Ronaldo tore his knee in a game his team was winning 6-0. He was running for the ball, got to it first but had to reach, and that stretched him. His leg over-extended. He knew what he'd done.
Two trainers trotted out, crouched and had a look at his knee. Ronaldo was still standing.
Ronaldo: It’s nothing. I can play.
One of the trainers put his finger on the right spot, and Ronaldo jerked his knee back. It was like they’d put a flame to it. His knee had been bothering him for a long time now, but he hadn't felt it hurt that much. The trainers again looked up at him.
Ronaldo: Okay, let’s go.
He flew to Paris, had surgery, and so started a four year stretch of Ronaldo’s life that included two World Cup finals, two knee injuries, one “fit”, Nike's millions, fame, love, and loss. It deserves at least a three part series. So here it is.
Go back to the start and Ronaldo was another poor kid growing up in Rio. He played for São Cristóvão — a tiny club that’s main moneymaker today is two giant billboards on its property that it sells ads on. In 1993, Ronaldo was scouted and bought by Cruzeiro, a top club at the time in Brazil. He quickly made Cruzeiro’s senior team, and was officially let lose on Brazil’s top league. He tore it apart, scoring 44 goals in 47 games. He was sixteen and a monster, tall, lanky, and fast, better skilled, smarter than nearly everybody out there, some being men twice his age. He was a buck-toothed goalscorer. Cruzeiro took him to a tournament in Portugal where one of the country’s major clubs, FC Porto, saw him.
The tournament was over. Cruzeiro was getting on the airplane.
Porto didn’t want the kid to leave the country.
Cruzeiro refused all the offers.
Porto's pursuit of him attracted the sharks, and by the age of 17, Ronaldo had a value higher than his country could pay. He was, essentially, a rare gem, a diamond, a pearl; his market value could not be paid by a Brazilian club. They didn't bring in enough income. It was going to take a major European club to give the kid money equal to his talent. The Spanish, the Italians, they all were on the phone.
But before Europe came the USA.
In 1994, the World Cup was in the US and Brazil won it. Their coach Mario Zagallo — the only man to win the World Cup as both player and coach — chose to take the young Ronaldo with him. He was a child training with the likes of Romario, Dunga, and Branco — elite players. Ronaldo was brought there to learn. He didn't play. Training for the World Cup showed Ronaldo how high the bar was. It’s that feeling of everybody is a little faster than you. You get it when they tackle you from behind and add a hit on the back -- which would be called in a game, but in training the no-call is punishment for you holding onto the ball too long. You sense it when they ping the ball around you and you can’t even turn your head fast enough. Ronaldo was good and he’d shown flashes of greatness, but, like any child, he'd have to get better.
One of the European clubs that wanted to sign him was the Dutch outfit, PSV Eindhoven. Allegedly, former PSV man and Ronaldo’s World Cup teammate, Romario — a character in his own right — got a hold of the youngster’s ear, maybe at some hotel in LA, and convinced him that PSV would be the best. In the Netherlands, the game was played with refined tactics and technical skills. The Brits played like brutes, they’d snap his legs. Worst of all, it was cold. In Italy and Spain, the spotlight was too bright. Ronaldo was only seventeen, and he needed to grow into a good tree. A good tree needs time to grow.
Romario: Você entendeu?
Romario had gone to PSV when he was 22, spent five years there, scored 165 goals in 167 games (which is ridiculous). Ronaldo went to PSV at 17, stayed two years, and got 54 goals in 58 games. And with that, Ronaldo became the hottest commodity on the European market. Again, came the big clubs. This time Romario's advice was discarded.
From PSV, Ronaldo moved to a giant, Barcelona, where he spent only one season, but scored more goals than any other player had in one year. Messi now holds that record, and like Messi, Ronaldo’s moments of genius were on the level of Picasso, Shakespeare, and Einstein. All of these men, when they performed at their best made their peers — and many were talented, skilled, and inspired professionals — look like they were groping in the dark. Juan Antonio Pizzi, the man Barcelona picked to replace Ronaldo once he moved on to Inter, said, “I’m just a football player. He is not from this world.”
The best athletes do seem supernatural. We love and pamper them. Companies pay them enormous amounts of cash, while providing an endless supply of high-quality essentials — so they can save that cash. It’s like having a very rich, very well connected, non-sexual Sugar Daddy.
Ronaldo’s Sugar Daddy was Nike. They gave him a big allowance and all the shirts, shoes, sweats, and hats he could wear. In return, he had to wear them everywhere he went. It probably wasn’t a bad gig, and though the idea of it is absurd — shower a rich man in expensive gifts — consumers are happy to part with their money to fund it because they love how the best players make them feel. The elite athletes are a fan’s royalty. Our joy is rooted in their success.
Rehab, though, is no joy. For Ronaldo, the winter of '98 was months of boredom. He did tedious exercises — lay on your butt, legs flat, plastic band around your foot, hold the two ends of the band, then move your toes all the way back, then all the way forward — and even that hurts. That little bit — all the way back, all the way forward — hurts like a bitch. Then onto the stationary bike, just pedal, go nowhere. Ronaldo was used to sprinting in front of thousands screaming, millions watching. He wanted to run around at top speed, in perfect control, weaving through defenses. That was mainlining adrenaline. Being stuck in a gym all day was shooting bunk.
After five months of rehab, Ronaldo was finally declared healthy, just in time for trophy season. His first game back was for the domestic cup, the Coppa Italia, a two-match final against Lazio.
The plan was to ease Ronaldo back in, but the team needed a goal. As he stood at the touchline, ready to make his comeback, there was a moment of understanding that stretched worldwide. The crowd knew it, so did all the players, announcers around the world said it through TVs. The world’s best player was back.
Our joy had returned.
Ronaldo ran onto the field wearing Nike's galvanized silver shoes.
He gave a kiss up to God.
But something, someone, smacked that back down.
Because seven minutes later, the comeback was over.
Sitting on the ground, Ronaldo seemed to realize the extent of his injury. He'd torn the surgerically replaced knee again, completely now, after only seven minutes of playing on it. Laying on the ground, that big famous grin of his turned all fucked. He cried. He screamed for his mother and his father.
Portuguese Translations by P.C. Solér.
The medical staff carted him off, and he had his arm wrapped around his face, was yelling out lip-bit grunts. Whimpers and cries.
Some of the people in the crowd started to chant his name, others lost the strength in their legs and had to sit.
Five months of pain, rehab, and boredom, made worthless.
You do all that work, and you think you’re going to get something.
That is a false assumption.