Football: Return to France 98 - In search of the real Ronaldo

Mystery still surrounds the inability of the world's finest player to perform in the final
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The Independent Online
IN FRONT of 67,000 people, Ronaldo is doing what only he can do. It's 18 minutes into the game, no score. The Sunday worshippers at the cathedral of San Siro catch their breath as he takes the dropping ball on his right thigh, cushioning it so that he can turn as it falls. He's on the half-way line, wide on the left. Roma's zonal defence is stranded by the counter-attack, strung across the pitch. Only Fabio Petruzzi, the reserve stopper, stands in Ronaldo's way, 10 yards closer to goal than the man with the ball.

Ronaldo's acceleration launches him on a run angled to wards the corner of the penalty area. The feet splay out, pushing hard into the turf as raw energy is converted into momentum with minimal effort. Two touches with his right boot, one with his left. He's travelling in a straight line, but his body seems to be moving both ways at once.

There's no delicacy or elegance about Ronaldo. He's not like Suker or Bergkamp, who have stilettos in their feet. There's no romantic flourish, either. He doesn't score with a toss of the mane, like Batistuta or Salas. He's all about efficiency, about the trained focusing and transference of power.

Petruzzi tries to keep cool, backing off, hoping to jockey his opponent. But within an instant the Brazilian has made his move, whipping by on the outside with the ball on his bootlaces, minimising the loss of time by staying as close to his opponent as possible. He is almost clear when - BANG! - the defender's desperate boot catches him and he hits the ground a couple of yards outside the area, not rolling in spectacular agony but ominously still, screaming out with pain and fear but moving only to grasp the most scrutinised piece of anatomy in Italy: Ronaldo's right knee.

"I LEARNT a lot of things in 1998," the 22-year-old had said before the match, "and most of all I learnt how to suffer."

The suffering began on the evening of 12 July last, when he appeared to have sent a doppelganger to the Stade de France to take part in the World Cup final. The real Ronaldo had been left behind in his hotel, or in the dressing room, or in the clinic to which he had been rushed for tests after his team-mate Roberto Carlos had discovered him suffering from convulsions only hours before the kick-off.

We all need heroes, from 10-year-olds to the president of Fifa, and Ronaldo had been more or less unanimously nominated in advance as the super hero of France 98. His inability to perform in the final created a mystery that will probably remain unsolved until Mario Zagallo, the team's coach, decides to write his memoirs. And so a host of unproven allegations - of the effects of Xilocaine injections for his dodgy knees, of a bust- up with his girlfriend, of the intervention of the president of the Brazilian Football Association, and of the possible influence exerted by Nike's pounds 80m investment in the team - will stain the memory of the game's greatest showpiece and will continue to cast a shadow over a man who has it within him to join the game's immortals.

Whatever it was that struck him down that day, his physical recovery has been notably gradual. Before Sunday he had appeared in only six of Internazionale's 13 Serie A games, scoring four goals - two of them from the penalty spot. This from a man whose first four seasons in European football - two as a teenage prodigy with PSV Eindhoven, one as a pounds 10m man with Barcelona, and the first of a scheduled six with Internazionale - had resulted in an aggregate of 113 league goals. In Milan, after agreeing a contract under which he earns more than pounds 2m a year, his acquisition of a new nickname, Il Fenomeno, had been justified by an opening tally of 25 goals from 32 games against the world's stingy defences.

As the twinges caused by swollen tendons in his abused knees - first the left, then the right - refused to go away, his personal physiotherapist, Nilton Petroni, arrived from Rio de Janeiro to spend a month working on the problem. Ronaldo was missing from the traumatic 3-1 defeat at the hands of Fiorentina, the league leaders, on 23 November, and there was a brief panic when he described the knee problem as "chronic" in a television interview, terminology which appeared to suggest that his career might be as good as over. But linguistic imprecision was blamed, and there were signs of at least a partial recovery in his Champions' League appearances against Real Madrid on 26 November in a 3-1 home win, and in the 2-0 away victory over Sturm Graz on 10 December - games which bracketed the sacking of Internazionale's coach, Gigi Simoni, and the engagement of Mircea Lucescu, formerly of Rapid Bucharest. More significantly, three minutes from the end of the new coach's first league match, away to Udinese on 13 December, Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game, relaunching the team's title hopes.

In the middle of last week he played for the Rest of the World against Italy in Rome's Olympic Stadium, in a match celebrating the centenary of the Italian FA. Afterwards he told the world what he wanted for Christmas: a transfer to Internazionale for Zinedine Zidane, his team-mate for the night and his successor as the winner of France Football magazine's coveted Ballon d'Or for the Europe-based player of the year. "I love the way he reads the game," Ronaldo said. "He plays the ball so beautifully, and he has lots of attacking ideas. Maybe he'd be too expensive, but I'd still buy him. I gave him my congratulations because he deserved to win the Ballon d'Or. But I warned him, too, that next year I'll be trying to win it back."

Ronaldo returned for club training in the passenger seat of a big black Jeep, issuing a series of smiling Ciaos to team-mates, journalists, friends and strangers alike as he strode through the foyer of La Pinetina, Internazionale's training centre, a half-hour's drive north of the city, close to Lake Como with the Alpine foothills in the distance. Ten minutes later he had swapped his navy cashmere overcoat for a club tracksuit and was joining the rest of the star-studded squad - Roberto Baggio, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Zamorano, Javier Zanetti, Gianluca Pagliuca and so on - for lunch in the players' dining room.

Training was scheduled later than usual for two reasons: the next day's match would have an evening kick-off, and the previous day's activities had included a pre-Christmas visit to the circus for the players and their families, and a lavish party afterwards at the villa of their president, Massimo Moratti, whose willingness to invest almost pounds 50m in six years of one man's career had brought Ronaldo from Barcelona to Internazionale. Even so, the session out on the practice pitch began without Ronaldo, who made his way first to the gym, mischievously aiming trips at the retreating heels of an assistant coach as he went off for special physiotherapy, while the rest were warming up with a jog and a game of one-touch. The light was already starting to fade when he trotted out to join them for a practice match, full of shouting and laughter punctuated by Lucescu's hoarse commands as they rehearsed routines intended to break down Roma's four-man rearguard.

Taking part in the session was Aron Winter, the 31-year-old Dutch midfielder who moved to Internazionale via Ajax and Lazio. As the players emerged from the dressing rooms to relax before their evening meal, he spoke of his affection for the man he faced in the World Cup semi-final in Marseilles. "Rony is a great guy," Winter said. "He's very sweet and normal. What I appreciate is that he's very young, and he's one of the biggest stars of the last 10 years, in fact the kind of player who only appears every 10 years, and although he gets a lot of pressure from that, he still works well with the other players. He's very available. If you need something, or if you need to talk, he's always there."

After playing with Marco van Basten at Ajax and Paul Gascoigne at Lazio, Winter is used to observing the phenomenon of mega-celebrity at close quarters. "Rony is a little bit like Van Basten, a little bit quiet. They're big stars and they're doing their work and they know what they want to reach in their careers. Paul Gascoigne was also a big star, but he was different. Everybody knows him, he likes to joke, to do crazy things. Rony is still young, and like all young people he likes to joke and make the other guys laugh. But when we're talking about quality, he has so much talent that it's incredible. Of course the rest of us play for him. That's natural."

As a member of the supporting cast, Winter appreciates those who can handle the problems associated with having their names, as Hollywood would put it, above the title. "With every young player, when there's a lot of pressure and you're in the press all the time, it's very difficult to remain yourself. Rony is a big star, the biggest since Maradona and Van Basten, but he's always himself. I'd understand it if he sometimes got uptight about those things, because every day, every day, it doesn't matter which newspaper, which TV programme, which sponsor, a lot of people want something from him. Maybe sometimes he gets a little bit tired about those things. But he's very calm and he's got a good manager who protects him very well, so that he's going on a straight way."

Against the Netherlands in July, Ronaldo had been close to his best, constantly embarrassing Frank de Boer, Jaap Stam and Philip Cocu, and scoring a brilliant opening goal 16 seconds into the second half. Yet five days later he become invisible. "To this day," Winter said, "I don't know what happened. He played great against us, at a time when we were completely convinced that we were going to win the World Cup. So I was certainly surprised when I saw what happened to him in the final." Had they spoken about that when the Internazionale players reconvened at the start of the season? "No, he spoke with the doctor and the trainer. They're his private problems. I couldn't tell you exactly what happened."

HE RISES from the stretcher and tries his weight on the injured leg. Gesturing to Djorkaeff, he accepts the ball from a short free-kick and blasts it angrily over the Roma bar. Pulling his right stocking over the knee-cap, as if to coddle it, he walks thoughtfully back to the half-way line.

Until that moment Ronaldo has threatened to devastate the visitors' defence every time the ball is near him. But now he is moving with less alacrity, refusing to challenge his marker for high balls. Early in the second half he misses a fine chance to equalise Paulo Sergio's strike for Roma when he stabs a shot weakly wide after being put through by Baggio, who has been on the field less than a minute.

"The worst is over," Ronaldo had announced before the Roma match. "I'm feeling strong again. The goal in Udine gave me a lot of joy. It gave me back the confidence that I need so much, because I've been going through a period of self-doubt as a result of the injury. Now I'm not afraid any more. I'm no longer worried that I might need surgery. Dr Volpi [the club doctor] told me that it wouldn't be an easy thing to treat, but that I wasn't to worry. He promised me that I wouldn't need an operation and he was right. I calmed down after he took me to a specialist in France who confirmed the diagnosis. As for next year, I'm just hoping to get back to 100 per cent, and then we'll see. After what I've been through I just want to play, and to win, and to score goals."

Baggio's arrival is the catalyst for an Internazionale spree of four goals in half an hour, their task eased by the expulsion of Petruzzi, given a second yellow card for tripping the substitute with the scores level at 1-1. Three minutes later Zamorano puts the home side ahead, allowing Lucescu to remove Ronaldo from the action while the rest of the team finish the job of sending the supporters off for the two-week break in a good mood, their team having vaulted over Roma to take fourth place in the table, and looking forward to the European Cup meetings with Manchester United in March.

As Ronaldo leaves the pitch and walks straight out through the San Siro tunnel to the dressing room, his departure looks like a precaution. It turns out he has a plane to catch. By the time Lucescu emerges to give his thoughts on the victory, Ronaldo is on his way home to Rio for a week's intensive physiotherapy with Nilton Petroni.

"I see 1998 as a positive year, even though it's been a difficult one," he had said at La Pinetina, "I didn't win the Italian championship, the World Cup, or the Ballon d'Or. But I'm feeling better all the time. The knee trouble has almost completely gone and now it's reduced to just a little irritation. Nothing serious."

The year of learning how to suffer may be over. But for the world's most visible 22-year-old, the year of repaying faith, hope and investment is about to begin.