Is Ronaldo the best footballer of all-time? Part 1: The early years

Now, something that has bugged me for years. The ongoing debate of the best footballer of all-time. My candidate: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.

For decades now, the debate has raged in football circles. Who is the best of all time? While there seems to be a consensus winner as the younger generation has taken over the media and the narratives, I’m here to tell you, my people, this generation are wrong.

Neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo wears the crown as the best ever. This generation’s reasoning is so wrong; it’s almost dumbfounding to me. The generation of stat obsessed zombies has somehow managed to put players on a pedestal of being in the conversation with the best player of all time. I’m here to put a stop to that.

Welcome to the greatest number 9 in living memory. My aim, to put to bed your misconceptions. Allow me to educate you on the greatest man ever to dribble a football in the peak of his powers. O Fenomeno. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.

Humble Beginnings

Now, to provide context, let’s compare this man to the two men at the epicentre of the ‘goat’ debate today. Ronaldo’s journey in football is much different to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two supreme footballers who many rank as the best of all-time.

Messi’s schooling came at the prestigious La Masia academy. The school of total-football in Barcelona. Cristiano honed his youthful exuberance with two first-division football clubs. First, Nacional, and then Sporting Lisbon, where most are familiar with his name.

Brazillian Ronaldo, on the other hand, how he is so often described when discussed in the same sentence, grew up as many young and talented Brazilians do, playing Futsal.

There was something different about this young man, though. As scoring eleven of twelve goals in a game would suggest, such was this prodigious young talent. Everyone had heard about the young South-American striker with unwavering composure in front of goal. Everybody wanted a piece of him from a young age, and at age thirteen, two agents signed him up.

One of these two gentlemen, Reinaldo Pitta, said how almost instantaneously, they could see that ‘he could be something different than most other players’. Think for a second; this is a thirteen-year-old boy. As a thirteen-year-old, I could be found in a classroom listening to my maths teacher, Mr Smith, babble about algebra. Here was this young man, impressing grown men with alien-like skills, attracting interest to get signed up on a path to professional football at the highest level.

In a completely unconventional way to the modern player, this was just the beginning of the rise to the pinnacle. This was the start of what we know today to be the greatest football player to grace the sport.

Cruzeiro’s Child Prodigy

Ahh, Cruzeiro. The beginning of his professional career. Where do we start? Allow me to begin on his famed journey. The great Jairzinho was the first to spot his extra-terrestrial talent in professional football, recommending him as the man to sign for his former club, Cruzeiro. They obliged, and what followed over the next two seasons was marvellous.

The Brazilian boy-wonder set the country alight with an array of finishes matched by nobody at the time, and arguably ever. At the age of just sixteen and seventeen, it was clear that the boy was destined for the very top. In his arsenal could be found show-stopping screamers, delicate-dinks, glorious glancing headers, and his signature move of sitting down a goalkeeper before rounding into an empty net. I mean, look at that grin below. He was born for this.

ACERVO CRUZEIRO

Combine his arsenal with the almost otherworldly composure and speed, and it is not surprising that he drew Pele comparisons instantly. That’s some pressure to put onto a teenager.

For Ronaldo, the pressure was no such thing. At the tender age of seventeen, when the great Cafu turned up at a game of his, it was time to show up and show out, and boy did he ever. Scoring five of six goals in a demolition job of their rivals, he left Cafu gushing with praise for the young man. It was clear to the right-back what he had just seen. Ronaldo showed he was truly a phenomenon.

This was just the start of his dominance. It was immense. For the two seasons that followed, he put up gaudy numbers, averaging nearly one goal each game as a teen. A teenager! It was a sight to behold—Brazil’s new hope.

Back to the two ‘goats’, Cristiano and Messi. Two extraordinary talents, but let’s look at what was said about them while they were young whipper-snappers.

Messi, at a young age, attracted praise which was often based on his aptitude and impressive showings here and there. Fabio Capello, for example, mentioned the quality of being able to be so young and wear the heavy shirt of Barcelona. Notice here; it wasn’t the potential all-time great talent mentioned. It wasn’t in regards to the ability he possessed and the behemoth he would become in his prime.

Cristiano Ronaldo: personality, quality, and growing excitement. A few of the phrases thrown around by youth coaches and both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger whilst in their hunt for the Portuguese youngster. No mentioning of how Cristiano had it all, however, and no naming of how Cristiano could dominate football.

Compare this to how Ronaldo was dubbed as ‘The second Pelé’ when stepping out in a Cruzeiro shirt and mystifying defenders. This boy was different. Everybody knew it. No one who followed him was the same. Not Messi, not Cristiano. Nobody. This seventeen-year-old was setting the scene alight like nobody else would for a long time. It has been 27 years, any takers?

Even at this tender age, everyone knew who he was. The immortal words used by a doting 1994 World Cup commentator:

‘There’s the number twenty, the wonder-kid Ronaldo. We haven’t seen him play, but they say he’s a special one.’

It sums up his circumstances up beautifully. At such a tender age, Ronaldo was in the spotlight. He was handling pressure no-one since Pelé had encountered. The hopes of a nation were on his shoulders.

Ronaldo led Cruzeiro to their first two trophies for a long, long time, in an age where they were anything but a powerhouse in Brazilian football. Ronaldo scored 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro and was consequently called up to the World Cup squad, and left with a winners medal. Not bad for a seventeen-year-old, is it? An iconic start to an iconic career. Europe beckoned for the great one.

Dutch Delights for South America’s Rising Star

After his profile exponentially bolstered through destruction of those in his path in Brazil, the big clubs lined up to get a piece of O Fenômeno. Elite clubs at the absolute apex of European footballing pedigree. AC Milan, Inter, Juventus, and Ajax, all wanted a piece of the prodigal son. Name a seventeen-year-old that had this level of clubs in pursuit of him.

Inter Milan pursued Messi. No mean feat, but only one club nonetheless. They were willing to pay the Argentinian’s release clause, but alas Messi refused a move away from his comfort zone. Cristiano, on the other hand, did have a multitude of clubs coveting him. Aside from his destination at the Old Trafford, he had Liverpool, Arsenal and Barcelona all in pursuit. Arguably a different class of clubs. With Barcelona as the outlier, these clubs were a level below those clamouring for Ronaldo.

Ronaldo was hotly pursued by the elite than either of Messi or Cristiano, and there’s a reason for this.

Ronaldo, after declining advances from a host of European super-clubs, settled on taking his talents to the Netherlands. Not to the capital with Ajax, but a move to the south to PSV Eindhoven. Ronaldo drew on advice from Brazil great and ex-PSV man Romario, who suggested he should seek somewhere to act as a stage to prove his lethality.

Ronaldo only spent a couple of years in the Netherlands, but the formative years he spent there bettered your average player’s peak performance. The pace, the power, the impudence of some of the finishes.

It was like he was still learning how to play. So raw yet so brilliant. Ronaldo was unlike anything the Netherlands had ever seen, and they’ve witnessed some real talent. The concerns of spending €5m on a teenager quickly forgotten. 35 goals in 36 games in his debut season in Europe. These Europeans hadn’t seen anything yet.

In Ronaldo’s second season, there was a troublesome foreshadowing of the times ahead, witnessing swelling around the knee, and restricting him to a lowly 21 games. As you may have guessed, these 21 games proved fruitful. Ronaldo scored 19 goals in 21 appearances, a remarkable return amidst injury.

IMAGO

Out of the 57 games he played for PSV, magic happened on more than one occasion. I feel it’s my duty, as a disciple of Ronaldo, to shine a necessary spotlight on his showing against Bayer Leverkusen. A hat-trick in what is now known as the UEFA Cup. At this point, he was still mostly unknown to your average football fan outside of the Netherlands. But not for long. What followed would make his name a household one for years to come.

Ronaldo’s first goal came after he entered the German’s box after a smart run. An attempt to round the goalkeeper with mesmerising footwork encouraged the goalkeeper to give away a penalty, one of which he duly slotted home.

A single touch to get it out of his feet, followed by a screamer into the top corner of the net was next.

Third and foremost, a simple tap-in. Unfortunately for Leverkusen, this was not the last of Ronaldo.

Wonderful, instinctive dribbles from the young samba star, flying past everyone from midfield, regardless of how many people ahead of him. Whether it was from the left, the right, or even straight through Leverkusen’s spine, Ronaldo was rampant. Rudi Voller of Bayer Leverkusen was left shocked, remarking how he’d never in his life seen an 18-year-old play in such a manner. The first of a litany of quotes which followed the boy-wonder after this masterful showcase of dribbling, finishing and ball control. It was truly remarkable.

In comparison to Cristiano at this tender age, It was clear that he lacked any sort of end product, something that followed him to Manchester.

Messi had hypnotic ball control and has never lost it, but not the final ball, nor the finish, nor the killer-will in front of goal. Not yet.

Combine their two attributes while they were under-21s, and I’m not sure we would have even half of the player that Ronaldo was at 18. That is the level we are talking about here. A generational talent. A phrase which is nonchalantly brandished about these days but rarely correctly.

It was clear that Ronaldo had to mature as a player. In his mind, he was still the little boy from Brazil playing Futsal. The sky was indeed the limit for Ronaldo. He already had everything skill-wise. The pace. Power. Step-overs to blur the vision of any man who dared to stand in his way. It was like he was out of a video game. You know the type; shooting, pace, and power all to 99. Registering 40 goals a season as a teenager and now worth £100m at 20.

This was real life, and it was a genuine otherworldly talent. It was set to get better from here on out.

But that is a story we will visit next time, on our journey alongside Ronaldo’s path through the sport he made look so easy. Join me, Mustafa, and ZICO BALL for Part Two in the not so distant future.

Feature Image: PSV Twitter

Written by: Mustafa Jawad – @mussy__j10