The image of Ronaldo leaving the pitch with tears in his eyes and his knee wretched in agony could well be the enduring image of the great Brazilian. It was those injuries that forced one of the best players of the modern generation into retirement yesterday, but supporters of Italian football, and particularly Inter, will remember him for what he could do when he was not injured.
He was as strong as they came. Ronaldo had legs like tree trunks, yet was as quick and skillful as anyone. He did not perhaps possess the elegance of other recent greats like Zinedine Zidane or Lionel Messi, but his genius was built around other attributes. Ronaldo was a bulldozer that nobody could stop until his knees gave way and curtailed his career.
Inter made him the world’s most expensive player when they paid £19 million for him in 1997. He was already the youngest ever FIFA World Player of the Year at the age of 20, but the weight of expectation never affected his debut season in blue and black shirt of the Italian side.
He scored a goal in the final as Inter won the UEFA Cup, on the back of a devastating campaign in which the young Brazilian terrorised everyone in the league – not least Inter’s main rivals Milan, for whom he was becoming a particular thorn in the side. A second consecutive FIFA Player of the Year award, as well as a Ballon D’Or, confirmed him as the best footballer in the world.
It was testament to his ability that Ronaldo’s true worth was recognised despite playing for Inter in an era which will be remembered for the club’s underachievement. Their No.9 however, had no such problem as he scored every type of goal possible.
Some people attribute the decline of Il Fenomeno to the goings-on of the 1998 World Cup. Ronaldo had dragged Brazil to the final on the back of his own magnificence, but what happened on the eve of that match against France has been remembered as one of football’s biggest mysteries. There were murmurs that Ronaldo had a mental breakdown and couldn’t play, then that Brazil’s sponsors Nike demanded his inclusion. In the end, a shadow of the real Ronaldo turned up as Brazil lost 3-0.
Yet he returned to Inter and while the club faltered, he excelled, coming second in the voting for a third FIFA Player of the Year. His third season with the Nerazzurri is where the knee injuries that tainted one of the best careers of all time began. Against Lecce, on November 21 1999, Ronaldo’s colossal physique slumped to the ground.
The Brazilian had 18 months on the sideline, threatening to undermine a career that saw him justifiably compared with the greatest ever players to come from his country. Upon his return he lasted just seven minutes of the Coppa Italia final against Lazio, before falling to the ground again. It was assumed that two such horrendous injuries would be too much for any man to overcome. Although he spent months out of action undergoing two operations, Ronaldo returned for the 2002 World Cup.
Inter looked on as their striker scored twice in the final and won his second World Cup with Brazil. He had shown no signs of injury, and although he was a little bigger and heavier, he lacked none of his previous ferocity. His 15 goals across three World Cups remains an all-time record.
That summer, Inter accepted Real Madrid’s bid for Ronaldo and the Brazilian returned to Spain after 99 games and 59 goals for the Nerazzurri. At the time, Inter fans criticised his decision, claiming their club had nursed him through two years of injury only to be stabbed in the back. In hindsight, Inter received a huge sum of money for a player who could still replicate his younger days, but was essentially on his last legs.
After five and a half years in Madrid – some of which was spent scoring goals, some of which was spent in the treatment room – Ronaldo looked like a spent force. His midriff had received worldwide derision; he was no longer a bulldozer, he now just looked overweight.
Milan, who had felt his wrath like no other club when Ronaldo played for Inter, saw an opportunity to help him return to his more glorious days. Unfortunately his time in the red half of the city will be remembered for a third horrific knee injury. He cried as he left the pitch and his career seemed over.
Ronaldo somehow squeezed another three years out of his creaking bones but, at the age of 34, he is now a player of the past. Trophies won in Brazil, Holland, Spain and Italy, as well as numerous international awards make his career one of the most celebrated ever.
His tearful eyes will always tell the story of the injuries that may have stopped him being the greatest ever. But supporters of Inter will be able to tell the stories of why he was as good as anyone has ever been.