Football: Ronaldo foils Euro-sceptics

Norman Fox looks at the Brazilian prodigy standing in the way of Leeds this week
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The Independent Online
BEFORE the arrival in the Premiership of Middlesbrough's scoop signing, Juninho, there could be an early opportunity to assess the wisdom of bringing another of the new generation of young Brazilians. Leeds United's Uefa Cup opponents, PSV Eindhoven, took the gamble with Ronaldo, "the new Pele", who, though he may miss Tuesday's tie because of injury, should be fit in time for the return leg in Holland later this month.

Northern European weather has usually frozen out Brazilian imports, especially in Britain, where only Mirandinha stayed any length of time, playing 47 matches for Newcastle and scoring 20 goals. Ronaldo, a child star who, like Pele, appeared in his first international match at 17, has been playing in Holland for over a year and so far this season has scored six goals in seven matches for PSV.

The Brazilian hopes to play against Leeds despite a knee injury sustained when playing for his country against Uruguay last Wednesday. His form in the first half in Rio was reportedly outstanding, and he scored both goals in Brazil's 2-0 win.

Ronaldo was only 14 when he was first spotted in Rio by one of Brazil's most famous forwards, Jairzinho. He joined Cruzeiro and immediately impressed with his ball control. At 16 he played for the Brazilian national junior team and was their leading scorer in the 1993 South American championship. His breakthrough at club and international level came early - he was soon playing in Cruzeiro's first team and became a full international shortly before the World Cup last year.

His reputation had already spread to Europe, with Real Madrid, Frankfurt and PSV wanting to sign him before the World Cup, all knowing that his value could go up alarmingly if he proved a success. As it was he remained third in line to Bebeto and Romario in the Brazilian striking order and never got off the bench, but PSV, who had Romario with them for five years, still had to pay Cruzeiro pounds 4m, a world record both for a Brazilian and for a teenager.

For those who believe Juninho will take one look at Middlesbrough and change his mind, it has to be pointed out that Eindhoven, based on the electrical industry, is hardly one of Europe's more picturesque or interesting towns, and it can be as cold as anywhere in the North-east. But Ronaldo rapidly acclimatised to a different game and weather, announcing himself by scoring three goals in his first Uefa Cup appearance. He also settled into league football, although PSV's indifferent defence last season often made it difficult for him to shine.

On a visit to England for the Umbro Cup this year, Ronaldo said he was enjoying living in Holland and was not worried by the weather. He was delighted that people were comparing him with a young Pele but wished they would "look at me for what I am". His international manager, Mario Zagalo, added: "I think he needs more than a year in Europe before you see whether he will stay. He is not at all like Pele, except that he loves to score goals. When the next World Cup comes a lot of our players from last year will be 30 or more. Ronaldo is for the future."

Stronger than Juninho, Ronaldo is surviving European football well. And there is no doubt that if he comes back to England this week it will be with his eyes open. After all, he was on the same Wembley pitch last June when Brazil gave England a lesson in control; so much so that, perhaps inevitably, David Batty attempted to tackle him and Juninho into oblivion. Unsuccessfully.