The Brazilian national soccer team is the most successful national team in the history of the FIFA World Cup, winning five championship titles in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002, and they are the only team to have participated in every World Cup. This CONMEBOL confederation member has had some of the greatest football players of all-time on its roster and continues to dominate international competition every year, becoming a benchmark for other teams to aim for.
While the most famous Brazilian player in history is none other than Pele, the greatest striker of the modern era, and one of the finest of all time, is Ronaldo. Not Cristiano, soccer’s most prized Ken doll, but the original- Ronaldo Luís Nazário De Lima, aka II Fenomeno (phenomenal). A two-time World Cup winner, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and all-time leading World Cup finals goalscorer, Ronaldo will forever be a legend of the game. The Brazilian netted 62 goals in 97 games for his country, an impressive record in addition to stints with world heavyweights PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid, which made him a household name across the globe.
Much like the stories we hear of our favorite basketball players who grew up dribbling a ball to and from the corner store, or spending countless hours on the playgrounds, Ronaldo was rarely seen as a kid without a ball at his feet. And although his talent was unquestioned, he was initially unable to try out for Rio’s top clubs as teams refused to pay for his bus fare to get there. But his skill was so undeniable that coaches took him under their wing as the prospect continued to develop. Operating at an incredible pace and showcasing his impeccable decision making on the pitch wouldn’t go unnoticed for long as one of Brazil’s most popular multi-sport clubs, Cruzeiro, came calling.
What happened next was nothing short of a legendary run. His move to Cruzeiro was short-lived as he netted 57 times in 59 matches for the club over the course of two years. At just 17 years of age Ronaldo had already won his first piece of silverware with the Brazilian side—the Copa do Brazil.
In 1994, the boy from Rio was called up to Brazil's World Cup squad. Many argued he was not ready for the world stage, but more began to draw comparisons between Ronaldo and Pele. Brazil took down Italy in the final, and although Ronaldo did not feature during the campaign in the USA, he had already gained experience far beyond any other player his age. This would later serve as valuable prep tool for what would take place just four years later.
The 1998 World Cup in France was the world coming out party for Ronaldo, who was now the centerpiece for the then four-time World Cup champions. Brazil cruised through the competition reaching the final with host country France. It seemed that it would be impossible for Brazil not to win title, especially considering Ronaldo had scored four goals and delivered three assists in the process. But on the night of the World Cup final, things went horribly wrong. Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit and was ruled out of the match against France.
"Ronaldo was foaming at the mouth, struggling, breathing with a lot of difficulty and very pale". Hotel director Paul Chevalier heard people crying "he's dead, he's dead", while room-mate Roberto Carlos blamed the pressure of holding the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, as well as the dreams of marketing men. "Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead," he said. "The pressure had got to him and he couldn't stop crying ... here was a 21-year-old player, the best player in the world, surrounded by contracts and pressure. Something had to give. And when it did, it happened to be the day of the World Cup final."
The hopes of a nation were dashed, until just minutes before kick-off, when Ronaldo walked into the Brazil dressing room and demanded he be included in the starting squad. Manager Mario Zagallo included Il Fenomeno in the starting XI and although Brazil lost 3-0 to an impressive French squad, Ronaldo played in the World Cup final—albeit a shadow of his best.
After the Cup, Ronaldo returned to Italy to play for Inter Milan and was back to form. That is until he suffered a knee injury that would force him to miss the entire 2000-01 season. However, the resilience of a young boy, who always kept a soccer ball at his feet, would write an epic tale in history and achieve one of the greatest comeback stories ever. With practically no playing time under his belt, Ronaldo came to the 2002 World Cup in Korea with many critics disputing his selection in the national team.
In just one month, Ronaldo single-handedly wrote himself into the history books, taking home the Golden Boot with eight goals and leading Brazil to their record fifth World Cup crown. The critics aforementioned had no choice but to praise the Brazilian superstar. He netted the only goal in Brazil's semi against Turkey and a double in the final against Germany. Ronaldo was, at this point, the best striker on the planet...all after being sidelined for an entire season.
As far as legends in any sport, II Fenomeno is right at the top. Despite struggles with his weight and injuries (problems which were undoubtedly related), we can all recall the height of his powers, where he was a terrifying proposition who could outrun, out-skill and outscore whole teams.
So as we watch Neymar and the current Brazilian squad march on in the 2014 World Cup, we remember, and give props to, Ronaldo "Il Fenomeno". The legend will live on forever. #RESPECT