“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.”
The parting words of Ronaldo as he brought an end to his illustrious career in February 2011 on the back of a two-year spell in Brazil with Corinthians, after enjoying the heights of European football for almost 20 years
A player who seemed to see no boundaries, one who was willing to test the accepted – showcased no more than featuring not only for both Barcelona and Real Madrid at club level but also Internazionale and Milan.
Although undoubtedly one of the modern greats and a player possessing unique talent, Il Fenomeno – the nickname afforded to the striker during his time in Italy – was not one which found overwhelming glory domestically.
“The lack of Champions League success at any of his high-profile European clubs is the only black mark on Ronaldo’s CV, that and the nagging suspicion that he kept playing for the right clubs at the wrong time, or vice versa,” claimed Guardian writer Paul Wilson in the immediate aftermath of his retirement.
Goals, fame and second-tier continental, as well as league success, came to the Brazilian, who became only the second man to break the world transfer record twice, all before his 21st birthday. Yet the pinnacle of today’s club game continued to evade the frontman until the very last. However, that was not the case on the international stage.
Although seen as a Galactico; a Camp Nou legend; a San Siro hero, Ronaldo’s lasting contribution to the world of football will always be remembered in affiliation to the grandest stage – the World Cup.
At the point of his retirement, Il Fenomeno left his life’s love with several records and history-making moments to his name, including the leading goalscorer in World Cup history. Although subsequently surpassed by Germany’s Miroslav Klose in the years following, at the time, there had never been a man to grace the competition with such prowess since the days of Gerd Müller, even offering more to his nation than the likes of Pelé from the same number of tournaments.
But if there was one defining summer which placed Ronaldo into the annals of history, it would be his golden trophy-winning offering during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Although influential in 1998, eight of Brazil’s 18 goals four years later came via The Phenomenon, a feat only bettered three times in the competition’s 88-year history – Sándor Kocsis (1954), Just Fontaine (1958) and Müller (1970).
However, it was not merely the number, but more so the timing. Seleção’s first outing against Turkey, a match for a nation which depends so much on its footballing success had been billed as an opportunity for redemption following the disappointment of Paris two years before the turn of the century.
Yet as Hasan Sas gave the underdogs the lead on the stroke of half-time, fears of the effects of France’s not only physical but also psychological victory in 1998 seemed evident. Brazil simply had not recovered. However, just five minutes after the second half began, Ronaldo netted maybe the most important goal of the tournament and one which defined his country’s path.
Rivaldo found space on the left-hand side before delivering a cross to his tireless team-mate, who slotted home on the volley to bring the scores level once again. It was a small moment on their route to glory; however, undeniably one which brought Brazil back to life. No longer were the South Americans haunted by the memories of Zinedine Zidane. It was a new chapter, one defined by a great.
More goals came during the remaining fixtures of the group stage, with Ronaldo adding further gloss to his side’s 4-0 win over China while assuring top spot heading into the knockout rounds, and reducing Costa Rica’s comeback to little more than conciliation with two strikes in three minutes.
His ratio of more than one goal a game continued as Brazil met Belgium in the tournament’s round of 16; latching his toe onto the end of Kleberson’s cross to set up a quarter-final contest with England – in which proved to be the only match he failed to find the back of the net that summer.
However, despite the lack of Il Fenomeno’s contribution on the scoresheet, Seleção set themselves up for their third successive semi-final, and from here on out, the World Cup belonged to Ronaldo.
Overcoming Turkey again proved a difficult challenge, yet, coincidently as was the case in the group stages, around five minutes after half-time the nation’s hero stepped up once again, beating Rüştü Reçber with a toe-poke from inside the area after latching onto a pass from the surging Cafu.
The talisman’s solitary effort was enough to force a date with destiny, 90 minutes against the Germans where the heartbreak of 1998 could finally be forgotten, and The Phenomenon was at the centre of it all again, although Oliver Kahn played a significant role.
Rivaldo’s initial long-range effort was spilt by the Bayern Munich stopper, with Ronaldo having the foresight to gamble and be in a position to turn home the mistake 12 minutes before his bending effort from the edge of the area sealed the victory and the World Cup in style.
In truth, Il Fenomeno, in years to come, may not be held in the same regard as today’s greats of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in terms of domestic success. The Brazilian did not shape the history of Real Madrid or Barcelona in the way the aforementioned pairing have. However, there are not many, if any, which can claim to have had a similar effect on the international game as the Rio-born striker, and that is why he will continue to be held as one of football’s all-time greats.