The 24-year wait was over. In the final act of the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, Brazil overcame Italy in a typically nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out in Pasadena to become world champions for the first time since Mexico 1970.
The celebrating Brazilians carried flags as they ran around the pitch, one of them in tribute to Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, killed at Imola just a few weeks earlier. Photographers massed around them as the famous Trophy was passed from player to player, with Romario, captain Dunga and goalkeeper Taffarel among those attracting most of the attention.
In the midst of the celebrations was a 17-year-old with a gap-toothed grin, a mere onlooker in the winning of Brazil’s fourth world crown but who would go on to have a brilliant career and become, despite the injuries that would plague him, one of the most feared finishers in the business, fully justifying his nickname of O Fenômeno.
That wide-eyed teenager went by the name of Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, and by the time he retired from the game in 2011, 17 years after that sun-kissed Californian afternoon, he had helped his country win another World Cup and secured an individual goalscoring record for the competition, just two of his many career achievements.
A global sensation
Unlike fellow Brazilian legends such as Pele, Ronaldo played in an age where every dribble and wonder goal was recorded for posterity, few more wondrous than the solo effort he scored for Barcelona against Santiago de Compostela in a La Liga game in October 1996. Picking up the ball on the halfway line, he weaved his way past several Compostela defenders and surged into the box to slot home from 12 yards.
Beginning his career as an amateur with Sao Cristovao in Rio de Janeiro, Ronaldo signed professional forms with Cruzeiro at the age of 16 and then made the switch to PSV Eindhoven, shortly before USA 1994. Instant international stardom would follow when he joined Barça, where he kept up the remarkable scoring record of nearly a goal a game that he had achieved with both PSV and A Raposa.
It was around the time that he won his first FIFA World Player award in 1996 that the nickname O Fenômeno was coined, one that would stick with him for the rest of his playing days. When relations with Barcelona soured he joined Internazionale, where he continued to star, winning his second consecutive FIFA World Player title and following up with success in the UEFA Cup in 1998.
The stage seemed set for the 21-year-old at France 1998. But after opening his World Cup account with four goals on Brazil’s march to the Final, he suffered convulsions in the build-up to the showpiece game against the French and was a shadow of himself as Zinedine Zidane inspired the hosts to glory.
That ailment was only the first in a series of physical problems that befell the thoroughbred striker in the years that followed. Those setbacks included two serious knee injuries, the second of them coming in a fateful Coppa Italia match against Lazio. The sight of a stricken Ronaldo clutching his leg after crumpling to the ground in agony would unfortunately prove one of the enduring images of his career.
The comeback trail
Out of the game for 15 months after undergoing surgery, Ronaldo made a remarkable return, arriving at Korea/Japan 2002 determined to make up for that catastrophic night in Paris four years earlier. Forming part of a formidable frontline with Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, he added eight goals to his overall tournament tally as Brazil stormed to world title number five. His reward for his staggering personal contribution was a third FIFA World Player award.
Though his injury woes made it seem like more, Ronaldo was still only 26 when he signed for Real Madrid in the wake of his oriental triumph. He spent the next five years at the Bernabeu, teaming up to great effect alongside fellow galácticos such as Roberto Carlos, Zidane, Raul and Luis Figo.
His final World Cup appearance came at Germany 2006, where he took his competition haul to a record-breaking 15 goals before Zizou’s France undid Brazil once again, this time in the quarter-finals.
There followed a brief spell with AC Milan, which ended with yet another serious knee injury and a return to Brazil. Sparing no effort after working his way back to fitness, with several major European clubs keeping tabs on his progress, he surprised everyone by making a last-minute decision to sign for Corinthians. Welcomed with open arms by the Timão faithful, he proceeded to do what he did best, scoring more great goals and getting his hands on yet more silverware.
By this stage, however, the demands and sacrifices of the past had caught up with him. Finally calling time on his career in February 2011, O Fenômeno announced: “My body’s beaten me. It’s been a wonderful, successful and exciting career. I’ve suffered a lot of defeats and won countless victories.”
Ronaldo's World Cup record was surpassed by Miroslav Klose at Brazil 2014, the German scoring his 16th global finals goal against the hosts in their remarkable 7-1 semi-final win. Despite passing the famed Brazil No9, the humble Klose remarked that Ronaldo "was the most complete player ever."
Aside from all the goals and the accolades, that ability to face and overcome adversity time and again is perhaps the greatest achievement of a player who was truly a phenomenon.
Did You Know?
Though known for keeping his hair very short, Ronaldo caused a stir in the build-up to the Korea/Japan 2002 Final by unveiling an unusual triangular quiff at the front of an otherwise shaved head. Years later he revealed that he opted for the distinctive cut to distract journalists from a muscular injury he picked up earlier in the tournament.
Ronaldo was known for several years in Brazil as Ronaldinho, a nickname that helped distinguish him from fellow USA 1994 squad member Ronaldao, a defender who came into the squad at the last minute and was a figurehead at Sao Paulo.
The goal-hungry striker burst onto the scene in a 1993 game against Bahia, scoring five of Cruzeiro’s goals in a 6-0 rout, the last of them coming when he tucked home from close range after Bahia goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodriguez had absent-mindedly dropped the ball on the ground.
One of Ronaldo’s favourite coaches was Vicente del Bosque, his boss at Real Madrid. “He reminds me a bit of [Mario] Zagallo. He likes a joke,” said the player. “His team talks last three minutes, which is great.”
Ronaldo began his European career following in the footsteps of his Brazil team-mate Romario, arriving at PSV Eindhoven before making the move to Barcelona, where they were both instant idols.