by Martin Palazzotto

Note: I’ve generally tried to avoid duplicates in this series, but I thought that this was such a magnificent piece of work and a wonderful compliment to Andy Brassell’s portrait of the great Ronaldo that it simply had to be published. Enjoy.

I’m middle-aged.  I’m overweight.  I haven’t kicked a ball around in at least six months.  So, it’s really no wonder that the footballer I would happily plunk down 50 quid to see, at this point in my life, is Ronaldo.  Not the plastic one with the surrogate son, who can’t decide if he wants to play football or be a male model.  The real one.  The fat, slow, out of shape one who can still go out there with the twenty-somethings in the Brazilian Campeonato and show them how it’s done.

I’ll freely admit that throughout most of his career I really didn’t think that much of him.  After playing just one year (‘92-93) in the Brazilian top flight, with up and coming Cruzeiro, he was snapped up by PSV Eindhoven and promptly lit up the Eredivisie for 30 goals.  The first of many knee injuries found him the following season and he was limited to just 13 matches, although he managed an impressive 12 goals in his limited appearances.

A move to Barcelona ensued, under Sir Bobby Robson, and again he was at the top of his game with nearly 50 goals in his first campaign for the Blaugrana.  You’re probably wondering how anyone cannot rate a player who puts up those types of numbers?  The thing is that, after a great year, he quickly enmeshed himself in some nasty contract re-negotiations and subsequently found himself sold off to Inter, in the Serie A.

In the mid-nineties, American sports were going through a vicious cycle of labour disputes, with a work stoppage threatening one league or another on a seemingly daily basis.  If it wasn’t baseball, it was grid-iron football.  Then it was baseball again and the NBA and the NHL players’ unions were soon looking to get in on the fun.  Free agency was at its peak, with journeyman players being awarded astronomical annual salaries upon which the average Joe could comfortably retire.

There was a backlash among fans towards athletes that is still prevalent today, a jealousy of grown boys who played games all day, partied at night and then had the temerity to claim they were being ill treated.  So, caught up in the tide, I held a grudge against any player who moved from club to club and tended to be in the papers, as Ronaldo was, for his exploits off the pitch as much as on.

Following European football from the States, in that era, was mostly done on pay-per-view.  For me, the satisfaction of the experience was tempered enough by the expense without wasting good money on a pampered superstar who didn’t appreciate what he had.  As a result I overlooked the heyday of the Brazilian’s career, during the late 90’s, when he was literally unstoppable.

Just as I was starting to think I might be missing something special, he crocked his knee once more.  His mercurial stint with Real Madrid, where the Galacticos, like a collection of super villains, were possessed of amazing powers but could never seem to win, caused me to look away again.

Besides, the player who had captured my imagination, at the time, was the equally spectacular but far more grounded Brazilian, Roberto Carlos.  Away from sport, I was at the height of my Sci-Fi/FanFic phase and a player who could strike fear in the heart of an opposing keeper, from such distances, was the equal of Darth Vader, Sauron, Magneto or any other villain you care to name.

The final straw in my on again/off again fascination with Ronaldo was his return to Milan in 2007, this time with the Rossoneri, where his injuries mounted and his malfunctioning gaydar proved embarrassing.  Worse, his antics were leading astray a talented new generation of Brazilians, most notably Ronaldhino, Adriano, and Vagner Love, who cared less about the game than their status as celebrities.

For those who were paying attention, however, and that was not me, his three goals at the 2006 World Cup were the baby steps in a change of attitude for the aging star.  With the twilight of his career obviously upon him, the episode in Milan was a case of old habit dying hard than just more of the same.

In 2009, he returned to Corinthians, with, he announced, the intent to rehabilitate his balky knees and make his case to appear in one last World Cup.

Yeah, right.  That and a hearty chuckle was my reaction to a seemingly vain boast.  Still, I’m old enough now to understand the transition from the indestructibility of youth to the more pragmatic mortality of middle age and the sense of urgency which accompanies it.

As the year progressed, the news coming from Sao Paolo was continually positive.  There was talk that, while he was still a long shot to make the national team, under Dunga, he was definitely in the frame.  So, on the first weekend in April, with Corinthians  hosting sea-side rivals Santos, on Gol TV, I sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

What I saw was amazing.  Here was a man in his mid thirties, definitely a little thicker around the waist than you’d expect from an attack minded player, out on the pitch and trotting about while younger men whizzed by in every direction.  It seemed obvious that he was out of his element.  No matter, though.  Corinthians were up 1-0, courtesy of a nicely struck free kick from Chicao, on ten minutes and, although visiting Santos was starting to carry the play, I was becoming increasingly impressed by the young Corinthians keeper, Felipe, who, with amazing athleticism, was keeping certain goals from finding the back of the net far too often for the average mortal.

As the clock approached the 25 minute mark, a rare Corinthians attack was quickly snuffed out and cleared to the center circle.  It was mishandled by the waiting Santos man and a Corinthians midfielder gathered the ball in and quickly opted for route 1, looping a long pass towards the enemy goal.  Ronaldo, lounging about until that moment, was suddenly on his horse and running under the ball, collecting it with a sublime first touch of the right foot and then thundering a volley past the keeper with his left.

2-0 Corinthians.  Picking your spots, indeed.

Ten minutes later, Ronaldo, once again biding his time, watched his young winger, on the left, dribble and nutmeg his way down the flank and square the ball across the top of the box.  The old man, who a second before seemed to have hands in pockets as he enjoyed a nice stroll in the sun,  stepped into the pass, slashing a one-timer just over the bar.

At the opposite end, Santos were desperately looking to get back into a match in which they, beyond the occasional interruption from a certain senior citizen, were looking by far the more dangerous side.   Felipe, though, was on another planet, scrambling to disrupt a two man break, diving to save a ball at the post, deflecting a hard drive and then tipping the ball to himself, away from the half-volley of a frustrated Santos striker.

After every incredible save there came the inevitable and uncontained exuberance of youth, the chest thumping and fist pumping celebration of the self, which has replaced respect for your opponent in today’s sporting world.  Notable, however, was the frequency with which he sought out the greybeard for a high five, finger point or some other form of acknowledgment, with the danger having been thwarted.

The unrelenting pressure of Santos was finally rewarded, though, as Felipe’s athleticism ultimately betrayed him.  With an attacker carrying the ball to the touchline off to the right of goal, the youthful netminder anticipated a high pass back into the box and moved off his line.  The pass was low and behind him.  Sticking out his trailing foot instinctively, he deflected the ball into his own goal.

Santos were back in the game.

They continued to pour on the pressure but Felipe displayed enough self-confidence to brush aside his gaffe.  Again, it would be a misplayed ball in the center circle that would betray the seasiders’ cause.  This time, the Corinthians midfielder ran onto a heavy first Santos’ touch and charged, pell mell in the opposite direction.

On the right flank and several metres ahead, a pair of 33 year old legs accelerated in a vain attempt to match the speed of the counter-attack.  The ball was sent through mercifully early and perfectly timed for Ronaldo to run onto but, even as he did, his lack of pace betrayed him and he was cut off by a pair of defenders.  Since he couldn’t outrun the duo, the cagey veteran did the opposite.  He shut down entirely, cut to the inside, transferred the ball to his left foot, and, as he stepped in front of a gap between them, cheekily launched a lazy 20m chip which the helpless Santos goaltender could only watch sail into the twine.

Game over.

As the season wore on, Ronaldo would contribute significantly to Corinthians’ drive to win the Paulista but, though he was game, he ultimately was not fit enough to be included in the final 23 bound for South Africa.

This season, he has not played as often, as his weight and the creaky knees which must support it have proved resistant.  Yet, after another stint of rehab, he was again on the pitch last weekend, announcing his return in a hilarious and appropriately ironic press conference.

When asked, as he always is of late, whether he thought it wasn’t past time for him to call it a career, he laughed it off and produced some smoke bombs given to him by a comedian friend.  He would set one off, he declared tongue firmly in cheek, to cover his escape should his play on the weekend prove to be an embarrassment.  When he tried to demonstrate, though, the first bomb was a dud, as was the second.  The third produced a weak tendril of smoke through which, with much merriment, he made his exit.

On the pitch, no duck and cover was required.  Although the match ended a scoreless draw, Ronaldo played the entire 90 and provided his club with its best opportunity to take all 3 points.

Some of you, a generation younger than me I suspect, may wonder why I would consider a player in the eleventh hour of his career and surviving on his guile alone, to be the best draw for my money.  Part of the reason is that refusal to give in to time, to fight on despite being outmatched athletically and able only to rely upon one’s cunning.  Age gives you an appreciation of that.  The better reason, however, is that now, after all that has gone before, Ronaldo has discovered that it is the game he truly loves and for which he’d give his dying breath.

Such passion is a joy to behold.

Martin is the editor of the quite brilliant World Football Columns and you can follow him on Twitter @martin_whitehat.