pele said at the time: "this kind of thing makes you doubt the existance of God." And yet still, with only one working knee, the buck-toothed Brazilian managed to score 97 goals in 150 games for Madrid. Three of those goals came in a 4-3 loss to Manchester United in 2003. Those three away-goals ensured United were out of the Champions League, and yet so good was his performance, everyone inside Old Trafford gave Ronaldo a standing-ovation: truly exceptional behaviour from those fickle Mancs.

And yet, even after everything he achieved in his career, there is still a sense of unfulfilled potential. A question of 'what if?' And perhaps this is what makes him so special: arguably the greatest striker of all-time, and yet past the age of 22 never fully fit.

Look at YouTube clips of his goals and best bits, and ask yourself how many other players could have done that. The answer: not many. Without doubt, up there alongside Cruyff, Platini and Di Stefano. For my mind, the best player of the past 20 years. And just think how good he could have been with two proper knees.

We salute you O Fenomeno. The only Ronaldo.



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