Girls, goals, fits and flair: Ronaldo, one of the greats, makes tearful exit

The double World Cup-winner whom Bobby Robson called 'a god' has retired. Robin Scott-Elliot reflects on an extraordinary career

"The time is up, but it was nice dammit." As a valediction it will not be recorded as one of history's great farewells, yet the man who delivered it deserves to be ushered into any modern footballing hall of fame. In the two years since he went back to Brazil, Ronaldo's career has dwindled towards yesterday's inevitable decision but it is for two World Cup wins and a record number of finals goals scored through a unique combination of rampaging, bullish running blended with the skills characteristic of his countrymen for which he should be remembered – a player once described by Bobby Robson as "a god."

Recent memories conjure images of an overweight, ponderous and frequently peripheral figure as matches hurried by him. It earned Ronaldo the opprobrium of the Corinthian support, the Sao Paulo club where the boy from Rio had chosen to return home to on New Year's Day 2009. Such were the level of threats and abuse, and their escalation in the wake of the club's exit from the Libertadores Cup that the 34-year-old has abandoned his plan to play until the end of the year. "I can't take it any more," said Ronaldo. "I wanted to carry on, but I can't. My body aches. The head wants to continue, but the body can't take much more."

Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima has often divided opinion, as much at home as abroad and never more so than in the build-up to the 1998 World Cup final. Then the game's brightest star, he suffered some sort of fit on the morning of the game in front of his room-mate Roberto Carlos but still played that night only to have no impact on a game Brazil lost easily to the hosts, France. What happened, and why he still played, has never been satisfactorily explained even after a congressional inquiry back in Brazil.

Four years later it all came right for both player and country; Ronaldo won the Golden Boot and Brazil a record fifth World Cup. Another World Cup winners' medal followed in four years, but by then he was already restricted by the knee problems that were to dog his career. He had long spells out of the game and his weight ballooned. There were other, off-field, distractions too – notably a bizarre involvement with a trio of transvestite prostitutes two years ago – that saw his career dispersed into a series of cameos; a hat-trick at Old Trafford for Real Madrid in 2003 the perfect illustration of what he could still do given a prevailing wind.

He departed Old Trafford that night to a standing ovation having single-handedly taken Real through the tie, but perhaps the first Englishmen to truly appreciate his talents was Robson, who signed him for Barcelona.

It was as a slim 17-year-old that Ronaldo first came to European attention after he followed in Romario's footsteps – on his compatriot's advice – and acclimatised to a new continent in the Netherlands, scoring nearly a goal a game for PSV Eindhoven. Robson was soon convinced and returned to his former club to bring the Brazilian to Catalonia. "He was the best player I ever worked with," said Robson in 2007. "He was phenomenal at Barcelona. There were no girls for Ronaldo then. No disco, no fashion, no flash cars. He had the need to be a great player."

That need was long sated, but there was still a tear or two yesterday as he said farewell to the game. "My career was beautiful, was wonderful," he said. "I've had many defeats but infinite victories."

A rollercoaster ride

Both on the scales and on the pitch, Ronaldo's career has been a story of dramatic ups and downs.

Highs

* All-time leading World Cup scorer with 15 goals, including a double in the 2002 final win over Germany.

* Three-time winner of the Fifa World Player of the Year award and two-time winner of the Ballon d'Or.

* Scored 62 goals in 97 internationals. Only Pele has scored more for Brazil.

* Played for many of the greatest teams in Europe and remains the only player to have played for both teams in Spain's Clasico and the Milan derby.

Lows

* Knee problems dogged him throughout his career. He was sidelined for a total of three years after operations.

* Mysteriously taken ill hours prior to the 1998 World Cup final against France, reportedly suffering a seizure in the team hotel. He played anyway, and Brazil lost 3-0.      Michael Butler

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