In a career so unfortunately plagued by injuries, Ronaldo Nazario was still able to make his mark on the World Cup stage to such an extent that he goes down as one of the tournament’s most distinguished performers of all time.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Ronaldo’s goalscoring exploits at Cruzeiro made Brazilian national team manager Carlos Alberto Parreira feel compelled to take the 17-year-old to the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Fast forward four years to the World Cup in France in 1998 and Ronaldo was already widely revered as the best footballer on the planet, becoming the youngest winner of the Ballon d’Or aged 21 in 1997 and the first player since Diego Maradona to break the world transfer fee twice following his transfers to Barcelona and .
A year before the World Cup in France, in 1997, Ronaldo won both the Copa America and Confederations Cup with Brazil, named player of the tournament in the former and scoring a hattrick in the final of the latter.
‘Il Fenomeno’, as he became known as, was therefore expected to set the 1998 World Cup alight in France with the hopes of Brazil largely on his shoulders.
So it proved for the majority of the tournament, with Ronaldo displaying his unparalleled pace, power and skill on the biggest stage as he registered three goals and two assists en route to the World Cup final.
What was to follow remains one of the biggest mysteries in World Cup history. Faced with hosts , Brazil’s preparations descended into mayhem on the day of the match as their talisman Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit six hours before kick-off.
Initially left out of his country’s starting line-up for the showpiece, sending shockwaves throughout the football world, Ronaldo was reinstated shortly before kick-off after pleading with Brazil manager Mario Zagallo.
Rocked by the pre-match disruptions, Brazil fell to a 3-0 defeat to a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France, with Ronaldo clearly out of sorts. Brazil manager Zagallo later admitted his team had been psychologically affected by the incident, and had deliberated taking his star striker off in the first half.
The Golden Ball would offer little consolation for a disconsolate Ronaldo, who would be forced to wait a further four years to achieve World Cup glory for his country.
Ronaldo would endure further misfortune in the lead-up to the next World Cup Finals in South Korea and Japan in 2002. First rupturing a knee tendon in 1999, Ronaldo suffered a series of significant injury setbacks as he missed the best part of two seasons for Inter Milan.
Ronaldo’s injury strife had seen him miss Brazil’s entire qualification campaign for the 2002 World Cup, with the team looking significantly weaker in his absence. Having valiantly battled back to fitness in time for the Finals, Brazil were a different proposition altogether.
As part of a forward line dubbed the ‘three Rs’, also composed of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, Ronaldo dazzled in South Korea and Japan.
The World Cup final against in Yokohama offered ‘R9’ the perfect opportunity to exorcise the ghosts of the 1998 showpiece in Paris, with the striker later on record saying he had obsessively visualised this moment of personal redemption ahead of the tournament.
In fairytale fashion, Ronaldo would be the match-winner on the day, with a second-half brace enough to sink Germany 2-0. Opening the scoring in the 67th minute with a tap-in after Germany skipper Oliver Kahn had let slip a Rivaldo drive from range, the striker sealed the deal in the 79th minute with a coolly slotted right-foot finish.
Ronaldo, who sported an iconic half-shaven head throughout the competition to distract media attention away from his injuries, would receive the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer on eight goals. With his brace in the final equalling Pele’s tally of 12 World Cup goals, Ronaldo would be congratulated by the Brazil legend as he received his winners’ medal in a poignant moment.
Receiving the 2002 Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo was widely commended for his mental fortitude to come back from such debilitating injuries to reach the pinnacle of the sport once more.
Moving to Real Madrid following the 2002 Finals as part of the club’s Galacticos recruitment drive, Ronaldo would enjoy four goal-laden seasons with Los Blancos before the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany.
Although there were question marks surrounding Ronaldo’s fitness and weight, much was still expected of ‘Il Fenonemo’ in Germany as part of a “magic quartet” alongside Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaka.
After struggling in Brazil’s opening two wins in the group stages against Croatia and Australia, Ronaldo got off the mark in his country’s third match with a brace in a 4-1 victory over Japan to become only the 20th player in history to score in three separate World Cup tournaments.
The Real Madrid man would break further notable records in the round of 16, with his 5th-minute strike in Brazil’s 3-0 win over making him the competition’s all-time record goalscorer and only the second player after Jurgen Klinsmann to score at least three goals at three different World Cups.
Ronaldo’s famous association with the World Cup would finish in the next round, however, as Carlos Alberto Parreira’s men were downed 1-0 by France who were inspired by a vintage display from Zinedine Zidane on the night.
It was to be a disappointing end to what was an unforgettable World Cup journey for Ronaldo Nazario. From the despair of France in ‘98 to the oblivion of South Korea and Japan in ‘02, Ronaldo’s exploits in Yokohama in the World Cup final of the latter tournament perhaps represented the pinnacle of a truly legendary career.