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).
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).
In 1888, as the first football league season was born in England, Brazil passed the ‘Golden Law’ abolishing slavery in the last South American country where it had been acceptable for one person to own another one. Inevitably however, de facto trails de jure by a significant period, and it would be wrong to assume that all discrimination and abuse ended with that piece of legislation. It was therefore, into a land still burdened by history and bigotry that, on 18 July 1892 the son of Oscar Friedenreich, a German merchant, and Mathilde, a Brazilian laundress – a white father and a black mother – entered the world. Despite the troubled environment and the hurdles faced, Artur Friedenreich, described by Eduardo Galeano in ‘Soccer in the Sun and Shadow’ as the “green-eyed mulatto who founded the Brazilian way of playing” would grow up to be a sporting superstar.
As with so many other countries in the continent, football had burrowed deep into the soul of Brazilian culture. Overwhelmingly however, in the early years of the twentieth century, it remained the preserve of the white man. To succeed in such an environment, Friedenreich – born at the junction of streets named Vitoria (Vctory) and Triunfo (Triumph) and with skills developed on the streets of the city of São Paulo – would not only need to be an outstanding player, he’d also need to conquer power, privilege and prejudice. In doing so, this Robin Hood in football boots would steal the game away from the wealthy, advantaged and white, gifting it to the humble, the poor and the downtrodden. He would provide a way for those that emerged from the streets, from the depths of deprivation and despair to journey to the Seleção and deliver a brand of football the country would become synonymous with. As Galeano explained. “Friedenreich brought to the solemn stadium of the whites the irreverence of the brown boys who had fun playing with a ball of rags in the suburbs. Thus, was born a style, open to fantasy, that prefers pleasure to the result.” Without Artur Friedenreich, the Brazilian Jogo Bonito may never have entranced the world.
Despite the barriers blocking access to football for blacks and mulattos – those of mixed race such as Friedenreich – largely thanks to being raised in Europeanised family, football quickly became an important part of the young boy’s life, and his father’s eager support and encouragement carried him through periods of doubt when his nascent ability had yet to find its way out. It was therefore, hardly surprising that, the first club he played for was SC Germânia, a club set up in the city for the benefit of German immigrants. Despite his father’s national credentials though, there were still hurdles to cross. Before turning up at the ground to train or play, Friedenreich would have to spend time straightening his naturally curly hair to appear more European. Some reports even suggest that he would also smear his body with rice powder to hide the darkness of his skin
Still in his teenage years, Friedenreich’s hours of playing on the street, often with a bound ball of rags rather than a football, had honed his skills and dictated the way he played. Even in his prime, he stood well under six feet tall and his wiry physique would see him comfortably fit into the ‘Flyweight’ division of boxing. As such, he had the low centre of gravity that allowed him to weave quickly, dribbling past less adroit opponents, play quick passes, and the pace to dart into spaces, collecting the ball with unerring control. To many, his performances were as some lithe dancer, hypnotically guided by an unheard Samba beat. Add onto that list of qualities, the determination and case-hardened hunger for success etched into his soul, and the package was complete. The first ‘Black Pearl’ – the first Pelé – would set light to the blue touch-paper of Brazilian football. Fireworks would follow!
At 17, the blossoming talent was clear and other clubs sought his services. Although records are unclear and some evidence is doubted by many scholars as to his precise goalscoring records, it’s indisputable that he was a potent force. By the time he was 20 he was the top goalscorer in the São Paulo league, scoring 16 times. It’s an accolade he would claim numerous times over the following 17 years or so of his career.
By 1914, he was becoming a recognised star of the Brazilian game and when the Seleção played their first game as a recognised national team, the name of Artur Friedenreich, then playing for Clube Atlético Ypiranga, was inevitably included on the team sheet. The game itself was somewhat less celebrated than others that would follow. The opponents on that day were in fact, English club Exeter City who were returning to from a tour of Argentina at the time.
It took place on July 21st, 1914 at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, just weeks before the outbreak of World War One. Although debuts on the international stage are always memorable events, there was another reason why Friedenreich would recall his confrontation with the West Country’s Grecians, as he lost two teeth during a heavy tackle from one of the tourists, but completed the game after receiving hasty dental treatment. The game ended in a surprise 2-0 victory for the Brazilians – the game was still amateur then, and would remain so for years to come. Friedenreich didn’t score either of the goals, but some sources report that he had a hand in the second goal scored by Osman Medeiros.
Five years later though, now unquestionably South America’s first footballing superstar, he did score the winning goal in the final of the 1919 Copa America against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. The extra-time strike, added to his hat-trick against Chile in a group game made him the tournament’s top scorer. By now, the style of Brazilian football, driven by Friedenreich, had shed the traditional tactics of the early European pioneers of the game in the country. He was the flagbearer for the revolution to the style that would take Brazil to the summit of world football. After the triumph, a São Paulo newspaper would describe the new style of play “which dictates that the ball be brought by all the forwards right up to the oppositions goal, where shots were taken from any distance, and the collective whole of the forward line is not necessary, it’s enough for two or three players to break away with the ball, which by it’s devastating speed disorientates the defence.”
The 1919 victory was probably the zenith of Friedenreich’s career. Huge crowds thronged the city to acclaim the success and especially the exploits of Friedenreich. The boot with which the winning goal was struck would later be placed on display in the window of a jeweller’s shop, after being taken on a tour of the city, for all to marvel at and pay homage. It’s somewhat strange to say therefore, that just two years later, and then at the peak of his powers, and arguably the best player in the world, Artur Friedenreich would not be part of the Brazil team that travelled to Argentina for the 1921 Copa America competition.
Argentina was a predominantly white country and the authorities there announced that only white players would be allowed to represent the country and compete in the tournament. There were even cartoons in the Argentine newspapers championing the decision and pointing fingers towards Brazil, declaring that “The monkeys are coming.” In a shameful and cowardly decision, Brazilian president Epitacio Pessoa cravenly followed suit, apparently concerned that having black players may bring shame on his country. He need not have worried. His decision did that on its own. Friedenreich was excluded from the Seleção and the hosts won the trophy winning all three of their games. Brazil would win just once, defeating Paraguay 3-0, but defeats to Argentina and Uruguay were perhaps just reward for Pessoa’s craven collaboration.
Perhaps the sad reflection of the decision, the consequences of it or a combination of both and the inevitable awakening of a more open attitude, the whole scenario had a transforming effect on both Brazilian football in general and Friedenreich in particular, feeding the springing seeds that would flower into the ending of racial discrimination in Brazilian football. His career with the Seleção would span eleven years but, with games so sparse, inevitably compromised by the demands of travel in that time, would only comprise 23 games. A similar length of time in modern days would more usually mean many more. Neymar for example has played over 100 games for Brazil since his debut in 2010.
By 1925, Friedenreich’s international career was finished. Despite this, his fame showed little sign of diminishing. He was now playing for CA Paulistano and, for some time, the club had been invited invited to play a number of friendly games across the country so people could see the great Friedenreich in the flesh. In 1927 however, the call came for the club and their star, now 37, to travel to Europe for a series of games. For players of a much younger age than Freidenreich, the demands of travelling across the Atlantic by boat before arriving in a different continent and play eight games, with more travelling in between would be difficult enough, but Friedenreich would hardly let down the fans who came to watch not only the team with the strange footballing style, but also the star player whose reputation had crossed the ocean before him. In those eight games, he would score 11 goals, and richly entertain the spectators.
Despite his athletic prowess, and natural fitness, time and tide eventually takes its toll on all things, and age was something Friedenreich could only temporarily ward off. An inability to even walk out of the door of his house only added to the pressures he was under. Although living the life of a celebrity, he did so without the financial income to sustain it, earning a relatively meagre salary, especially given his international renown. Despite this, he still tried to live an extravagant lifestyle, with reports suggesting that he owned more than 100 suits, and developed a taste for particularly expensive beers.
The first World Cup tournament held in Uruguay in 1930 should have been the perfect stage for Freidenreich’s swansong, but it wasn’t to be. Despite being in his late thirties at the time, there was little doubt that he would have warranted a place in the squad that travelled to Montevideo for the first global celebration of the game. Due to some unexplained mix up however, only players from the states of Rio de Janeiro were selected, and Freidenreich, along with other stars from the São Paolo area missed out.
As the years rolled on, he began playing less and less, and when he did play, often it would be for far smaller clubs than in his heydays. Professionalism was gradually spreading through the football ranks in Brazil and by 1933, the game had dispensed with amateurism completely. Whether through a fit of pique for missing out on what could have been hugely financially rewarding times when playing his best years, or merely through idealistic grounds, Friedenreich raged against the changes, and in essence decided to walk away from the game. At 43 years of age, on 21 July 1935, he played his last game for Flamengo in a 2-2 draw against Fluminense.
Finished with football, he began working for liquor company until he retired. His latter years saw the once great hero of Brazilian football brought to his knees by Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment for the condition would drain his financial resources without ever coming close to arresting the deterioration of his mental faculties and memory. He died on 6 September 1969 aged 77, leaving behind a wife and son, whom he called Oscar after his father, penniless.
One of the tragedies of Freidenreich’s mental deterioration was that, towards the end of his life, he had little or no memory of his footballing achievements, or even his name at the end, and was totally unable to corroborate any records offered up by others, hence leaving clouds of doubt over his goalscoring abilities. Perhaps the least contentious account however comes from a former team-mate, Mário de Andrada. Friedenreich’s father began to keep a notebook record of his son’s goals from the day he first started playing, and in 1918, feeling he would no longer be able to maintain the record, he passed the task on to Mário de Andrada, who vowed to ensure the records were maintained for posterity.
In 1962, Andrada showed the records to Brazilian journalist, Adriano Neiva da Motta e Silva, more commonly known as De Vaney. It suggested that across his career spanning 1,329 games, Friedenreich had scored a staggering 1,239 goals. The figures become even more impressive when taking into account that many of those games were played well past the peak of Friedenreich’s powers, through his late thirties and into his forties. Originally, De Vaney added more fog to the uncertainty by inadvertently reversing the figures, before they were corrected. The error hardly aids legitimacy and confidence, especially as Andrada’s written records were lost when he died.
If there are doubts about his precise goalscoring records, there is little to diminish the role that Freidenreich played in both shaping the way that Brazil played football and helping to break down the malignant walls of discrimination. Eduardo Galeano wrote that, “From Friedenreich onward, Brazilian football that is truly Brazilian does not have right angles, like the mountains of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.” The lyrical description does great honour to the former star. To some he was the greatest Brazilian footballer of all time, but without television images to enhance the legend, that accolade often falls to the “’Pelé after Pelé’”
The great man was once asked if there would ever be another player to compete with his own achievements. After musing for a second, Pelé shook his head slowly. “My parents closed the factory,” he said with a smile. That may well be true, but if his parents did bring down the shutters on that factory, the keys to initially open it for black players to flourish in Brazilian football were crafted and used by Artur Friedenrich, the ‘Pelé before Pelé’.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy Analyst’ website).
Over the years, especially since the war, international football has seen a number of teams rise to prominence, and then be swept away by the next wave. These teams haven’t necessarily won everything, scooping the board of honours over a given period. More accurately, they have been the teams that have been widely acknowledged as the game’s leaders. The players at the forefront of the game’s development, setting new paradigms and patterns that others have copied or adapted.
Some ended their time in the sun with a hatful of trophies; others entered the field and left again, empty-handed. On occasions, there’s a game when the handing-on of the torch can be identified. In the World Cup of 1974, for example, Johan Cruyff’s ‘Oranje’ destroyed a street-fighter of a Brazil team that would have embarrased Pelé and the ‘Joga Bonito’ Samba Boys of four years earlier. It was a game when the Dutch ‘Totall Voetbal’ won the day and cherished the stewardship of ‘the beautiful game’ for a few years. In other times though, the change is seamless, but no less apparent for that.
In the fifties and sixties, two magnificent teams rose above the rest to dominate football for a generation. In the early part of the fifties, it was Hungary and the Magnificent Magyar team of Puskás, Hidegkuti and the cherry-shirted magicians playing under Gusztáv Sebes. The team that went from May 1950 to February 1956, winning 43 games, drawing a mere half-dozen, and losing just one – that one game however was the World Cup Final of 1954, and it denied the Hungarians the crown that would have rubber-stamped their dominance. Continue reading →
The Brazil team that lifted the 1970 World Cup has been regarded by many aficionados as perhaps the greatest collection of footballing talent assembled under national colours at a major tournament. Not only was there an abundance of star players, each capable of turning a match in favour of the Seleção with a moment of magic, but they also combined to produce outstanding team performances, sometimes subsuming individual glory for the greater good of the whole; not in any collectivist manner, but with a joy and exuberance that reasserted an affection for jogo benito. It was the sort of team that allowed all who hold a passionate affection for the ‘beautiful game’ to believe again.
Of course, there were stars. Péle is the name that always come to the fore as the first among equals when considering that particular heady vintage of Brazil’s footballing talent. Then there was Rivelinho; he of the cannonball shooting. Tostão led the line with elegance, but an almost brutal grace. This tournament also saw the arrival of Jairzinho’s burgeoning talent, and then there was the imperious captain of the ship, Carlos Alberto, who netted the signature fourth goal in the final against Italy, to usher his crew over the line to glory and eternal fame. Continue reading →