In 1994, the Brazil squad that travelled to the USA to compete for the World Cup included a skinny 17-year-old striker named Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. The teenager had only played a single season with Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte but had scored a dozen goals in just 14 league appearances for the club. That record and, more importantly, the promise it held for the future, were sufficient for Seleção coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to include the precocious youngster in his squad.
Although being with the squad was an experience the young striker would rapidly become accustomed to, it was another giddying step along a career path that would mark him out as one of the greatest players of all time. Even at this early age, he had already impressed legendary Seleção defender Cafu, with his goalscoring feats for Cruzeiro. The World Cup winner once watched him score five times in a single game for El Raposa against Bahia on 7 November 1993. “From that point on,” Cafu recalled. “He showed that he was truly a phenomenon.” It was a sound assessment. That young player would grow up to claim that name for himself, becoming known throughout the footballing world as “El Fenomeno” – or simply Ronaldo.
Born in September 1976, like so many celebrated Brazil internationals, Ronaldo was a child of the streets of Rio, learning his game in the compact backstreets and alleyways of the city, where an ability to control a ball on an irregularly cobbled surface was a prerequisite to even compete, let alone excel. Even amongst the crop of talent that thronged those streets, a nascent ability shone out and he was spotted by another former Brazil star, Jairzinho then working with minor club São Cristóvão, and at 16, he recommended the teenager to his old club Cruzeiro. When the move happened, Roberto Gaglianone, the coach at Sao Cristovao remarked sagely that, “In December 1992 I said I’ve sent a boy to Cruzeiro who is going to be Brazil’s next striker. He will play in the 1998 World Cup. They asked the name and I said ‘Ronaldo’.” The move opened a pathway that would lead to a World Cup adventure and then a move across the Atlantic to join PSV and build a legendary status
For the stars of Brazilian football, the route from South America to Europe’s top clubs was well established, and there was an ever increasing drive for scouting networks to identify potential stars at younger ages to both ensure that their club had the pick of the emerging talent and, just as importantly, to ensure value for money by buying potential, rather than established stars. This meant that word of the young Brazilian striker was already hot news among European clubs, with many keen to sign the gleaming but, as yet unpolished, diamond.
Juventus and Milan had both scouted the player but, at 17, such a move would be a huge gamble for both club and player. A more sensible approach would be to move to a less high-profile club initially, as a kind of stepping-stone, before launching into the rarefied atmosphere of top tier European football. Then under the control of Louis van Gaal and on their way to a Champions League triumph, and despite already having the burgeoning talent of Patrick Kluivert in their ranks, Ajax was considered to be a favoured destination. The 1994 World Cup though would change all of that. Although the young Ronaldo wouldn’t kick a ball in the World Cup, a conversation with a fellow squad member was key in the decision that, instead, took Ronaldo to PSV Eindhoven.
In 1988, then aged 19, Romário had been in a similar situation, and had chosen PSV ahead of other potential suitors, enjoying five successful seasons with the Dutch club, winning three Eredivisie titles and two KNVB Cups, and scoring 128 goals in 148 games before moving to Barcelona in a £2million deal in the summer of 1993. After enduring a trophy-less season following Romário’s departure, PSV were now looking for the next Brazilian star to ignite the new term. As Ronaldo explained, “Romário told me that PSV is one of the most professional and best organised clubs in Europe. He said it would be best to acclimatise in Europe and the learn about European football. I think he is right.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, not only would Ronaldo follow his Seleção team-mate to Eindhoven, he would also later retrace his steps to Catalunya as well. It had been sage advice. Van Gaal publicly consoled himself to the loss saying, “We have Kluivert.” It was true of course, and the Dutchman would become a top European striker. Few however would have chosen him over Ronaldo had they been given the choice – not even Van Gaal.
Despite the encouragement of Romário and the fact that Dutch domestic football was far less a feverish environment than the goldfish bowl existence of players in Serie A or La Liga, moving to a different continent and an unknown language was still a challenge for a teenager and, despite a commitment to learn Dutch, the social transition was not easy even living with both his mother and girlfriend. On the pitch though, things were very different. The ball was still round, the goals were still square, and Ronaldo’s ability to insert the former into the latter was undiminished.
Initially paired with Belgian striker Luc Nilis, Ronaldo’s career with PSV remained goalless for a mere ten minutes. On 28 August 1994, a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, Ronaldo made his debut in an Eredivisie match against Vitesse Arnhem. Entering the tenth minute, a pass was played behind the Vitesse backline. With cool confidence and practised ease, the Brazilian brought the ball under control with his first touch, before firing home right-footed into the far corner of the net. Many more goals would follow. In Romário’s debut season with PSV, he notched a highly impressive 26 goals in 34 appearances across all competitions. Ronaldo would eclipse that total with plenty to spare. In his first season with the club, he played in 36 games, scoring a staggering 35 goals. As part of that haul, 30 goals in 33 league appearances him the Eredivisie’s top goalscorer. The club totalled 85 league goals that term. That skinny teenager contributed almost 40% of them. There was little doubt that PSV Eindhoven had a burgeoning global star in their hands. It wasn’t however, merely the goals he scored that led to such conclusions, it was also the manner of his performances.
Writing in The Guardian, Nick Miller described the impact that the teenager had in his debut season. “What’s striking about Ronaldo in that first year at PSV is how complete he looks, even as a skinny teenager. Everything that would come to define him – the lightning pace, the blurry stepovers, the implausible impression that he was faster with the ball than without it, even the exceptional upper-body strength – was all there.” The phrase “those blurry stepovers” were a reference to the move that Ronaldo perfected and continued to deploy throughout his career. In modern parlance it’s often described as a ‘Flip Flap’ but to all of those at the Philips Stadion, who watched in awe as the Brazilian tyro bewildered and befuddled his opponents. The move will always be known as Ronaldo’s “Elastico”.
Faced with an opponent Ronaldo would pause for a moment over the ball, swaying slightly like a cobra hypnotising its prey. Then, with the defender’s concentration awaiting the first move, he would slightly nudge the ball in one direction, hypnotically inducing the defender to shift his balance and counter the anticipated move, and in that moment Ronaldo had his opponent beaten. A quick snap of the ankle would then flick the ball in the opposite direction allowing the Mercurial striker to scamper past the beaten defender, leaving him floundering like some dupe, a victim of a conjurer’s sleight of hand. Guardian columnist Rob Smyth would concur with the magician metaphor. “In many ways Ronaldo was the first PlayStation footballer. His stepover was a form of hypnosis, and his signature trick, the elastico, could certainly have come from a computer screen.”
It wasn’t however only the scribes who were impressed by his play. On 13 September, PSV visited Bayer Leverkusen, for the first leg of the UEFA Cup’s opening round. Still five days short of his eighteenth birthday, and only a month or so into his season with a new club, in a new country, on a different continent, Ronaldo would notch a hat-trick and produce a performance that even had the opposition’s players purring with astonishment.
A goal down after five minutes following a strike from Ulf Kirsten, Ronaldo seemed inspired. The first warning came early when a pass allowed the striker to accelerate into a gap and flick the ball past an advancing Vollborn in the Bundesliga club’s goal, but the slightest of deflections from the goalkeeper saw the ball narrowly evade the post. Leverkusen should have heeded the earning. Soon after another chance was created. A neat control and turn deceived a defender, around 25 yards from goal, but the shot flew over the bar, again following intervention of the overworked Vollborn.
Ronaldo would simply not be denied though and, on 11 minutes another scything run saw him latch onto a pass and drive into the penalty area. Playing the ball past Vollburn, the goalkeeper was beaten and resorted to the only recourse open to him to prevent a goal, tripping the teenager as he flew past him. It was the clearest of penalties, and the conversion was the clearest of goals, the ball flying powerfully beyond the reach of Vollburn.
The problem for PSV though was that while Ronaldo was a constant threat at one end of the pitch, they were conceding goals with alarming regularity at the other end. As half-time approached, PSV were 4-1 down. New hope was given though when the Brazilian rifled in his second goal. Instant control, a shimmy to create a small space and a shot that hit the net before Vollburn had completed his forlorn drive were the hallmarks of a master marksman, and PSV had a foothold in the game again. Climbing to his feet, as the PSV players mobbed the teenager, the goalkeeper merely stood there and shook his head in sad acceptance of the fact that sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do.
The second period began in the same way as the first had ended. The game was simply a battle of who could score the most goals. Would it be the entire Leverkusen team, or Ronaldo. Eleven against one. With that one being Ronaldo, it was just about a fair contest. On the hour mark the Brazilian closed the gap even further, coolly converting a cross from the left. From a position of comfort, the Leverkusen game plan had been torn asunder by the teenager. In the end the Germans would score once more, before an exhausted Ronaldo was withdrawn. Nilis added a late goal for PSV, but there was only one star of the game. In a post-match press conference, Germany World Cup winner Rudi Völler spoke for so many who had watched the virtuoso performance. “Never in my life have I seen an 18-year-old play in this way.” How good was Ronaldo? Nick Miller reckoned that he “was a force of nature, a blast of hellfire with a velcro touch and jealous refusal to give up the ball.” It was the birth of a legend. Strangely, in a weird juxtaposition of events, the return leg ended goalless and PSV were eliminated.
PSV would end the Eredivisie season in third place, some 14 points adrift of champions Ajax, but the promise of Ronaldo developing even further, with a full season of European football behind him, was enough to whet the appetite of any PSV fan. It had been a glorious season. On the opening day, PSV fans had welcomed that skinny kid from South America with the long name as a young hopeful, someone who would have done amazingly well if he could even come close to emulating what Romário had brought to the club in terms of goals, excitement and exhilaration. By the end of the season, everyone knew the name of Ronaldo, his compatriot’s achievements had been cantered past and erased from the record books. The greatest prospect in world football was wearing a PSV shirt.
That Ronaldo was exceptional in his first term at PSG is beyond debate but, indulging briefly in that endlessly pointless debate of comparing across eras, just how outstanding was he? At the same age, the two players now regarded as being possibly the best players of all time, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, were still battling to establish themselves. At approximately the same age, the former had played a mere nine first team games for the Blaugrana, scoring just once; still some way from establishing himself as a first-team player, let alone as the most important element in the team. Meanwhile Ronaldo had just moved to Old Trafford and was still regarded as something of a show pony with fancy tricks and step-overs that beat defenders, but with lots still to learn.
In comparison, Ronaldo at 18 was widely regarded as the hottest striking prospect in Europe, if not the world. Surely the future would be even brighter. Fate however had a cruel twist in store for one who it seemed had been favoured so abundantly with the smile of the Gods. Whilst Messi and CR7 would go on to great heights with careers benevolently blessed by an absence of serious injury, Ronaldo would be compelled to endure the things they avoided.
Sadly, although he still managed to notch 19 goals in 21 games across all competitions and a dozen in 13 league appearances, maintaining a spectacular goalscoring ratio, Ronaldo’s 1995-96 season was marred by injury. His knee had been causing him increasing amounts of discomfort from Autumn, and moving towards Christmas, it was clear that the issue simply wouldn’t just heal on its own. A case of Osgood-Schlatter Disease was diagnosed. Despite the name, the condition isn’t a disease, but a problem often brought on by an excess of high-level physical activity in adolescents undergoing a growth spurt, leading to overuse injury. The opportunities offered by Ronaldo’s precocious talent had also been complicit in his injury.
Still in his teenage years, the decision was made to undergo an operation to relieve the condition, followed by a period of rehabilitation. For a young man with the world apparently at his hugely talented feet, the shock of realisation cut like a surgeon’s knife. “Football is my life,” he lamented. “If I am not able to play, I am broken.” Fortunately, he was able to return, but the issue of knee problems would persist throughout his career. Although the injury absence meant that his second season was less spectacular than the first, it saw him win his only title with PSV, as they lifted the KNVB Cup.
The double-edged sword of having such a talent at the club was now being felt by PSV. The continent’s richest clubs were circling, casting envious towards the young striker. Soon newspaper reports were dropping heavy hints, doubtless fed by agents or covetous clubs, that a move in the summer was inevitable. It’s not difficult to understand how such coquettish whispers can turn the head of a teenager far from home and fired with ambition. The injury dissuaded some, but down in Spain, Bobby Robson, a former PSV manager now ensconced in the Camp Nou hot seat was firmly recommending the young striker as the man to fire Barcelona back to glory.
The fates were set. PSV would only cherish the exquisite joys of Ronaldo for two seasons before he followed in the footsteps of Romário once more. The Catalans would be forced to pay a reported £12.5million fee to secure Ronaldo’s services as PSV extracted full value for losing their prize asset. Despite the injury, in two seasons he had scored 54 goals in just 58 games.
Two years later, aged just 21, Ronaldo would become the youngest ever player to win the Ballon d’Or. In a landside of votes, 38 ballots were cast in his favour. No one else received any more than two. Robson clearly knew what he was getting. When asked to state the best signing he had made in his long career, there was no hesitation. “Ronaldo was marvellous. He had one year with me at Barcelona, I bought him from PSV, and he was out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete, a nice character, respected me and it was sad he only played eight months for us there. […] 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.”
In the remainder of his career, before returning briefly to Brazil to play out his career with Corinthians, Ronaldo would not only play for Barcelona, but also Real Madrid, and both Inter and Milan as he completed a tour of the continents most celebrated clubs. Across his time in league football for the various clubs he played for, 343 appearances would bring almost 250 goals. Given that so many of these were delivered at the highest levels of competition, it’s a hugely impressive record. He would also play 98 times for the Seleção, scoring 62 goals.
On so many occasions, it’s often only the wealthiest clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Inter, Juventus, perhaps Manchester United, or latterly PSG – that can claim to have numbered the world’s greatest stars amongst their players, and counted their ‘golden days’ in their colours. Sometimes though, just sometimes, a new star is not only revealed at a different club but achieves legendary status there. Such an occasion was when that skinny 17-year-old Brazilian kid landed in the Netherlands and joined PSV Eindhoven. In two seasons he became a legend. It’s a legacy few clubs outside the elite half dozen or so can claim, but at the Philips Stadion, the memory of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima wearing the red and white striped shirt is treasured for all time.
(This article was originally prioduced for the These Football Times ‘PSV Eindhoven’ magazine).