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The boots. The hair. The goals. Everything about Ronaldo was iconic. The legendary striker is even now known as the ‘original Ronaldo’ to most, such is his cult status from a phenomenal playing career that spanned just short of two decades. Almost impossibly, the Brazilian could have achieved further success if not for the unfortunate knee problems that hindered him for several years.
Born Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima in Rio de Janeiro in 1976, the child prodigy spent his days playing football in the streets instead of going to school. It was a brave decision, but one that certainly paid off in the long run. Unlike many professionals, those street skills were honed on the tight perimeters of the futsal pitches in the capital, with his talent spotted by 1970 World Cup winner and legendary Brazi international Jairzinho.
A coach at youth club Sao Cristovao in northeastern Rio, Jairzinho helped bring the 13-year-old through the ranks there, before sending him to his former club Cruzeiro just three years later. Fresh from suffering rejection from Flamengo – the team he supported – Ronaldo won his first of many titles aged just 16, lifting the Copa do Brasil in 1993.
His performances back home didn’t go unnoticed, and it wasn’t long until the Brazilian national team came calling. At just 17, the striker was the youngest to be selected for the 1994 USA World Cup squad by some margin and, despite not featuring throughout the tournament, one can only imagine the experience gained as fellow striker Romario fired the country to another World Cup trophy.
A teenage Ronaldo not only aimed to emulate his team-mate in future competitions, but followed in his footsteps straight away, going on his recommendation to sign for Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, where Romario had previously won three league titles and two KNVB Cups. The pair even made the same switch from the Netherlands to Barcelona, a move that came to fruition for O Fenomeno thanks to his frightening record across two seasons with PSV. Despite the beginnings of future serious knee trouble, the teenager hit 54 goals in 57 appearances, helping his side to secure the KNVB Cup in his second and final year.
Unsurprisingly, the European giants queued up for the rising star, with Spanish outfit Barcelona winning the race. They could, however, only hold onto him for one season. Fortunately for the Catalan club and manager, the late, great, Sir Bobby Robson, it was one of his most prolific, with the striker clinching the La Liga top scorer award with 34 goals. It wasn’t enough to topple champions Real Madrid, but his 47 goals in all competitions earned him the Golden Shoe and his first FIFA Player of the Year award, the youngest ever recipient at the age of 20.
After problems with a contract renewal in Spain, Italian side Inter Milan jumped at the opportunity to land one of the best players in the world, and paid a then world-record fee of $27 million to lure him to San Siro. It didn’t phase him one bit, and he continued his stunning displays on the world stage. Luigi Simoni’s side clinched second place in Serie A thanks to Ronaldo’s 25 league goals, while also winning the UEFA Cup against fellow Italians Lazio, with the exceptional performances of the forward landing him a second consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year award.
France ‘98 was the perfect opportunity for the 21-year-old to now show the world what he could do, and he didn’t disappoint. His four goals drove the nation all the way to the final, a match shrouded in controversy and confusion with Ronaldo being omitted from the starting XI after being taken to hospital following a reported convulsive fit. Chaos ensued in the minutes leading to kick-off, with the striker eventually given the all-clear to start the game. Unsurprisingly, he was far from his best as the hosts ran out 3-0 winners. Despite the drama, the Brazilian was presented with the Golden Ball, joining the list of previous South American stars Jose Nasazzi, Zizinho, Garrincha and Diego Maradona to have won the award.
The captain’s armband awaited on his return to Inter, but it was at this stage that several knee injuries began to have a serious impact on his career, culminating in an ACL tear at the turn of the century. Just 36 Serie A appearances followed over the next three seasons, with Ronaldo rapidly running out of time to be fit for the 2002 World Cup.
But national team boss Luiz Felipe Scolari took a risk by selecting the struggling striker, and in doing so helped create history as his eight goals in South Korea and Japan clinched a record fifth world title, with Ronaldo’s idiosyncratic hairstyle and famous number nine yellow and green jersey becoming iconic all around the world.
In a similar gamble to Scolari, Real Madrid made their move for the striker after his success in East Asia. Roberto Carlos, Raul, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham all helped form the famous Galacticos, but president Florentino Perez needed a forward to complete the puzzle. As always with Ronaldo, it was a smart move. The attacker’s displays for club and country earned him a third FIFA Player of the Year award in 2002, while also helping his side to two La Liga titles during his second spell in Spain. One Champions League hat-trick in particular at Old Trafford will live long in the memory of many football fans across Europe, especially for the Manchester United faithful.
Back on the world stage, France once again got the better of Selecao in 2006, knocking Brazil out of the competition in the quarter-finals. But it was another personal milestone for the striker, who overtook Gerd Muller as the tournament’s all-time leading goalscorer with 15, a record that stood until Miroslav Klose netted a 16th for Germany in 2014.
Brief spells at AC Milan and Corinthians followed on from his time in the Spanish capital before Ronaldo retired from the game in 2011. The Brazilian has since ventured into sports club ownership, charity work and even acting, but he’ll always be known best for those direct charges at terrified defenders, for those formidable finishes from all angles, and for those outstretched arms as he glided towards his jubilant fans. Wherever he went, he scored goals for fun, often against some of the world’s greatest ever defenders in an era that cherished defence over attack. One can only imagine how much he would be worth in today’s market.
His boyhood club Sao Cristovao have also renamed their stadium after their beloved former player, with countless opposing teams and supporters bowing down in honour and adulation for the forward over the years. He joins the likes of fellow legends Luis Figo, Johan Cruyff and Ronald Koeman among others to have played for derby rivals across Europe. It doesn’t happen very often in football but, thanks to their grace and skill on the pitch, all of the above were hugely respected on both sides of the divide. Ronaldo was no different.