What's happened to Ronaldo?

Brazil is gripped by the plight of its portly striker who claims to be returning to full fitness, but is seen to be not pulling his weight
Click to follow

It was just a line, almost a throwaway remark, but it was the most significant of contributions to the debate now gripping Brazil, and all who care about a man who has been one of the globe's great footballers.

It came from Kaka, who was speaking after his beautiful goal, and sumptuous all-round performance, had earned Brazil a narrow victory in their opening game against Croatia on Tuesday. "The team needs more movement. We hope that in the next game Ronaldo can help us to have more offensive motion," he said.

There it was. Even his team-mates think that Ronaldo is not pulling his weight. Or, more likely, is hauling too much weight.

Kaka added, in mitigation: "Ronaldo has said he has not reached his ideal level of fitness so let's wait until he is the Ronaldo we know and like." But how long can the Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, wait? Brazil can be expected to cruise out of their group but some serious opponents lie in wait starting, probably, with Italy or the Czech Republic in the second round.

Parreira, having said he will start Ronaldo in Munich on Sunday, excused his performance thus: "Ronaldo has not been playing for the last two months and has had only two friendlies so it was natural he felt a bit heavy as it was very hot. I'm sure he will improve as the tournament goes on. He will start against Australia because he needs to gain pace, and he is a decisive player."

Ronaldo is coming off an unhappy domestic campaign. Real Madrid were poor by their standards and his difficult relationship with their supporters hit a nadir. His season was interrupted by a series of injuries and his World Cup build-up was hampered by blisters and a respiratory infection. In addition, his private life is in turmoil.

Nevertheless, an unsympathetic Brazilian press were merciless in their criticism yesterday. Tostao, a World Cup winner in 1970 and one of the nation's most eminent observers, described Ronaldo as "slow and weird". Another columnist wrote: "You felt sorry for Ronaldo. Perhaps the team's biggest merit was to have beaten Croatia with 10 players. Parreira should drop Ronaldo, to preserve his reputation if nothing else. It was a torture to see him like a wobbling heavyweight, staggering around the pitch as if what was going on around had nothing to do with him. To control a simple ball seemed a Herculean task."

Even the opposition's reserve goalkeeper got in on the act. "Watching Ronaldo from the bench, I was amazed," Croatia's Joe Didulica said. "He made three or four sprints of about 10 yards and that was it." All this after the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, asked in a pre-tournament video conference with the team, whether Ronaldo was fat (Fifa lists him as 82kg, five kilos heavier than in 2002).

So is The Phenomenal One, the multiple World and European Footballer of the Year, winner and top scorer in the 2002 finals, a busted flush? On Tuesday he was withdrawn, to jeers, after 69 minutes. It was no way to mark his 100th appearance for Brazil (not all in full internationals). He had taken only one shot at goal, an unchallenged right-foot drive from 25 yards which sailed over the bar.

Gilberto Silva, Arsenal's midfielder, who was also on the bench on Tuesday, yesterday came to his defence. "Ronaldo has proved people wrong time and again and I have no doubt he will do so once more," he said. "Don't forget that before the last World Cup people were saying he had played his last game for Brazil - and what happened? People must realise there is so much pressure on him, so much expectation. People want to write him off again but Ronaldo wants to show the world he is still a great player who can produce his best on the biggest stage of all."

Indeed, before the tournament started Ronaldo said: "I know I am not in the greatest form but I will prepare myself and shut up the critics. My personal hurricane will end."

One critic has already gone quiet. After Ronaldo compared speculation about his weight to the rumours about the president's affection for alcohol Silva sent an apologetic fax to Ronaldo.

Gerd Müller, Germany's legendary finisher, believes the Brazilian will make others recant. Ronaldo is two short of the World Cup record of 14 finals goals of "Der Bomber" and the former Bayern Munich striker said yesterday: "If Ronaldo keeps clear of injury, then he will overtake me. I don't mind. The record has lasted a long time and I have others anyway." If Ronaldo can produce a similarly sanguine response to the criticism which is breaking over him, if he, too, can live by the goalscorer's creed, to operate in the here and now and forget the past, perhaps he can turn the clock back. At 29 he ought to have several years at the top left, but he has played a lot of football, suffered many injuries, and not always lived as a professional should.

The saddest sight in sport comes when a great athlete takes on time and loses. It is most common in boxing; in team sports the coach usually saves a player from himself. In 1994 Parreira left Ronaldo on the bench as he thought the 17-year-old was not ready. Now, as he plots their route to a fourth successive final from Brazil's wooded base in the hills above Frankfurt, he must decide whether Ronaldo, who so often carried the selecao, has now become a dead weight himself.

'Torture to see him like a wobbling heavyweight'

Ronaldo was given dismal reviews by the Brazilian media Wednesday after his lumbering display in the 1-0 win over Croatia.

He was jeered off the field when he was substituted, and the reception from the critics was no less hostile. The former World Cup striker Tostao wrote: "Brazil... only improved when Robinho came on for Ronaldo, who was slow and weird", while Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil's best-known columnists, wrote, "You felt sorry for Ronaldo... Parreira should take him out of the team, to preserve his reputation if nothing else. It was a torture to see him like a wobbling heavyweight, staggering around the pitch as if what was going on around had nothing to do with him. To control a simple ball seemed a Herculean task."

Another columnist, Fernando Calazans, also criticised his similarly under-performing strike partner Adriano: "The two looked as if they were having a wander around the garden. How on earth do you challenge for a World Cup like that?"