Welcome back to Part 2, and to Ronaldo’s rise and dominance at the pinnacle of the sport. We will pick up where we left off, which saw the end of his time in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven.
An Eye-Watering Stint in Spain
After two years in the south of the Netherlands, it was time for Ronaldo to make the jump to the elite level of football. He drew interest across Europe, but the two most heavily linked clubs would reside in Italy and Spain respectively. Internazionale, who will play a large part in the story of Ronaldo, and Futbol Club Barcelona.
Ultimately, it was Barcelona who would cough up the world record fee required to purchase the once in a generation talent. €15m it would cost the Spaniards. It was a mere one season worth of football they would receive for their investment. But wow, what a season it was.
What followed was ridiculous—47 goals in 49 games.
The holder of La Liga’s golden boot with 34 goals in 37 games. Six goals in four cup games. Five goals in seven in Europe. The level was staggering. Right foot, left foot, heading of the ball, penalties, inside and outside of the box, and once again, his signature rounding of the keeper.
At one stage early in the season, he rounded the goalkeeper for three consecutive goals. He made a mockery of the Spanish top-flight which stood as the second-best league in the world at the time, lagging behind the pinnacle of football in Italy. Ronaldo made the stadiums that lined the country, his playground.
There were many goals which showed the utter brilliance of Ronaldo in the iconic Blaugrana strip. Certain moments, however, stood at the peak of the mountain, looking down with an all-knowing smirk that they were superior.
It was a few days preceding Halloween, October 26th to be exact. Ronaldo would make sure it was a nightmare experience for Valencia. The goals, in terms of excellence and precision, rise in class with each finish. His first saw him pick the ball up 35-yards from goal. He took a few slow dribbles while gradually advancing the ball. All is calm. Except Ronald has the ball.
Boom. With an explosion of pace that has been present since birth, he sprung through a small gap that appeared between full-back and centre-back. The defenders attempted to fix their error, but it was too late. Ronaldo had brushed the ball past the keeper and scored.
The second goal was elite and displayed his unusual football intelligence. He had to hold his run for longer than he would have liked. The ball, when played over the top, hung in the air for far too long. The defender was allowed some time to gain on Ronaldo due to the poor ball. It didn’t matter. The feathery touch. The explosive pace. The intelligence to alter his dribble away from the sliding defender.
The build-up play was capped off with a hard, low, weak footed drive into the bottom right-hand corner. It was the epitome of a striker’s goal.
Now typically, it’s a fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. But on this occasion, for the hat-trick goal, Valencianos can hold their head high. There was nothing they could do. This was otherworldly. Think Lionel Messi against Real Madrid in the 2011 Champions League semi-final. This was of similar ilk, only 15 years earlier. The ball was won back in midfield, and it was laid on for Ronaldo to run on to, as Sergio Busquets did for Messi.
What happened next was sublime. Ronaldo took the ball and drove. He soared past the first player like he wasn’t there, leaving the defender in his wake. Then, he ran. It was, in the words of the ex-Real Madrid forward, Jorge Valdano, akin to a ‘herd’ running at the defence.
He ran towards the backtracking defenders, and made something out of nothing. He took a slight touch to the left to set the defenders up and in a flash, touched the ball forward and hopped through the gap. The defenders ran into each other. Ronaldo was gone, and the ball was in the corner of the net. Ronaldo had destroyed Valencia. The buck-toothed boy from Brazil had made a mockery of a team who had given Barcelona a run for their money and had beaten Real Madrid. This is what Ronaldo did. This is what he was capable of, something out of nothing, pure destruction.
If you think that display was good, wait until you hear about this. It was a couple of weeks before the Valencia showing. SD Compostela were the unfortunate opposition. The game itself was nowhere near as difficult, meaning the Catalonians weren’t as reliant on Ronaldo as they were against Valencia two weeks later.
Yet in the 37th minute, he scored the single greatest goal in his playing career.
The ball was rolling toward Ronaldo. The two Compostela men rushed towards the ball. In a moment of panic, they collide into each other. It appears that Ronaldo has a penchant for causing defenders to converge together. The ball consequently rolled through to the samba star. What followed was mesmeric.
The man from the Galicia based team took several cynical swipes, and a large chunk of Ronaldo’s shirt was in Saïd Cheba’s hand. The pull-back only achieved to slow the assault. It seemed as if Ronaldo lost control of the ball. But Ronaldo’s cerebrum does not operate as the rest of ours does. It operates for football: ‘how am I going to score, and what is the best way’.
The shirt drag prompted Ronaldo to trap the ball with his studs so the next evil-doer would not steal his possession. He flew right by the man, and away he went. A simple trap and shift lost his two cynical defenders, away he went. So far, he had taken four defenders out of the game.
Ronaldo charged forward with the elegance of a gazelle. He checks inside, and back outside, to get the defender twisting and turning. He turns back inside to evade another man and guess what happened? They nearly run into each other, what a surprise. At this point, it seems the glue on Ronaldo’s boot wore off, and the ball escaped a little in front of him.
The ball had escaped, but with one step, Ronaldo lashed it across his body and it arrowed into the bottom left-hand corner. One of the most significant goals in history has been scored. In merely 11 seconds, he had made six players look utterly foolish. As if they were no more than useless street thugs.
The stadium wowed. He had left his head coach with his head in his hands as if Ronaldo had reached the summit of football excellence. Barcelona’s assistant head coach ran around the touchline in jubilance at what he had just seen. What Ronaldo had just done was unlike anything before him in football. It’s hard to compare it to any goal beforehand, or any that followed it.
Ronaldo’s one season in Spain during his pomp set the standard for the elite that would grace La Liga years later. Are they as good as Ronaldo? He was the first player, in the words of ex-Barcelona player and treble-winning coach Luis Enrique, to normalise ‘seeing Messi dribble past six players, but not then. Ronaldo was a beast.’
Ronaldo brought in a new era of striker. An era where it was okay to drop into midfield, pick up the ball and run at helpless defenders. The first striker to torment defenders in the way that he did. Ronaldo’s Spanish stint was short but prolific. The San Siro beckoned.
The Pinnacle at Internazionale
Ronaldo’s journey in Spain only lasted a single season. It ended on bad terms, to put it mildly, following a contractual dispute. Ronaldo said during a 2016 talk-show that he wishes that he would have scored the goal against Compostela for Real Madrid instead of Barcelona.
Ronaldo had a choice of a few clubs following his dispute with Barcelona. The world of football wanted him, but only a select number were willing to make the world record bid for the striker. Inter Milan would pip Lazio and Rangers in their transfer hunt. A £25m deal saw Inter get their man. The blue half of Milan had coveted Ronaldo since his time in Brazil. After losing him to Barcelona the summer before, they were not about to let him slip through their fingers again.
Inter stumped up the money, and the greatest player in the world took the flight from Catalonia to Milan, joining the toughest league in the world.
What is crazy is that with inflation accounted for, the £25m paid by Inter would equate to £380m today. Yes, you read that right. £380m. £380,000,000. A mind-boggling fee for a mind-numbing player. Two fruitful seasons played out before disaster struck. It proved to be a bargain.
Ronaldo immediately acclimated to life in Italy. With his mixture of speed, explosiveness, agility, and strength, it meant he was the perfect physical specimen for the league. The perfect make-up of a striker.
Once an unstoppable raw talent which wasn’t so raw anymore. What Ronaldo began to add in his season in Barcelona, particularly toward the end, was a penchant for playing a more controlled brand of football. Ronaldo was getting better and better thanks to the one season of football education he received in Barcelona. The Italians dared him to do what he did to the Spanish. It was a challenge gladly accepted.
Ronaldo came into a league where it was notoriously hard to score goals, to dribble and to find space. The hitman arrived, rubbished the stereotypes, and made defenders look far from impressive. Ronaldo left defender after defender in disarray. Defender after defender in a heap on the floor after being out-muscled. Elasticos, step overs, drag backs, the whole package.
Ronaldo’s physique had transformed in Italy. He had those thick, tree trunk legs, a broad chest and boulders where his shoulders would otherwise be. A footballing freak who could have been created in a science lab. It was like Maradona and Pele had bred a baby.
Ronaldo, in merely a few weeks, had shown Italy he was not to be trifled. Arch rival’s AC Milan, the superior club in Italy with names such as Marcel Desailly and Paolo Maldini at the back. The Milan derby didn’t promise to be an easy entrance for Ronaldo. Now, of course, he would leave fans with a small taste in the first game. Ronaldo wouldn’t cheat them in that manner. He won a penalty and tucked it away, but that was not his best sequence. He was fed the ball in midfield on the half-turn, and with one shift of the ball to the right, away he went.
Ronaldo sprinted away and drew in not one, but two defenders, such as the threat level. As he drew them in, as all great players do, he saw the open man and released him. He squared the ball across goal for his teammate to tap into an empty net. Ronaldo didn’t score nor assist the goal, but his imprint was throughout.
Now, to the second game against the Rossoneri, where he left his mark in a much more profound manner. Ronaldo took a mostly different approach to this game. He would continue to drop deep, but instead of playing as the usual marauding dribbler causing havoc, he decided to withhold, throwing the whole Milan game-plan out of the window.
He operated as a player breaking lines by passing the ball through to the midfielders running beyond him, showing his elite versatility as a forward.
There were times in the game, however, where he was face up with Desailly, and head-on with Maldini. He made them both look silly. In one passage of play, Ronaldo received the ball on the half-turn in the right-hand channel. He did a simple skill, yet it was carried out at such speed it left Maldini bewildered.
On the pair’s next meeting in the game, Maldini slid in from behind. Ronaldo had Maldini running scared. The best defender in football. Ronaldo would proceed to score with a lovely finish on the counter-attack. A deft chip on the volley over the onrushing Milan keeper. The goal was a beauty personified. As was the wonderfully flicked hockey assist on the final goal for Inter. Yet, the lasting image and memory from the game is neither the goal nor that lovely flick. It’s where he left Maldini dumbfounded.
Ronaldo had several world-class performances by now. More than most players have in their whole career. He had only played five full seasons, iconic performances aplenty. Cruzeiro, PSV, and Barcelona. But to this day, the best performance of his career remains a game against Lazio in 1998. It was billed as the greatest attacker against one of the greatest defenders. Ronaldo Nazário against Alessandro Nesta. It promised so much. One made the other look insignificant.
The first such instance where the two came into conflict was relatively early. The ball was played into the left channel, and Nesta went to pursue the ball. Nesta was regarded as a fast defender and was notorious for beating attackers to the ball. What did Ronaldo think of it? Nothing. He ran to the ball first, prodded it around Nesta and made him look average, leaving him in a crumpled heap.
It was a sign of what was to come. The second such incident occurred later on. It was a transition opportunity, and Ronaldo had the ball. Nesta was in pursuit. Ronaldo had beaten two Lazio players, and Nesta was racing back. He slid in for the ball, and took nothing but Ronaldo’s legs from underneath him.
Their next match-up saw a ball played through over the top. Ronaldo decided to toy with Nesta and gave him a head-start. He then proceeded not to beat him for pace, but to bully him off the ball. It was like Thanos with the gauntlet. It was unfair, and he just threw him off. Nesta held on and stayed with it, but Ronaldo, with a second defender coming and a third in close proximity, decided to back away and feed his teammate the ball.
The defenders stayed with Ronaldo as he received it back on the half-turn, and with a slight feint of the hips, he burst through a gap. Ronaldo had forced Nesta to foul him again. Ronaldo was making a mockery of the heavyweight contest.
Ronaldo’s overall performance in this game, excluding his abuse of Nesta, was magical. Flicks over players in the channels followed. Rasping shots that hit the bar, incisive passing reminiscent of his future teammate Zinedine Zidane, and of course, his signature fooling of the keeper.
The ‘keeper was left on the floor in what seemed like slow motion. He knew what was coming, but he couldn’t stop it. Around he went, and into the goal the ball went. Iconic.
A performance which will be difficult to beat. A set of skills and capabilities that will likely not be mirrored. Reaching heights in domestic football that are inconceivable. All you needed to know if this was true, was a pair of eyes.
The story of the most prominent peak at club football level has been told. The greatest storybook, fairytale-Esque narrative at international level will be described next time on ZICOBALL, in Part 3. Right here.
Next time someone asks you who the best player of all-time is, remember the name: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.
Feature Image: Getty Images
Written by Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__j10