Now, something that has bugged us for years. The ongoing debate of the best footballer of all-time. My candidate: Ronaldo Luís Nazario de Lima.
For decades, 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 takes 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. The offered 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.
And, if it’s stats you’re after, he certainly wasn’t shy in front of goal…
Ronaldo Nazario Career Goals and Stats Infographic
Feel free to use the above Ronaldo Nazario Career Goals and Stats Infographic – just remember to link back to this webpage!
Welcome to the greatest number 9 in living memory. Our aim, to put to bed your misconceptions. Allow us to educate you on the greatest man ever to dribble a football in the peak of his powers. O Fenomeno. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima.
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.
The Brazilian Ronaldo, on the other hand, as 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, the Brazilian Ronaldo, 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.
Ronaldo Nazario, 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.
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.
A Growing Reputation
For Ronaldo Nazario, 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.
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.
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.
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 Nazário 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?
Ronaldo Nazario: A Special One
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 Nazario 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 Ronaldo Nazario at PSV
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.
The Brazilian Ronaldo was hotly pursued by the elite than either of Messi or Cristiano, and there’s a reason for this.
Ronaldo Nazario, 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.
The Netherlands only saw a few seasons of Ronaldo Nazario, 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 Nazario was unlike anything the Netherlands and PSV 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.
Out of the 57 games Ronaldo Nazario played for PSV, magic happened on more than one occasion. I feel it’s my duty, as a disciple of this great man, 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.
A Name in Europe
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 Nazário.
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.
Ronaldo Nazario: progress at a tender age
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-years-old.
This was real life, and we were witness to a genuine otherworldly talent. It was set to get better from here on out.
Ronaldo Nazario to Barcelona, sunny 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.
An Eye-Watering Stint on Spanish shores
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 Ronaldo 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.
Fool me Twice
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.
Jaws drop at SD Compostela
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.
Like Glue in Barcelona
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 ‘Brazilian Ronaldo’: Nazario at Inter Milan
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 Ronaldo Nazario head to Inter Milan. 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 for Ronaldo Nazario by Inter Milan would equate to £380m today. Yes, you read that right. £380m. £380,000,000. A mind-numbing fee for a mind-boggling player. Two fruitful seasons played out before disaster struck. It proved to be a bargain.
Ronaldo Nazario immediately acclimatised to life in Italy with Inter Milan. 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.
£380 million and worth every penny
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 Nazario joined Inter Milan and flourished in 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 Nazario, the Brazilian 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.
Hitting the ground running
He 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.
The best vs the best
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.
Nesta? No Problem
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.
The Brazilian 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 ‘Brazilian Ronaldo’ – The best ever?
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. And let’s not forget, we haven’t even ran the rule over his time as a Galactico. Regardless, next time someone asks you who the best player of all-time is, who peaked greater than anyone in the game, remember the name: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.
Words by: Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__J10