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One on One with Ronaldo (Spring 1998)

Meet the best player in the world in the world’s favorite sport, as Ronaldo leads Brazil to defend the World Cup in France.
--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 night’s news for the rest of the week, will tell you they saw it live. Those like me, half a world away--who’d been hearing about it from other players long before we ever found a videotape--had developed a clear picture in our mind’s 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 there."

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 Ronaldo’s 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.

Shoot, Ronaldo. Shoot!

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, they’re all 6’6" and quick as cats, while the goal hasn’t 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 striker’s stride. Get the shot off before the keeper lays out like a wall, is the conventional wisdom.

Ronaldo’s 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, Ronaldo’s 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 Ronaldo’s 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 doesn’t matter." Oh, but it does matter, because Ronaldo is singlehandedly restoring excitement to a game that’s become dominated by defense.

Here’s 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 shouldn’t even be wearing these shoes. Man, I don’t deserve to wear these shoes, if these are his shoes. I’m going to take them off. That guy does things I can’t even dream of doing."

 

 

It’s 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 I’m 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 from Barcelona.

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 Ronaldo’s nationality, his age, his girlfriend’s 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 homeland’s savior. His nickname here is The Phenomenon, playing like a mad scientist’s 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 Ronaldo’s 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 Nike’s 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.

Poor bambino, Ronaldinho.

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.

That’s 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 they’re 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 they’re 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 wasn’t 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 stadium.

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 didn’t help that three of those four players included the best player from France, the anchor of Italy’s national team defense, and a teammate of Ronaldo’s 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 Ronaldo’s 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 referee’s judgment in the first place, unanimously saluted Ronaldo with a chorus of double-armed Up Yours!

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-Milan’s 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 they’d 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. They’re accustomed to waiting, chain-smoking their cigarettes and babbling in a squawk of languages.

I wasn’t part of it. It’s just not like Ronaldo to be the last guy out of a locker room--he’d 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 couldn’t 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 it’s what Ronaldo used to get his friends to play when they were too exhausted to continue with soccer. He’s joyous out there, tipping his head back to the sun and cracking a giggly laugh.

The coach’s 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 world’s 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 pilot’s microphone and impersonate the Britishisms of his coach, the legendary English national team manager Bobby Robson.

Perhaps the only thing more amazing than Ronaldo’s 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.

Ronaldo’s Italian agent, Giovanni Branchini, 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 player’s 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 player’s pass from Ronaldo’s father.

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 Ronaldo’s 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 he’d been sleeping on all his life, so it would look nice when he wasn’t sleeping there. Here is what Ronaldo did with his first signing bonus: he paid for a restoration of his mother’s house and for his older brother’s 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. He’d 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, Ronaldo’s 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. He’s 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 world’s 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 he’s 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 doesn’t get many passes, and he’s never criticized a coach though he’s 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 kid’s talent needed guidance. First, he invested in the club, helping them with their debts. Then, to show his support of Ronaldo, he bought Ronaldo’s mother a home in Sao Cristavao, so 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 he’s 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 world’s most-trafficked internet site, Yahoo, gets about 20 million hits a month.) Even the Pope asked Ronaldo to be on his child labor human rights commission.

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. He’s eager to please, but a little unsure of what all the fuss is about. It’s only a game.

Ronaldo says, "When I was a child I was poor and hungry but I liked what I did. It’s 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.

Here’s 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 hasn’t changed Ronaldo’s character--that’s the most important thing, that fame doesn’t go to his head. He’s the same Ronaldo he’s always been. He’s modest, close to his family, and you’ll 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 for.

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 Brazil’s 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 couldn’t 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 world’s 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 haven’t lost for 22 straight games, and that’s 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. It’s every bit as bad as Ronaldo faces in Italy; he doesn’t 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 captain’s armband to Ronaldo, who straps it around his bicep for the first time.

Germany keeps kicking the ball into the air for head balls, where they’ve 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 it’s 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 wouldn’t catch him. He covers thirty yards with just three dribbles. The German goalkeeper comes out charging.

It’s one on one.

Ronaldo doesn’t 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 haven’t 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 goalie.

There are no obstacles left.

All that’s 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 can’t hear anyone, you don’t 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 the victory.