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THE ORIGINAL RONALDO, AND WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, citing the toll the game has taken on his 34-year-old body, announced his retirement from soccer.

Once known as The Phenomenon, the striker leaves as the all-time World Cup scorer with 15 goals over three tournaments (he was part of the 1994 World Cup squad as a 17-year-old but did not play).  Winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996 and 1997, Ronaldo received that honor a third time for leading Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title.

Ronaldo scored more than 400 goals in a stellar career that began in 1993 with Cruzeiro and followed with stops at PSV Eindhoven, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan and, finally, back in Brazil with Corinthians.  His contract with Corinthians was due to expire at the end of the year, and he had been routinely hooted by fans for his obvious lack of match fitness.

“With this announcement, it feels like my first death,” Ronaldo said. 

He added:  “My career was beautiful, was wonderful.  I’ve had many defeats but infinite victories.”  [February 14]

Comment:  Ronaldo’s career was doomed four years ago, when he learned he had hypothyroidism, a condition that makes it difficult to lose weight.   But it should be remembered that the man whose irresistable, explosive runs into the enemy penalty area often ended with a goal and a trademark gap-toothed grin was among the most star-crossed stars in modern soccer.

Best known of his physical setbacks, of course, is Ronaldo’s mysterious performance at the 1998 World Cup final against host France.  Ronaldo had scored a team-leading four goals to that point, but the afternoon of the game, in the team’s hotel in Paris, he suffered convulsions, possibly the result of the combination of medications that had been administered to him for injuries to an ankle, a calf, a knee.  Scratched from the starting lineup an hour before the game, he was reinstated (it was rumored under pressure from the team’s mega-sponsor, Nike), played a lackluster 90 minutes and managed two shots, one a sitter from five yards that he sent directly at the chest of France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.  Shaken by the pre-game drama, the swaggerless Brazilians bowed to the French, 3-0.

Not as well remembered is the period, starting four months after Paris, that typified the career of Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima.  That November, he scored for Inter in an Italian Cup game against derby rival AC Milan, but he soon limped off the field with a ruptured kneecap tendon.  Upon his return the following January he sustained another injury that shelved him for two months.  But the most serious threat to Ronaldo’s career came in November 1999 when he tore up his knee in an Italian league match against Lecce.  After surgery and rehabilitation, he returned to action in April 2000 in an Italian Cup game and lasted all of eight minutes before rupturing ligaments in the same knee.  Ronaldo wouldn’t be back until the following season, and in September 2001 he sustained a thigh strain in a UEFA Cup match gainst FC Brasov of Romania.  After eight weeks on  the sidelines, he touched the ball three times in a league match against Lecce and limped off with another thigh strain.  In all, the six injuries over four seasons forced him to miss 14 months of games.

The triumph over Germany at Korea/Japan ’02 proved that Ronaldo wasn’t entirely snake bit, and Real Madrid, apparently convinced that he was indestructable,  bought the then-25-year-old for $58 million.  Five years and 99 goals in 164 appearances later, a falling out with Real coach Fabio Capello prompted Ronaldo to move to AC Milan, and naturally another career-threating knee injury–the rupture of left kneecap ligament–followed.  During his rehabilitation his reputation took a hit when he was caught in an encounter with cross-dressing prostitutes.

Things were never the same, of course.  And now, one can only wonder where Ronaldo’s place in soccer history would be if he hadn’t lost what were four years from the prime of his career.  One thing is certain:  For the past few years, when one mentions “Ronaldo,”  it’s understood that the player in question is the Portuguese–not Brazilian–version.

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