Ronaldo: Remembering O Fenômeno’s First Year as a Professional

WC2002-GER-BRA-SECOND GOAL JUBO
Ronaldo celebrates scoring at the 2002 World Cup | GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

The name ‘Ronaldo’ carries a lot of weight in football. Younger fans will be drawn to Cristiano, but the original Ronaldo – the Brazilian sensation – was busy tearing the world up when the Juventus man was still a kid.

Often described as the greatest striker in the history of the sport, many would go as far as to suggest that Ronaldo was the single-most talented player ever – greater than Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Pelé – but also one of the most unfortunate when it came to injuries.

By the time he hung up his boots in 2011, Ronaldo was a two-time Ballon d’Or winner and two-time World Cup winner, having dominated with both Real Madrid, Inter and PSV Eindhoven.

However, it was not with any of those teams that Ronaldo introduced himself to the world. Instead, it was with Brazilian side Cruzeiro during the 1993/94 campaign.

It wasn’t an easy route to the big leagues for Ronaldo. He was snubbed by Flamengo as a teenager after being unable to afford the bus fare to training, and Flamengo didn’t think he was worth the effort to cover his travel expenses.

Imagine being that wrong about something.

Cruzeiro swooped in and took advantage after a deal was recommended to them by the legendary Jairzinho, and that was all Ronaldo needed to take over the world – a chance.

Club officials knew immediately that they had stumbled upon something special. He had racked up silly numbers in academy football and was clearly far too good for that level, so he was thrust into the starting lineup of the first team against Caldense in May 1993 when he was just 16 years old.

“I felt so nervous and my heart was racing,” Ronaldo told FIFA of his debut. “But at the same time I felt optimistic. It was all I’d ever wanted: to play.

“I had butterflies because of the nerves and the pressure, but at the same time it was what I’d been working towards all my life. So I managed to get the nerves under control. Players usually feel nervous before a game, but it passes. You forget everything once you are in the game.”

From that moment on, it was non-stop success for Ronaldo.

He bagged his first goal in a 2-0 friendly win over Belenenses in August 1993, but the greatest day of his short time with Cruzeiro came in November in a meeting with Bahia. Cruzeiro emerged with a 6-0 victory, and Ronaldo scored five. It wasn’t easy for the global media to keep an eye on domestic football in Brazil, but word of this performance spread very quickly.

He started by slotting a penalty into the bottom-right corner, before bagging an assist for his side’s second. Ronaldo then left both a defender and the goalkeeper flat on the ground as he breezed past both and tapped into an empty net for 3-0.

He completed his hat-trick before half-time with a towering header, and he bagged a second penalty after the break. His fifth was perhaps the most memorable, despite also being probably the worst goal you’ve ever seen.

The Bahia goalkeeper pounced on a loose ball and stopped it dead. He left the ball on the ground as he raised his arms to taunt the crowd, allowing Ronaldo to poke his foot in and jab the ball into the back of the net. It was awful. It was beautiful.

When a 17-year-old scores five goals in one senior game, the world tends to take notice.

It was in April 1994 that a public campaign to hand Ronaldo a spot in the upcoming World Cup squad began. Up against Boca Juniors in a Copa Libertadores tie, Ronaldo embarked on a 50-yard run which saw him drop four defenders and the goalkeeper before tapping into an empty net. This kid was special.

That form saw him rack up 56 goals in 58 games with Cruzeiro, and it earned him that spot in Brazil’s World Cup squad for the 1994 tournament.

Manager Carlos Alberto Parreira took a chance on the 17-year-old, giving him experience alongside legendary forwards like Bebeto and Romário. It was like Theo Walcott going to the 2006 World Cup with England, apart from this one wasn’t a complete and utter shambles.

During the tournament, in which Brazil emerged victorious, Ronaldo didn’t see a single minute of action. He was rarely even shown on TV, but he was given a few seconds of fame as he walked up to collect a winner’s medal.

“And there’s the number 20, the wonderkid Ronaldo,” a commentator said. “We haven’t seen him, but they say he’s a special one.”

Yeah, pretty much.

The tournament might not have given him the chance to play, but it was an opportunity for Ronaldo to discuss his future with some of the best. Romário was particularly interested, telling the 17-year-old that a move to PSV was nothing to be sneezed at.

Hearing that from such an icon was all Ronaldo needed to make such a move, and he set off for Eindhoven ahead of the 1994/95 season.

To quote the legendary Tostão from an interview with Superesportes: “He was, with absolute certainty, the greatest player who ever came through at Cruzeiro.”

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