One on One with Ronaldo (Spring 1998)
Meet the best player in the
world in the worlds favorite sport, as Ronaldo leads Brazil to defend the World Cup
--from Details magazine, before the 98 World Cup.
In Spain, they remember the moment with their hand
clutched to their chest.
Those who were watching the game on the television
remember it with a white lie, saying they were at Olympic Stadium that night. People who
saw it that night on the news, or rebroadcast on every nights news for the rest of
the week, will tell you they saw it live. Those like me, half a world away--whod
been hearing about it from other players long before we ever found a videotape--had
developed a clear picture in our minds eye. Watching Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima
score goals does that to people. Hair goes up on your neck. Goosebumps flush up your arms.
He makes you feel like you were sitting in the center section, 20 rows up, on that hot
Saturday September night in Barcelona. "Oh my god," you want to say. "I was
The cross from the midfielder on the right touchline
flew 40 yards towards the nineteen-year-old Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who was tightly
arm-locked with his defender atop the penalty area. Ronaldo pushed off and stepped
backward three paces to take the ball high on his chest. As the defender closed the gap,
Ronaldo zigzagged, chesting it right, then cutting it back left. All the hapless defender
could do was make a feeble swipe for Ronaldos legs, clipping him at the ankles.
Ronaldo stumbled. The ball rolled towards the onrushing goalkeeper.
Take a dive, Ronaldo. Get the penalty. Go down.
That would be the easy way to score his first goal in
Spain--a freebie from the 12-yard hash. The referee put his whistle to his lips, ready to
blow as soon as the kid hit the turf. But this kid will not go down. He is not one of
those South Americans who flops on contact, then writhes in mock agony. He refuses to
accept he cannot catch up to his dribble. He believes.
Ronaldo took a huge recovering stride, a burst of power
that instantly had the ball back at his feet. It was just him and the goalkeeper, who
stretched out sideways to swallow the angles.
Turning out his hips he faked a shot right, then swept
the ball left, attempting to go around the keeper. The crowd groaned and threw up their
arms in exasperation. Foolish Brazilian.
It has been nearly two decades since strikers abandoned
trying to dribble the goalkeeper in one-on-one situations. Mathematical reality #1: the
goalkeepers have gotten bigger and faster, theyre all 66" and quick as
cats, while the goal hasnt got any bigger. Mathematical reality #2: in a high speed
collision, the player with the lower center of gravity, closer to the ground, wins the
ball. The player with the higher center of gravity blows out a knee. Goalies are
kamikazes, sacrificing themselves into the churning maul of a strikers stride. Get
the shot off before the keeper lays out like a wall, is the conventional wisdom.
Ronaldos knees were already suspect. He missed
half of the previous year in Holland due to torn cartiledge. Barcelona had taken a huge
risk in making this mere teenager the highest paid player in the world, having paid his
Dutch club a $21 million transfer fee to bring him to the heart of independence-minded
Catalonia. Spanish soccer teams are organized as clubs--fans buy voting memberships and it
is partly their money that gets spent on signing players. In a country with 20%
unemployment, in a city ranked 56th of 62 European cities for economic opportunity, that
membership money is saved the hard way. They want to see goals. It was the second game of
the season, Ronaldos first full 90 minute effort, and nineteen of those minutes had
transpired uneventfully before his one-on-one showdown with the goalie.
Ronaldo hurdled the outstretched arms of the
goalkeeper. Again, he seemed to have touched the ball too firmly, as it rolled towards the
end line at the side of the goal. Again, Ronaldo fired a booster rocket and caught up to
the ball, cornering towards the open goal, the ball dancing at his toe. He did it! Two
defenders slid on their rears into the goal with their cleats up a moment after Ronaldo
tucked the ball into the net.
The Olympic Stadium crowd exploded with a mass hankie
wave, the ultimate tribute normally reserved only for matadors. Ronaldomania had begun.
"We would have needed a rifle to stop him," said the opposing coach.
In the next two months before his twentieth birthday,
Ronaldo scored at a rate the Spanish League had not seen since the freewheeling sixties,
when teams played five forwards and only two defenders (a ratio that has since been
reversed). In six of his first eight goals--until defender-packs who guarded him learned
to lay back and let him score his goals on long shots, until psyched-out goaltenders were
afraid to leave their line when he approached on the dribble--until all of Spain was made
to believe what this kid has always believed--until every souvenir shop on Las Ramblas
displayed his #9 jersey in the window, until Spanish bakeries sold cakes with his image in
red and blue frosting, until prostitutes went on the evening news to report that their
business was way down on nights Ronaldo was on the telly, until the Spanish Federation of
Restauranteurs issued a report that 30,000 waiter/cook jobs would be lost that year as the
public watched soccer at home rather than went out to eat--until Nike, which had only two
people in its soccer marketing division four years ago, renewed Ronaldos endorsement
contract to put him at the top of their pyramid, alongside Michael Jordan and Tiger
Woods--in six of those eight goals, Ronaldo dribbled right around the goalkeeper.
That fall Ronaldo won the FIFA World Player of the Year
award. He was the youngest player ever to win it--by seven years.
I asked Ronaldo if any coach has ever tried to convince
him to shoot rather than dribble the keeper. "If you keep your scoring numbers high,
the coach lets you do what you want to do. The way you score doesnt matter."
Oh, but it does matter, because Ronaldo is singlehandedly restoring excitement to a game
thats become dominated by defense.
Heres American national team midfielder Joe Max
Moore, a pretty darn good dribbler himself, on learning that the shoes Nike had given him
to practice in were designed for and by Ronaldo: "Oh, man, I shouldnt even be
wearing these shoes. Man, I dont deserve to wear these shoes, if these are his
shoes. Im going to take them off. That guy does things I cant even dream of
Its fashion week in Milan, black bunting strung
from the lamposts, and for all the long legs and porcelain skin on the streets to gawk I
feel like Im being set up by Candid Camera. The unseasonably warm blue skies fill
the air with pollen the size of confetti. Versace showed yesterday. Karl Lagerfeld shows
today, tomorrow Jill Sander, and there is talk, there is buzz, there is controversy. In
the sidewalk cafes and the in the back seats of taxis, over the ubiquitous cellular phones
and in the op-ed pages of La Republica, everyone is concerned about the inevitable
"scappiati"--explosion. They shake their heads in gloom. No way can one man, so
young, take so much pressure.
My taxi driver passes the royal cemetary, a walled
fortress with the abuttments and spires of a 13th century church. "Ronaldo," my
driver says, pointing. "In there."
Milan is the financial and commercial capital of Italy,
a city rebuilt after the bombing of World War II in the modern style, and the only place
in Italy rich enough to afford the $48 million in transfer fees it took to lure Ronaldo
The city took to Ronaldo immediately. As he lead
Internazionale-Milan to the top of the league for the first half of the season, his face
was on the cover of 9 out of every 10 sports magazines in the newsshops. Young boys were
showing up at school with their heads shaved. A poll conducted by a TV station showed that
3 out of 4 Italians could tell you Ronaldos nationality, his age, his
girlfriends name, and the price Inter-Milan paid for him. 1 out of 4 could even tell
you what size shoe he wears. He played into the Italian myth of the il salvatore della
patria--the homelands savior. His nickname here is The Phenomenon, playing like a
mad scientists hybrid bred to win. Just as he has learned four languages, Ronaldo
has learned four strains of soccer--the allegria of Brazil, the collective team mind of
the Dutch, the win-or-else fanaticism of Spain, and the 24-hour professionalism of Italy.
But the city is beginning to understand the stakes this
young Brazilian carries on his shoulders. It is money, big money--money that provokes a
roll of the eyes and a low whistle, even from the Italians, whose teams have the highest
soccer payroll in the world. They have learned that Inter-Milan hopes to earn back its
investment by taking the team public on the London Stock Exchange. They have learned,
though, that soccer stocks have gone flat this year, and only a Eurosport cable TV deal or
an unequivocal championship in the Serie A will justify a stock valuation to carry the
offering. They have learned that Pirelli, the tire giant, bought 14% of Inter-Milan and is
using the image of Ronaldo throughout South America to justify the construction of its
largest tire manufacturing plant in Manaus, Brazil. They have learned that Ronaldos
knees--those knees that gave out in Holland, due to the grueling 10-month, 70 game
season--are insured for $26 million. They have learned that so important is Ronaldo to
Nikes plans to sell soccer equipment that the company offered Barcelona $77 million
just to sponsor their jerseys, hoping the club could use the money to keep Ronaldo in a
uniform that bears the swoosh.
So intense is the scrutiny of Ronaldo that when he
spent a day on the beach in the Canary Islands, shooting a commercial for Nike, Italian
journalists rented out helicopters to buzz the beach, just hoping to get a shot of the
star playing in a bathing suit.
Go down, Ronaldo. Take a dive.
Thats just off the field. It gets far worse on
the pitch. A goal-a-game average--a rate Ronaldo had maintained since he turned pro at
13--is impossible in Italy. The high payrolls breed conservatism. The stadiums are not as
big as Spain, but theyre filled with a far wealthier crowd, men in Armanis and their
dates in furs--the kind of people who succeed in their own lives and expect the same from
their team. Keeping the scoresheet clean is an obsession drilled into players from when
theyre schoolchildren. The Italian style was developed in the 1960s at Inter-Milan
by a ruthless, loyalty-demanding coach named Helenio Herrera, "Il Mago"--The
Magician. It wasnt much fun to watch, but it brought Inter-Milan three Serie A
titles and two European Cups. His system was called il catenaccio, packing the defense
with extra players and relying on occasional counter-attack solo runs by fast strikers.
In a recent game at the hostile den of Parma, the
opponents put six defenders on the field, and after they had managed the first goal,
substituted in a seventh defender with the hopes of sitting on their lead. Every time
Ronaldo got the ball, all seven pinched in, and he had to dump the ball back to his
support. It was a game in which the ball was of little matter--most of the action was one
after another late sliding tackles meant to avenge a previous late sliding tackle, which
in turn had intended to avenge an elbow to the eye socket, et cetera. It required a
scorecard to keep track of the exchanges. I had almost never seen Ronaldo knocked down
before, but on this day he was dropped to the turf nine times. Despite this, not once did
Ronaldo lose his cool or provoke his aggressors. All dribbling had been frightened from
the game, and the crowd spent the entire ninety minutes blowing two-fingered whistles and
chanting demonicly, so riveted by their duties of making the visitors feel unwelcome that
not one popcorn or hot dog was sold, and even at halftime there was no line at the
urinals. The closest American equivalent to the atmosphere was college football, except
occasionally, when Ronaldo got the ball, someone in the crowd would shoot a smoking bottle
rocket at him, and the cannon-blast explosion echoed back and forth across the tight
Late in the second half, Ronaldo managed to find
himself thirty yards from the goal with only four defenders in front of him--not many
players in history would consider that an opportunity. It didnt help that three of
those four players included the best player from France, the anchor of Italys
national team defense, and a teammate of Ronaldos on the Brazilian Olympic team.
Ronaldo broke left across the goal, pushed the ball through the biggest gap in the
defense, and tried to chase after it. Nothing doing. A collision left several players on
the ground, including Ronaldo. The referee awarded a penalty, which Ronaldo stepped up to
take. A small slice of the stadium, perhaps a thousand seats, was apportioned to
Inter-Milan fans, and this area was cordoned off by thirty-foot high barbed wire fences, a
plexiglass shield, and a police officer every three rows. For a moment, they had something
to cheer for, until the goalkeeper guessed correctly on Ronaldos kick and it caromed
off his chest. The goalkeeper was so hopped up on his heroics that he ran behind the goal
and scaled up the chain-link fence, shaking it like a monster, even though the ball was
still in play on the field. The crowd, which had never appreciated the referees
judgment in the first place, unanimously saluted Ronaldo with a chorus of double-armed Up
Go down, Ronaldo. Save your knees for the World Cup.
Here is how Ronaldo reacted to his barracking in Parma:
he took a quick shower, avoided the press room, and was the first player on either side to
exit the stadium, where he walked directly to the fences and began to sign autographs for
the boys, despite the cusses hurled at him from the adult Parma fans hurrying off to the
bars to watch highlights of other League action.
"I remember when I was a kid," Ronaldo tells
me the next day, "and when stars would not give me their autograph. It has not been
very long since I was one of those boys."
Inter-Milans training facility is at Lake Como in
the Appiano Gentile, the foothills to the Italian Alps. A few dozen foreign journalists
had been allowed to observe Ronaldo in practice, but not ask questions. So fanatical is
the world for any access to Ronaldo that there were journalists in attendance from as far
away as Russia and Malaysia, and theyd brought their video cameras and long-range
cameras. This paparazzi was camped out at the entrance to the locker room, awaiting the
grand entrance of The Phenomenon. Theyre accustomed to waiting, chain-smoking their
cigarettes and babbling in a squawk of languages.
I wasnt part of it. Its just not like
Ronaldo to be the last guy out of a locker room--hed be the first. I tried to sneak
away from them inconspicuously, because it was perfectly apparent to me that Ronaldo was a
hundred and twenty five yards away, playing a game of soccer tennis on the other side of a
chain link fence. I couldnt see his face, but his body language was
unmistakeable--the deceptive shoulder-shake, the up and down bob as he touches the ball.
Footsal is what this game is called in Brazil, and its what Ronaldo used to get his
friends to play when they were too exhausted to continue with soccer. Hes joyous out
there, tipping his head back to the sun and cracking a giggly laugh.
The coachs whistle blew, and all the players
congregated at our end of the field. Ronaldo made a sound with his mouth to impersonate
the shutter click of our cameras, then laughed, and then pounded teammate Winter on the
back, hard, with his forearm--two guys just horsing around. A minute later, Winter snuck
up behind Youri Djorkaeff, himself a world class player, and put him in a full Nelson
wrestling hold so that Ronaldo could take a shot at his chest with the ball. The pressure
must really be getting to Ronaldo--on any other day, with so many cameras present, he
would have depantsed several of his teammates by now.
He enjoys practical jokes, and more than that just
joking around. When he was in Spain, an Italian camera crew came to see what the fuss was
all about. They hung out in the press room and refused to go away until they got an
audience with the worlds best player. So Ronaldo sent out Couto, a defender from
Portugal, who impersonated Ronaldo for several minutes before the camera crew caught on.
On the flights after away games, he would commandeer the pilots microphone and
impersonate the Britishisms of his coach, the legendary English national team manager
Perhaps the only thing more amazing than Ronaldos
play on the field is the way he has retained his "allegria," his joy for the
game and for life, despite the fact that since he first left home at the age of thirteen,
he has been continously resold to the highest bidder.
Ronaldos Italian agent, Giovanni
explains how Ronaldo has learned to handle the pressure--mainly, by growing up with it.
"It has been a natural environment for him since he started, because he was so young,
he was only thirteen, so young, he learned early to live with this kind of pressure."
The village of Bento Ribeiro is one stop closer to Rio
than the flavelas, the cardboard-shack shantytowns that line the hills. Ronaldo grew up
here, in a masonry house without doors or windows, sleeping on the sofa for lack of a
bedroom. When Ronaldo was thirteen his father, an alcoholic and a free spirit, left the
family home. To support the family his mother Sonia sold homemade pizzas from the house
during the day, then from three in the afternoon to three in the morning worked for the
ice vendor. "I did not want Ronaldo playing soccer. What future would he have? I
could not accept that my son thought only of a ball." Ronaldo told his mother,
"I will become the best in the world, I will be rich and I will help my family."
In Brazil, all young players have a players pass.
There is no equivalent in America, but essentially, young players can be bought and resold
for profit. They are not traded for other players or for draft picks, they are simply
bought for cash, and like a stock that transaction is between the buyer and seller. The
player only gets a small percentage.
Trying to live up to his promise, Ronaldo left home to
play for the youth team of a second-division club in Rio, Sao Cristavao, that was heavily
in debt. A foreign currency clerk at a local bank, Alexandre Martins, kept hearing about
this kid Ronaldo and went out to watch one game, which Sao Cristavao won, 9-1. Ronaldo
scored five, and after the game Martins bought his players pass from Ronaldos
In America, we often complain about skyrocketing player
salaries. But in the sport of soccer, player salaries are only a fraction of the money
made by others on transfer fees.
That player pass--completely separate from
Ronaldos salary--has shot up like no IPO on record. At sixteen Ronaldo was sold for
$50,000 to the first division team Cruzeiro, where he surprised everyone by leading all of
Brazil in scoring, and still holds the record for most goals in a game, five. When Ronaldo
was seventeen, Cruzeiro got $6 million from PSV Einhoven in Holland, who flipped him two
years later for $21 million to Barcelona, and most recently Inter-Milan paid so much for
Ronaldo that economists have become regular guests on the Italian sports shows, trying to
explain how the investment could possible be recouped.
It could have spoiled him, all that money at such a
young age, coming from such a poor background. But a pattern seems to be emerging. Here is
what Ronaldo did with his first monthly salary: he bought a new cover for the sofa
hed been sleeping on all his life, so it would look nice when he wasnt
sleeping there. Here is what Ronaldo did with his first signing bonus: he paid for a
restoration of his mothers house and for his older brothers school tuition,
then, in an attempt to straighten out his father, bought him a pizzeria on the Copacabana
beach. Here is how Ronaldo reacted when he was sold from Barcelona to Inter-Milan for an
unheard of sum, a combined $48 million in transfer fees: he cried in sadness. He cried all
night. Ronaldo had been happy in Barcelona. Hed built a house over the cliff on the
Bay of Castelldefels, and the view reminded him of Rio. He was in Norway for the weekend
with the Brazilian national team, and he learned of the sale by telephone from his agent
in Italy. The next morning at the training table, Ronaldos eyes were red and he
asked to be excused. That afternoon, Brazil suffered their first defeat in three years.
It is that kind of vulnerability that fuels the talk of
scappiati. Ronaldo does not hide his youth, does not pretend to be a tough guy. He spent
his last vacation at EuroDisney, he is extremely close to his mother, and he even admitted
on Brazilian television that he used to have a problem with wetting the bed. His family
members fill the newspapers with memories of him loving sweet foods and stealing their
toys. Hes had no formal education, having skipped school frequently as a child in
order to play. How can he possibly anticipate the dangers inherent to being the highest
paid player in the world, in the worlds favorite sport?
Yet the pattern seems to be holding. Uneducated, yes,
but he speaks four languages already, including one of the most difficult languages of
all, Dutch, which he learned from a priest in Einhoven who had been a missionary in
Brazil. Unsophisticated, yes, but he spends a couple hours each day on the computer, using
the internet to read newspapers from home. He does not drink, and he bums around with only
the same close friends hes had with him since Holland. The players he chooses as
friends are well-respected, family men themselves, not cokeheads or disco crashers or
gun-toters. Ronaldo does not throw his sweatjacket when he gets substituted, he does not
blame his midfielders on days he doesnt get many passes, and hes never
criticized a coach though hes often had good reason to. To his success, he credits
God and the men who have guided him--his coaches, yes, but even more so, his agents.
Alexandre Martins could have done an arms-length
transaction, buying Ronaldo from his father. But Martins could see this kids talent
needed guidance. First, he invested in the club, helping them with their debts. Then, to
show his support of Ronaldo, he bought Ronaldos mother a home in Sao
the player could be reunited with his family. Martins became more than an agent, teaching
him much of what it meant to be a man, and how to behave, the role his father never
fulfilled. Martins is still his protector. "Alexandre is a very good friend, a very
good friend that is more and more important because hes always been a partner in my
career. He is very involved in my life, but first he is a friend."
Among the other good deeds Ronaldo has done, before the
age of 21: made commercials in Brazil encouraging vaccination and voting, toured an area
of Italy hit hard by earthquake, and did an internet chat session for the U.N.s Food
& Agriculture Organization, which crashed the server after 6 million hits in 30
minutes (consider that the worlds most-trafficked internet site, Yahoo, gets about
20 million hits a month.) Even the Pope asked Ronaldo to be on his child labor human
In person, Ronaldo is a bit like a kid wearing a suit
for the first time as he sits at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table. Hes eager to
please, but a little unsure of what all the fuss is about. Its only a game.
Ronaldo says, "When I was a child I was poor and
hungry but I liked what I did. Its still the same game I loved when I was a boy.
When I am on the field, in practice or in a game, it is joy, pure joy." He has the
antidote to pressure--the immortal soul of a boy who loves the game so much that no amount
of money could steal it from him.
Heres Pele, still one of the most famous people
in the world twenty years after his retirement, and known for dispensing praise very
sparingly: "What makes me happiest is that success hasnt changed Ronaldos
character--thats the most important thing, that fame doesnt go to his head.
Hes the same Ronaldo hes always been. Hes modest, close to his family,
and youll never hear him utter a bad word about anybody."
After the disconcerting loss to the USA in Los Angeles,
the Brazilian Soccer Federation stopped just short of firing the coach, Mario Zagallo, who
had been restraining his players from attacking in the free-flowing style Brazil is known
This criticism went back as far as the 94 World
Cup, when Zagallo was the assistant coach. Even though Brazil won, their conservative
style was a disappointment. Defenders were rarely allowed to attack and many theatrical
players were left on the bench, including then seventeen-year-old Ronaldo, only a
last-minute addition to the team even though he had been leading the Brazilian league in
scoring. Zagallo said firmly at the time, "He needs to learn to pass."
Since then Ronaldo has emerged as Brazils star,
and the team may be free to fire on all guns now that Zagallo has been told to share the
coaching duties with Zico, who had been an offensive star for Brazil during the 80s.
Zico played for the Rio team Flamengo, and when Ronaldo was a boy his father took him to
Maracena stadium to watch Zico play.
The first display of this newly restructured team
couldnt come against a more formidable opponent. A couple weeks after the match in
Parma, Ronaldo joins the Brazilian national team for a mid-week exhibition game in
Suttgart against the worlds other great soccer powerhouse, Germany. While Brazil has
won the World Cup four times and the Germans have won it three, these two nations have
never actually played against each other during the tournament. All their contests have
been friendly exhibitions. Usually at this time of year, coaches will try out new players
and new strategies, but this game is too important, and the entire starting eleven players
for both teams have flown in from all around the world to play tonight. The Germans
havent lost for 22 straight games, and thats a streak they intend to continue.
While Brazil has Ronaldo, Germany features its own sensation in Oliver
Bierhoff, who also
plays in the Italian league and actually has two more goals so far this season than
Ronaldo. This is arguably the most intense exhibition match ever to be played.
The intensity shows from the start, and the Germans
attempt to intimidate the Brazilians with a gore-fest of slide tackles and shin scrapings.
If it were a movie, the game would get an R rating. The referee gives out eight yellow
cards and ejects a player from both teams after particularly gruesome fouls. Its
every bit as bad as Ronaldo faces in Italy; he doesnt even get his first touch of
the ball until the 12th minute.
Brazil gets a goal on a corner-kick from a header, and
in the second half Germany equalizes with a nice overlap. Germany continues to press
forward, and in the 80th minute Romario gets substituted. Before walking off the field, he
passes the captains armband to Ronaldo, who straps it around his bicep for the first
Germany keeps kicking the ball into the air for head
balls, where theyve been dominating the shorter Brazilians all night. Brazil is
backed into its own end, hoping to stonewall a tie. With two minutes left in the game, a
Brazilian defender steals an errant German touch, dribbles twenty yards and sends a
through-pass into the German half of the field. At the time, Ronaldo and four German
defenders are all standing at the midfield stripe, and its a sprint race between all
five for who gets to the ball first. In a few strides Ronaldo is there, quickly opening up
such a lead that even a slide tackle from behind wouldnt catch him. He covers thirty
yards with just three dribbles. The German goalkeeper comes out charging.
Its one on one.
Ronaldo doesnt hesitate.
His head goes down over the ball, the proper position
for shooting. He stutter-steps, lining up a shot to the left. Ronaldo sells the fake so
well that the goalkeeper goes sprawling in that direction just as Ronaldo pushes the ball
to the right.
If you had blinked, you might have missed it. Some
people just do not choke. In this defining heroic moment, Ronaldo has left behind all
obscurity for the rest of his life--if you havent heard of Ronaldo yet, you will
after tonight. He has left behind questions whether he can score dramatic, awe-inspiring
goals against vicious defenses. He has left behind all doubts about whether he is worth
the investment of empires. He has left behind all debate about whether he is the best
player in the world.
He has left behind four German defenders and one
There are no obstacles left.
All thats in front of him is the open net.
"It is difficult to describe what you are feeling
[when you score]," he had said back in Parma. "Because you are out of this
world, you cant hear anyone, you dont see anyone, you are blind, you are deaf,
you just want to run and scream."
Which is what he does, when he puts the ball away for