For the Brazilian Ronaldo, 40, this is particularly acute. A number of forwards, from Thierry Henry to Lionel Messi, have achieved greatness – and in some cases surpassed him – by paying homage to his style of play; another has changed how we respond to his name.
The need to distinguish the two Ronaldos has led to some unflattering comments. In 2013, when considering the merits of both, Sir Alex Ferguson absent-mindedly spoke for many in both his judgment and description. “If I compare Cristiano with the fat one, the old one, Cristiano is better.”
The fat one. The old one. There are still plenty of people who remember him as the one: Il Fenomeno or – if you’re into the whole Edson Arantes de Nascimento thing – Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. Even before Cristiano, there were two Ronaldos: the one that returned after long-term injury in 2002 was a great goalscorer, but the 1990s version was a great everything.
The knee injuries suffered at Internazionale took away the explosiveness that made him possibly the greatest young footballer of all time, a futuristic fusion of speed, strength and skill. That is not to belittle Ronaldo’s achievements in the second half of his career, when he scored eight goals in a single World Cup and became the first Ronaldo to receive a standing ovation at Old Trafford, but it is the memory of the early years that puts mist in the eyes of grown men.
By the time he suffered his first career-threatening injury in 1999, Ronaldo was 23 and had already scored more than 200 goals for Cruzeiro, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter and Brazil. His solitary season at Barcelona went straight into folklore: he scored 47 in 49 games, many of them outrageous solo goals. That total looks relatively tame since the bar was raised by the other Ronaldo and Messi, but at the time it was almost unprecedented. In quantitative terms, you need to judge Ronaldo by the standards of 1996, not 2016. Qualitatively, he stands up to the fiercest contemporary scrutiny. Old football can look relatively slow and clumsy, evolution being what it is, yet Ronaldo’s speed is awesome even to modern eyes. If you do only one worthwhile thing today, watch a YouTube video of his season at Barcelona.
Those highlights packages can be deceptive, but rewatching a full match such as the 1998 World Cup semi-final against Holland confirms the sheer menace and excitement of Ronaldo with the ball at his feet. You can hear or see it in the defenders’ body language, the pitch of the ITV commentator Brian Moore’s voice or the noise of the crowd. “Ronaldo could start from the halfway line and the whole stadium would ignite,” said Sir Bobby Robson, his manager at Barcelona. “A current would course through the stands.”
That was because Ronaldo played like a winger – but he did so in the centre of the pitch, which made him infinitely more dangerous. He played like every attack had a 10-second deadline and the Brazilian would explode into life with no warning for defenders. His 50-yard dash in extra time of the 1998 World Cup semi-final, when he scorched past Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam before De Boer made an immense recovery tackle, is among the most exhilarating moments in modern World Cup history.
There were centre-forwards before Ronaldo who roamed and ran with the ball – Dixie Dean, Eusébio, Preben Elkjaer and especially George Weah – but none did it as devastatingly or excitingly. He did not get between the lines of the defence and midfield; he got between the lines of the defenders, with or without the ball. He did not pass the ball through the eye of the needle; he squeezed through it himself. His famous hat-trick against Valencia in 1996 included two remarkable goals in which he bulldozed through the tiniest gap between defenders. “He’s not a man,” said the former Real Madrid striker Jorge Valdano. “He’s a herd.”
That Barcelona team is seen as one of the great coaching seminars, with Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Laurent Blanc on the pitch and José Mourinho on the bench. Ronaldo did not bother with all that theory. He could link play when necessary but at his best he was the antonym of tiki-taka: he just ran through everything and scored a goal.
He was faster with the ball than most people were without it. “When Ronaldo had the ball, he ran at 2,000 miles per hour,” said Zinedine Zidane. His love of dribbling was such that in the majority of his one-on-ones he ran straight past the goalkeeper as if he was just another defender. Other times he would make a fool of the keeper: in the 1998 Uefa Cup final, he used sleight of hip to put Lazio’s Luca Marchegiani on his backside without touching the ball.
At times Ronaldo was so unstoppable that you could have allowed all 11 players to use their hands and he would still have scored. “When he stripped, he looked like a boxer,” said Robson. “He had wonderful biceps and shoulders with terrific definition.” That speed and strength made him football’s Jonah Lomu – but with the best of David Campese as well. He was very much a head-up dribbler. “I’ve never seen a player able to show such precise control at such high speed,” said Marcel Desailly. “Watching him was like watching a character in a video game.” In many ways he was the first PlayStation footballer. His stepover was a form of hypnosis, and his signature trick, the elastico, could certainly have come from a computer screen.
His most famous was on the great Alessandro Nesta in the 1998 Uefa Cup final. That match had been hyped as a meeting between the best attacker and the best defender in Serie A. Ronaldo destroyed his opponent. “It was the worst experience of my career,” he said. Nesta watched the match repeatedly on video, trying to work out what he had done wrong, until he finally had his Eureka moment: there was nothing anyone could have done. “Ronaldo,” he said, “was simply unstoppable.”
Some defenders, particularly in Serie A, would try to stop him by foul means or fouler. But for the most part Ronaldo left a great generation of centre-backs at their wits’ end, their brains melting with the demands of concentrating against him for 90 minutes. Gary Neville, who played in the centre of defence against Brazil during Le Tournoi in 1997, recalled Ronaldo and Romário laughing their heads off at a joke while play was going on at the other end and England’s defenders were gulping oxygen.
An opposing defence could not even contemplate relaxing while he was on the field, whether it was 22 seconds into the second half of a World Cup semi-final or in the 89th minute of his final game for Barcelona. They were drawing 0-0 against Deportivo in a match they had to win to retain a realistic chance of winning the title. Ronaldo went on one last charge but was knocked over 35 yards from goal. He stayed on the floor for a second or two, watching the play; then, when a Deportivo player fractionally miscontrolled the ball, he sprang to his feet, surged through the defence and scored. One moment he was on his back 35 yards from goal; three touches and four seconds later he was celebrating. It was a perfect summary of his year in Catalonia. “He’s the most spectacular player I’ve ever seen,” said Luis Enrique, who played with him at the Camp Nou and is now Barcelona’s manager. “He did things I’d never seen before. We’re now used to seeing Messi dribble past six players, but not then. He was strong, a beast.”
When Ronaldo put Compostela on the football map by scoring his most famous goal against them in 1996, Robson turned away and put his hands over his head. He looked like he could not cope with seeing such brilliant football, especially from somebody who had only turned 20 less than a month earlier.
Nothing in sport excites like the emergence of a brilliant young player, such is the seductive infinity of potential. Ronaldo is easily the best of the past 30 years, possibly ever. The other Ronaldo and Messi were brilliant teenagers but had nothing like the same impact at that age. Only Pelé, Diego Maradona and George Best can really compare. In 1997, aged 21, Ronaldo became the youngest winner of the Ballon d’Or, a record he still holds. He received 38 votes for first place that year; nobody else got more than two. He also broke the world transfer record twice before his 21st birthday; Maradona is the only other player to break it twice at any age. “If it wasn’t for injury I think he would be talked about on the same level as Pelé and Maradona,” said the Juventus and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. “He had all the skills needed to be the best ever. He was like an alien because of what he could do on the pitch.” That is not an isolated view. Robson said: “Had he managed to stay free of injury, he had every chance of becoming the best footballer ever.”
Most blame those knee injuries for the fact he peaked so early, though others think it was more down to lifestyle. Either way, the romantic “what if” has enhanced his legend in some ways. We get to have our cake and not eat it; to wonder wistfully how good it might have tasted.
There are players who have achieved more but nobody has yet replicated Ronaldo’s blend of skill, strength and astonishing speed. He brought the visceral thrill of the 100 metres to the football field. Every time he was involved in an attack it was like a starter pistol went off: on your marks, get set, goal.