Karim Benzema has hardly gone out of his way to make himself popular since arriving in Madrid. He arrived at the Bernabeu with his foot in his mouth, but his first faux pas was an endearing, as well as a memorable, one. Asked in his exit interview at Lyon if he was looking forward to playing alongside the second generation of ‘galácticos’ – Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka etc – Benzema said, “I would have loved it if Ronaldo, the real one, the number 9, was still there.” The real one! Stick that in your CR9-branded marketing pipe and smoke it.
Admirable as Cristiano is, there has never been any debate for me – there is, was and will only ever be one Ronaldo. Of course, he wasn’t always as big – as a 17-year-old squad member of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning squad, he was Ronaldinho, the junior to São Paulo’s Ronaldão.
But it was to be without the suffix that he started to make his name globally. Though he scored at nearly a goal-a-game for PSV, his repetition of the feat at Barcelona after being bought to the Camp Nou by Bobby Robson in 1996 was unprecedented. The 20-year-old’s 47 (!) goals in all competitions saw Barca win a Cops del Rey and Cup Winners’ Cup double and Ronaldo jump ship to Inter and win the 1997 Ballon d’Or.
Much of his legend is self-evident; he was the greatest finisher of his generation, but cruelly stymied by illness (the fit which saw him first withdrawn, then returned to the Brazil XI which lost the 1998 World Cup final) then injury. The horrendous knee tendon injuries which limited him to 68 Serie A appearances in his five seasons at the San Siro would have finished off a lesser man.
I nearly spat out my cornflakes recently reading a message board poster listing Ronaldo as “one of Brazil’s great unfulfilled talents.” This misses the point; of course, he could have been even greater had injury not dogged him, but that he still managed to be arguably the greatest striker of the last 50 years tells you more about his mettle than any nit-picking over statistics ever could.
His comeback in the 2002 World Cup was not just one from chronic injury, but from crushing disappointment. Propelled to the brink of their first Scudetto in 13 years by a late season Ronaldo burst, Inter threw it away on the final day with defeat at Lazio. Still Ronaldo made the Japan and South Korea World Cup his, winning the final – and the Golden Shoe – with a brace in the final against Germany to finish with eight goals for the tournament. The £180 I picked up post-final, for a tenner staked on the great man to be top scorer at the most generous of odds, is still the sweetest bet I ever won.
Ronaldo ripped up La Liga all over again after moving to Real Madrid post-World Cup, even though he attracted more and more criticism for his weight. It was hard to ignore – even the great Guillem Balague never really convinced when insisting “honestly, it’s all muscle!” on Revista de la Liga. But it didn’t matter that he was a bit porky. While Ronaldinho’s ‘party lifestyle’ has contributed to permanently robbing him of the accelaration which made him the world’s greatest, Ronaldo never lost his, defying science and nature.
I had the joy of catching him in the flesh at the Bernabeu once, in March 2004, while I was researching a book on the Champions League. El Real battered Sevilla 5-1 and big Ron didn’t disappoint, scoring twice and setting up another. Watching the greats in the flesh is always an education – unlike with TV, you’re the director, and you choose which players to watch and how often.
There’s no doubt Ronaldo was somewhat off his physical peak. When he didn’t have the ball, he plodded around, puffing like a man who’d just given an all-you-can-eat buffet a proper caning. But when he got the ball? The control, the quick change of feet, the pace over ten yards shone as brightly as ever.
And the finishing. Ronaldo’s first was a header from a David Beckham cross. The second was scored deep into injury-time; he burst clean through, and delayed for what seemed like an age before stroking home. What was the hold-up, a journalist in the press area afterwards asked? “I asked the ‘keeper which side he wanted me to put it. He said left, so that’s what I did,” he grinned.
The essence of Ronaldo – despite the jibes about his fitness and the injury setbacks (of which there would be more at Milan) – as someone who purely loved to play the game, enjoy himself and be the best he could be still remains intact. That, as much as his trophies, and his club and international personal record breaking, is what made him a true champion.
Andy is a freelance European football journalist and the author of “All or Nothing: A Year in the Life of the Champions League” – available from all good bookshops (and some bad ones too). You can also hear him most Saturday mornings alongside Tim Vickery and Dotun Adebayo on BBC Radio 5 Live’s excellent World Football Phone-In.