When setting out on a path of a nascent career, it’s often sage advice to listen to the sage counsel offered by elders, those who have travelled that journey before you, meaning that following in their footsteps can become a less tortuous trek. The 1994 Brazil squad that travelled to compete in, and ultimately, lift the World Cup in the USA contained two of the finest strikers the South American country has ever produced. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad had the established star quality of Romário de Souza Faria, known merely as Romário, and the, as yet untapped, talent of a 17-year-old forward who would grow to outshine the squad’s star striker. His name was Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, known to the footballing world simply as Ronaldo, or O Fenômeno (“The Phenomenon”).
Six years earlier, a 19-year-old Romário had left his native country, and moved to PSV Eindhoven, enjoying five successful years in the Netherlands before Barcelona took him to Catalunya to join the Johan Cruyff ‘Dream Team’ in exchange for a £2million cheque. Now in the middle of his two-season term at the Camp Nou, legend has it that Romário advised the tyro forward, who was being courted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe to take a step into the relatively shallow end of the big pool and join PSV for a couple of seasons to establish himself before considering a dive into the deep end with one of the continent’s behemoth cubs.
The teenager followed the advice and, in the footsteps of Romário, joined the Dutch club, building a fearsome reputation in two seasons full of pulsating performances and goals galore. Despite suffering the first of what would become a series of knee injuries, a tally of 54 goals in just 58 games was evidence of a burgeoning talent.
At the end of the 1996 season, it was clear that Ronaldo’s reputation had outgrown the relatively restrictive environments of the Eredivisie. It was time to hold his nose and jump into the deep end, and there were plenty of suitors seeking his services. Leaked rumours from agents to newspapers fed the feeding frenzy as the giants of the European game circled around, and seductive whispers to the player hinted at the riches that could be garnered by this or that move. For some, the concern over that knee injury cautioned at discretion, but the incandescent light of the teenager’s talent glared brightly. Both Milan clubs and Juventus were interested, as were Manchester United, but they would be disappointed.
After leaving England following the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson had coached Romário for two years at PSV before moving to Portugal for a successful four-year period first with Sporting CP and then Porto, collecting trophies and developing his own reputation as an experienced and successful coach. When Cruyff’s notoriously short fuse caused a divorce between coach and club that made Kramer v Kramer appear like a love-in, Barcelona decided that they wanted fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, to take over. The problem was that Van Gaal’s contract with Ajax prevented him taking up the post until the summer of 1997. Barça needed someone to step in for a season and keep things on the straight and narrow until Van Gaal could take over, and approached the Englishman.
Seduced by the opportunity to coach one of the greatest cubs in the world, Robson swopped Porto for Barcelona, and became the man who convinced the Blaugrana hierarchy to break the transfer world record with a £19.5million move to ensure that Ronaldo would continue to track the moves of Romário and exchange the quieter backwaters of Dutch football for the goldfish bowl experience of playing for Barcelona. With Cruyff now gone, and what was considered by many to be a low-key appointment to replace him, Barcelona were keenly aware that they needed to reassure their fans, as Robson recalled. ‘The President [Josep Lluís Núñez] said to me “’we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ Still a teenager and with just two seasons of European club football behind him – and suffering an injury that meant he missed all but 20 games of his second season, that risk was clear, but so was the talent, and Robson’s assessment delivered great dividends.
On 17 July 1996, in Miami, where the Brazilian squad were preparing for the Atlanta Olympic Games, accompanied by Barcelona vice President Joan Gaspart, a beaming Ronaldo with the toothy smile that would become his trademark together with the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ arms outspread goal celebration, held up a Blaugrana shirt and was presented to the Barcelona fans as their latest acquisition. Robson was delighted. As he later recalled, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player at that age have so much’. Under the Englishman, still only 19 at the time of entering the Camp Nou, Ronaldo would deliver a legendary season that no Cule, who experienced his time there, would ever forget.
Om 20 August 1996, Ronaldo first trotted into action on the Camp Nou pitch in a Trofeu Joan Gamper game against the Argentine club San Lorenzo, for a 30-minute introduction to the fans from the substitutes’ bench. The following day, another brief cameo saw him play for 20-odd minutes against Internazionale – twelve months later Ronaldo would be wearing the Nerazzurri colours of the Italian club. Barça would win both games, but the Brazilian failed to find the net in either appearance. When the at least semi-serious stuff got under way on 25 August however, and Atlético Madrid visited the Camp Nou for the first leg of the Supercopa de España, it took him just five minutes to open his goalscoring account. A second goal a minute before time ensured the club had a healthy 5-2 lead to take back to the capital for the return.
Had it been a bit of a false dawn though? Before the return, Barcelona played their first two La Liga games, away to Oviedo and then in the ‘Derby’ game at the Camp Nou against Espanyol. Again, Ronaldo drew blanks, and then missed the return game at the Vicente Calderón, where Barça locked out the aggregate win to collect their first trophy of the season. Some fans began to wonder if the hype around the new arrival had been mere promotional hubris. If goals were needed to dismiss such concerns, Ronaldo would deliver.
Across the next nine games, the first a Cup Winners Cup encounter against the Cypriots of AEK Larnaca and then eight La Liga fixtures, the Brazilian would find the back of the net 14 times, only failing to score in the home game against Tenerife and on the visit to Andalusia to face Sevilla.
In the first game following the draw with Tenerife, Ronaldo would score what was surely the goal of the season, and for many, one of the greatest goals ever seen in Spanish domestic football when the Blaugrana travelled to Galicia to face Sociedad Deportiva Compostela on 12 October. The home club is based in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where the reported tomb of Saint James provides the culmination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), a testing journey for Catholic pilgrims stretching from France. In this game, Ronaldo would lead the home defence on a Camino of their own, burying them with a goal worthy of adulation.
Barcelona were already two goals clear when the Brazilian bullied one of the home players out of possession around the halfway line and, despite having his shirt pulled, set off towards goal. From there, with a combination of power, determination and no little skill, he beat six more players before placing the ball into the net. As he rolled the ball home, Robson rose from the bench holding his arms in the air, then placed his hands on his head in sheer disbelief at what he had just been privileged to witness.
It was one of the Ronaldo’s two goals in that game, but a strike of rare quality and Nike, the player’s sponsors, took full advantage. Interspersed with flashes and dramatic backing track of clashing noises, the American sportswear giant produced an advert opening with the words, ‘What if you asked God to make you the best soccer player in the world? And he was listening?’ the film of Ronaldo’s goal then runs and ends simply with his name. It’s unknown how many more of the company’s items were sold on the back of the promotion, but it left an indelible mark on football, promoting the Brazilian as the image of Nike and a star of the game.
A further two goals were added the following week in the eight-goal romp against Logroñés and, on 25 October, a 3-2 win against Valencia saw Ronaldo net his first hat-trick for the club. The first goal was a herald of what so many of the striker’s goals would look like. Pace and power bursting through the Valencia back line, he closed on former Barça goalkeeper Zubizarreta ‘giving him the eyes’ left, before clipping the ball past him into the opposite corner with nonchalant confidence. Peeling away to receive the adulation of the crowd, the outstretched arms celebration was now becoming a regular feature of Barcelona games.
His second strike followed a counterattack from a Valencia corner. A headed clearance fell to Figo who controlled before drilling a 50-metre pass that found Ronaldo sprinting clear. Exquisite control, and a driving run. that denied any meaningful challenge. was finished by a drilled left-foot shot into the corner of the net. Ten minutes later, the Camp Nou rose to applaud their team and star striker from the field with a 2-0 lead and the game surely won.
Within a dozen minutes of the restart however, the scores were all square again as Valencia plundered two early goals. It was left to Ronaldo to win the game again for his team, with the best goal of the game. Barcelona had pressed for the third goal, but returning to the Camp Nou, with a combination of agility, good fortune and belligerent defiance, Zubizarreta had denied them. With 15 minutes to play, Valencia looked likely to escape with a draw, but as Ronaldo gained possession on the edge of the centre circle, such aspirations were about to be cast aside. There were four defenders between the Brazilian and Zubizarreta as he advanced with the ball at his feet. It was nowhere near enough. Striding forward, he dismissed a couple of challenges as swotting away a fly, entered the penalty area, he then opened his body and coolly slotted the winner home. Great players score great goals. Great players score important goals. Great players win games for their club. Ronaldo was, without doubt a great player. Barcelona were top of the league and numbered among their squad, La Liga’s nearest thing to a nuclear deterrent. Ronaldo’s season in Catalunya was going like a bomb.
Injury had denied Ronaldo the chance to play against Red Star in the first leg of next round of the Cup Winners Cup, but a 3-1 win had set things up nicely for the return leg six days after the victory over Valencia. A visit to Belgrade’s Rajko Mitic Stadium with a lead to protect is hardly the sort of game for an all action attacking display, and Robson would have been well content with a 1-1 draw to see the club through to the last of the competition, even with Ronaldo drawing a rare blank.
Across the next nine La Liga games though, what had looked like a mere blip, perhaps caused by sensibly defensive orientation for a difficult away leg, seemed to develop into something more serious. Ronaldo was absent for drawn games at home to Sporting de Gijón, and then away to Atleti, before returning against Real Valladolid and scoring in a 6-1 win. It would be his last goal for half-a-dozen games, including the first Clásico of the season where Robson’s team lost out 2-0 Real Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The result would carry great significance at the end of the season, as would the game when Ronaldo finally found his shooting boots again in the home game against Hércules CF on 13 January 1997.
The Alicante-based club would be relegated at the end of the season, with a goal difference of -52, far and away the worst in the entire division, and yet were the only club to beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the entire season. Ronaldo got back on the goal trail after 15 minutes, adding to Luis Enrique’s opening goal. Defeat over one of the weakest clubs in the division looked assured with plenty more goal to come. Remarkably however, Barcelona conceded three times without reply and were beaten. Hércules were far from finished with raining on Barcelona’s parade though and would inflict even more damage later in the season. By then though, the dream of Ronaldo at Barcelona was turning into something entirely different. The defeats had damaged Barça’s league standing and they were now in third place, their lowest mark of the season. The club needed their Brazilian to start firing again. Fortunately, the goal against Hércules breached the dam.
A goal in the 2-4 win away to Real Betis was followed up by a brace in the six-goal triumph over Rayo Vallecano. It set things up nicely for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Madrid. On 30 January, the Camp Nou was packed with more than 95,000 fans as the cup competition offered an opportunity for a quick riposte to the reverse suffered against Los Blancos a few weeks earlier.
Ronaldo had already seen one shot evade visiting German goalkeeper Illgner’s stretching right hand but also slide past the far post after a driving run, when he opened the scoring on 13 minutes. A delicately placed through ball caught the Real Madrid defence square and, once clear of the back line, there was no catching the Brazilian as he easily converted to give Barcelona the lead, turning away with arms outstretched and sending the Cules into raptures of delight. After that, the game would swing this way and that as the teams struggled for the advantage. At the full-time whistle however, a tenuous 3-2 lead was all the Catalans had to take to the capital.
Before the return, a 2-2 draw against Real Oviedo saw Ronaldo score again, but the result did little to eat into the lead that Los Blancos had created at the top of the league. At least there was the satisfaction however, of completing the Copa del Rey elimination of Barcelona’s bitter rivals with a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on 6 February. That month however would prove to be a decisive period in the league season for the club.
Beginning with the draw with Oviedo on 2 February, Barcelona would play seven games up to including a shocking 4-0 defeat away to Tenerife on 1 March. In that time, they would only win twice and lose three times. Ronaldo would only score in one of those, netting a hat-trick in the 4-1 trouncing of Real Zaragoza.
The Cup Winners Cup returned after that defeat in the Canary Islands, and Ronaldo netted in the 3-1 home first leg win over the Swedish club AIK Solna. The victory heralded an uplift in for the club that would see them only lose two more games until the end of the season. It also saw the beginning of a rich vein of goals from Ronaldo.
A 3-0 victory over Compostela, victims of his ‘wonder goal’ earlier in the season, saw him score again, topping out a 3-0 win in the next La Liga game. Ronaldo had missed the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final but a 2-2 draw, away to Atlético Madrid had left Barcelona with every chance of passage to the last four of the competition. The return leg however would be one of the games of the season, and the Brazilian striker would figure prominently.
Any confidence garnered from the draw in the capital had evaporated by the 30 minutes mark, with Atléti scoring three times without reply and apparently coasting to victory. With Ronaldo in your team however, the cause is hardly ever lost. Robson took off two defenders, gambling with extra forwards and following a half-time rallying call, the comeback of the season was on track. Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored the first goal and, four minutes later the visitors’ lead was hanging by a thread when he netted again.
Milinko Pantić had scored all three of Atléti’s first-half goals and he restored a measure of the advantage just past the hour mark, to make the score 2-4. Barcelona and Ronaldo were far from done though. Figo scored their third goal on 67 minutes and the Brazilian completed his hat-trick, four minutes later to square the tie before Pizzi scored the decisive goal inside the final ten minutes to send Barcelona into the semi-finals and the Camp Nou into delirium. Robson’s substitutions and inspiring half-time talk was doubtless a key factor, but it’s doubtful if such a resurrection could have been achieved without the stunning play of Ronaldo. Any team who decided to stand toe-to-toe in a goals slugfest against a side featuring Ronaldo were always likely to end up on the wrong end of the result.
Four days after the pulsating victory, Barcelona travelled to UD Logroñés for a La Liga fixture. They would win 0-1 but, despite playing the 90 minutes of the game, Ronaldo wouldn’t score. The next run of games would show that to be a particularly unusual statistic. A Ronaldo goal on 12 minutes in the return leg against Solna in the club’s next game was enough to ease Barcelona into the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, where they would face the Serie A club Fiorentina the following month.
Back in domestic matters another goal contributed to a 4-0 victory over Sevilla on 23 March to keep the club’s league title aspirations alive and, three days later, a brace in the 0-4 demolition of Las Palmas in the first leg of the last four encounter of the Cops del Rey all but rendered the return leg redundant. Impressively, in one of Europe’s top leagues, Ronaldo was now almost guaranteeing at least one goal per game at this crucial stage of the season. At the end of the month another strike earned a 1-1 draw in Valencia as Ronaldo’s 69th minute goal equalised Machado’s first-half goal.
Moving into April, Sporting de Gijón were given short shrift at the Camp Nou as Barcelona rattled in another four goals without reply. Ronaldo, of course, getting his regular goal per game strike. Three days later, the forward was rested as Barcelona cruised into the Copa del Rey Final firing a further three goals past a hapless Las Palmas team. The ‘rest’ was understandable as the key fixtures of the season were on the horizon. The final wouldn’t happen until the end of June. Although few suspected it at as the teams left the field after the semi-final, when the destination of the trophy was decided, Ronaldo wouldn’t be there.
The home leg against Fiorentina was closely contested and the Italians’ defence became one of the very few to deny Ronaldo a goal in a 1-1 draw. The return leg in Italy would be a severe test for the team in pursuit of European glory, with a win likely to be needed if progression to the final was to be achieved. Before the return leg though, Barcelona played out another three league fixtures. A 2-5 win over Atléti at the at the Vicente Calderón confirmed not only Barcelona’s apparent superiority over the home team, but also Ronaldo’s propensity to score against them at will as he rattled in another hat-trick. A 3-2 defeat away to Real Valladolid, the club that Ronaldo would later take over many years later, seriously dented Barcelona’s drive towards the league title, as Ronaldo scored the only goal in the 3-2 reverse. Finally, the second goal in a 2-0 home victory over Sporting de Gijón set the team up for the visit to Italy. In a game where defence was key for the Catalan club, it was of little surprise that the Brazilian’s chances to add to his fearsome tally were few and far between, but a tactical masterclass by Robson masterclass saw Barcelona over the line with a 0-2 win and passage to the Cup Winners Cup Final.
Success, of course, especially of the level that Ronaldo was delivering, can be a two-edged sword and, despite a reportedly long-term contract being agreed after the move from PSV, those clubs who had hesitated twelve months ago, where now casting envious eyes at the most valuable property in world football. Understandably, Barcelona sought to agree a new deal with the player that would tie him to the club. Negotiations began but, following the triumph in Florence, the striker would play just five more games for the club. Barcelona would win them all and, of course, he scored in a goal in each one.
A 1-3 victory over CD Extremadura began May’s fixtures, but the next game, the return Clásico was much more important, especially given the club’s league defeat in the capital earlier in the season. In a closely contested game that may have eliminated Barcelona’s title hopes had they been defeated, Ronaldo was the man to deliver at the decisive moment. Just ahead of the break, a run into the box from Figo was halted by Roberto Carlos’ crude challenge. Ronaldo’s low shot from the spot was blocked by Illgner, but when the rebound was squared back to the Brazilian, he tapped the ball into the unguarded net, before delivering his customary celebration. Surely there was no way that the cub would allow him to leave now.
Four days later, a confident Barcelona team travelled to Rotterdam to face Paris Saint-Germain in the Cup Winners Cup Final. As with so many European finals, the game was disappointing as a spectacle but, on this occasion, when presented with an opportunity from 12 yards, Ronaldo despatched the penalty and the trophy went to Catalunya.
There would be just two games remaining in Ronaldo’s season with Barça, although the club had a greater number to complete. Goals in each of a 1-3 win away to Celta Vigo and then at home to Deportivo La Coruna saw his Camp Nou race run. Contract talks that originally looked on the way to a happy conclusion had broken down and for the following season, Ronaldo would take his goals to Intetrnazionale.
Another record transfer fee, making Ronaldo only the second player in history to twice break the world transfer record, alongside Maradona, boosted Barcelona’s bank balance, but that was scant compensation to the Cules and coach Robson who also would only serve one season before Van Gaal moved in, and the Englishman was promoted upstairs.
Reflecting on his time with Ronaldo, Robson would remark that he “was marvellous …. out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete … The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.” From someone who knew the player better than most, it’s an apt summary of Ronaldo’s season at Barcelona.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times – Ronaldo’ magazine).