The year was 1997. The widely-considered ‘best player in the world’ was lighting up European football at Barcelona, until a shock contract dispute saw him tipped for an unthinkable split from the Catalan giants. Sounds familiar?
They say 24 hours is a lifetime in football, but some things never change.
The only difference being La Blaugrana have learnt from their glaring mistakes of setting hefty yet affordable release clauses, and subsequently blocked a certain Lionel Messi from making the most dramatic of Camp Nou exits in the summer of 2020.
They didn’t have such luck 23 years ago. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was a superstar in the making. Raw, precocious and endlessly talented, the young Brazilian had made the giant leap from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona, and in the space of 12 months he had become the most talked about footballer on the planet.
47 goals in 49 appearances meant that, statistically, he was the hottest striker in the business. But more than just the numbers, it was the manner and ease in which he adapted to the top tier of European football that shocked us all, comfortably dismantling every defence in Spain and on the continent.
There was a never-seen-before mystique to his game, someone so good that they could win a match single-handedly. He became the youngest player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award at the tender age of 20, and he was efficiently working towards becoming the 1997 Ballon d’Or winner. And despite all that, Barça watched him walk out of the door.
A breakdown in negotiations over a new contract saw his time in Spain come to an end after only one season, and with a tasty buyout clause of €27m, the line of suitors was infinite. Fortunately for Italian football, it was Inter who got the deal over the line, paying the world record fee to land the footballing prodigy.
In the football-sphere, this one is known as a ‘no-brainer’. Even if you plucked the greatest individual assets from the deadliest strikers in history and mashed them all together into one cold-blooded goalscoring robot, you still couldn’t build a better forward than Ronaldo.
The Brazilian was genuinely unstoppable. That word gets banded about a lot nowadays, and its significance has become rather diluted. It has never been more concentrated than when describing the Inter man. It is pure cordial. He could not be stopped.
Still a slim-lined, lean kid at the time, Ronaldo was designed for running – and running fast. He was extraordinarily quick across the ground, something that viewers of his later career would find harder to believe, given the change in body shape he underwent following his injuries and the inevitable passing of time.
Being light did not make him lightweight, however. The starlet possessed so much strength that even when defenders eventually did catch up with him, they couldn’t prise the ball from between his feet. He boasted incredible core strength, allowing him to wriggle away from a series of (usually vicious) challenges, while the lightning footwork and mental velocity only added to his skillset.
We were watching the best out-and-out striker in the world, playing the best football of his career. The level of quality was unparalleled. The world was curious to see how this laboratory-built specimen would fare in the toughest division against the meanest defences of his era.
Phenomenally well, it has to be said. Ronaldo hit 25 goals in 34 league matches in his maiden Serie A campaign, while he scored six in European competition. One of those six came in the UEFA Cup final, as he rounded off a superb first season in typically clinical fashion against fellow Italian side Lazio.
Having tortured the Eagles’ defence all game, he signed off with a trademark goal in a 3-0 victory. Breaking the offside trap with expert precision, the forward looked the goalkeeper in the eyes with the ice cold steel of a spaghetti western cowboy, before sitting his adversary on his backside and rolling the ball into the back of the unguarded net.
It was a move we had seen – and would see – time and time again from Ronaldo, who had been blessed with an unerringly steady hand to pull the trigger that fraction later, and humiliate the shot-stopper with child-like playfulness and ease. Composure multiplied by 1000.
That wasn’t the only string to his bow, though – merely the feather in his cap. Ronaldo could score all types of goals from various positions across the pitch, demonstrating his irrepressible dribbling, thunderbolt long-range shots and free-kicks, leaping headers or a good old fashioned one-on-one slotted finish.
He was ruthless in all departments. He boasted the perfect blend of showman, entertainer and merciless killer. He could dazzle and lift bums off seats, but once he arrived in shooting range, the anticipation was replaced by expectancy.
Ronaldo’s second season was equally as impressive, and his ability to lead by example meant he was handed the Inter armband as a mark of respect for his growing influence on this side. Together, I Nerazzurri and their talisman appeared on a one-way journey to the peak of European football, and Serie A domination.
We all know how this fairytale ends, sadly. Torn tendons, exploding knee caps and tears on the Olimpico turf brought the curtain down on this particular era of Ronaldo’s career. Although the bionic man was rebuilt to star at the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid were treated to a very different footballer than the one who captured the heart of every Serie A viewer.
Ronaldo may be more globally acclaimed for his spells with Spain’s heavyweights, and his international heroics at the World Cup 2002 will allow him his deserved place within the Brazilian history books.
But Italy can sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that they witnessed – even if all too briefly – the greatest striker in football history at his unadulterated best.
Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa