Ronaldo fights the flab and dodgy knees

Once the greatest footballer in the world, the Brazilian has been laid low – and made fat – by recurrent injury. Glenn Moore reports on his hope to end his career on a high
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When Robinho this week suggested that, if he were in Mark Hughes' position, he would sign Ronaldo to Manchester City, it suggested he had not seen his compatriot recently. To judge from Ronaldo's most recent outing, a 23-minute cameo in a charity match in Morocco last month, the once-lithe World Cup winner possesses a physique more associated with the former Portsmouth and Newcastle striker Micky Quinn.

It is not the pies that are the problem, though. Ronaldo has in the past shown a Paul Gascoigne-like ability to lose weight rapidly if needed. The reason the three-times World Footballer of the Year is currently reduced to playing charity matches for his football fix is his knees. He is still just 32 – but even within the Brazilian Football Federation there are whispers he may be a year or two older. It is not just the 17 years and more than 550 senior matches playing at the sharp end of the professional game which have weakened his knees. It is the ligament and tendon injuries, two to his right knee, one to his left. Before City, or anyone else, takes a chance on Ronaldo he has to convince them, and himself, that his knees are strong enough to support him through both the necessary training to get match-fit, and the cut, thrust and tackling of combat.

His knees began giving him trouble when he was still a teenager at PSV Eindhoven, and it was a knee injury that curtailed his last professional engagement, with Milan. He ruptured the left kneecap ligament when landing after attempting a header a few minutes after coming on as a substitute in a Serie A match in February. Milan released him at the end of the season and he returned to Rio de Janeiro, to continue his recuperation, and to ponder his future.

He would not be human if, while waiting for the phone to ring, he did not also look back at the past, for few players have had a more illustrious, yet controversial past. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima came to prominence when barely a teenager but was rejected by Flamengo, the club he supports, as he missed a trial through being unable to afford the bus fare. Funds were scarce for the son of a divorced pizza restaurant waitress and telephone company employee.

He went, instead, to Sao Cristovao, a minor Rio club, and was playing for them at the age of 15. Jairzinho, the electrifying right-winger in Brazil's great 1970 World Cup winning team, recommended him to his former club, Cruzeiro, of Belo Horizonte. By the age of 17 Ronaldo was scoring a goal a game for Cruzeiro, had broken into the selecao, and was attracting the attention of European scouts.

PSV won the chase and a then-skinny Ronaldo flourished. After two seasons in the Netherlands, Bobby Robson signed him for Barcelona. Ronaldo scored 47 goals in 49 games as three cups, including the European Cup-Winners' Cup, were won but the first controversy arrived when he agitated for a move to Internazionale at the end of the season. Robson, who could not understand why Ronaldo wanted to move, later recalled a conversation with a player he rates his best signing. Robson said: "His agents had told him he was here to play football and they were here to make money. 'I have to do what they say,' he told me."

Robson believed Ronaldo had the gifts to be the best the game had seen, but feared injury would prevent him reaching such a height. It was a prescient judgement. For a while Ronaldo was the best in the world, but those knees let him down. He spent three of his five years at Inter recuperating from injury, a period which included an unsuccessful seven-minute comeback. He got fit in time to score the winning goals in the 2002 World Cup final, which helped to banish the nightmare of the 1998 final, then rewarded Inter for their patience in him by departing for Real Madrid.

By now Ronaldo had begun to put on weight. His manager at Sao Cristovao once said: "When we had breakfast at the club, every player was given half a loaf of bread and cheese. When we asked if anybody wanted seconds, Ronaldo was always the first to stick his hand up, and also for thirds ... I don't know where he used to put it all."

Superstar footballer or not, Il Fenomeno discovered, like ordinary mortals, that once you are heading towards 30 years of age it becomes apparent where you "put it all". His girth prompted a mixed relationship with the Real support, who felt Ronaldo frequently failed to pull his excessive weight. However, he could still be sensational. Anyone who saw Ronaldo's performance in the fabled Champions League quarter-final at Old Trafford, when the United fans applauded their conqueror off the pitch, and a watching Roman Abramovich decided this football lark looked attractive, will not forget it.

Nevertheless Ronaldo took a share of the rap when the galacticos policy was blamed for Real's declining fortunes. In January 2007 he moved to Milan but injuries, which had begun to recur in Madrid, continued. He had made just 20 appearances when, just over a year after his debut, his knee gave way again.

He returned to Brazil to recuperate but in April his private life received unwelcome exposure when police confirmed they were investigating an alleged extortion attempt by one of three transvestites picked up by the player – who had assumed they were conventional prostitutes.

From a distance the personal life of Ronaldo – who is divorced from the mother of his son, Ronald – has often appeared unfulfilled. He has not always chosen his associates wisely. Robson, who described him as "a brilliant boy to work with", expressed concern early on about the quality of advice he received. Steve McManaman, who played with Ronaldo at Real Madrid, also speaks highly of him as a person while recognising that his lifestyle is not ideal for an athlete. "Ronie's house is always crazy," McManaman said while at Real, "you'll walk in and there will be people he's sort of collected – everybody from judges and doctors to street musicians." He goes on to describes lines of women sunbathing, tortoises falling into the pool and Ronaldo working the decks in his "party room".

What with the injuries and the off-field activities Ronaldo never fulfilled the potential Robson envisaged. Nevertheless his CV includes almost every individual or team honour except for a Champions League winners' medal. Or, of course, anything from England.

Might that change? Ronaldo still recalls that night at Old Trafford fondly and was receptive to a move to Manchester City when it was mooted in September. Paris St-Germain have also been linked with him – and he does own a flat in the French capital.

Should he make a comeback, however, it is more likely to be in Rio – he has been training with Flamengo, who have expressed an interest in signing him, if fit. Or he might follow in the footsteps of Pele to the United States. Major League Soccer is on the look-out for another marquee signing and Ronaldo would fit the bill. His ability should compensate for his lack of fitness in a league where effort is more prevalent than class.

"After all the sacrifices I've made, I want to end my career on a high note," Ronaldo said in September. "My big motivation is the love I have for football. This entire battle I'm enduring because of my injury will only be worth it when I return." New York, whose Red Bulls are building a new stadium close to a large Brazilian-Portuguese community, beckons.

Goalden Brazilian: Ronaldo's glittering career

*Ronaldo's 62 goals in 97 appearances for Brazil puts him second only to Pele on their all-time scoring charts.

*15 of those 62 international goals have come in the World Cup finals – making him the all-time leading scorer in the history of the competition.

*Ronaldo is the last La Liga player to score more than 30 goals in a season: in the 1996-97 season he netted 34 times in 37 league appearances for Barcelona.
*Milan were Ronaldo's sixth club (Cruzeiro, PSV Eindhoven Barcelona, Internazionale, Real Madrid, Milan) since he made his debut for the Brazilian side Cruzeiro in August 1993.

*Ronaldo's £4.95m transfer from Real Madrid (pictured left in Real colours) to Milan took the total amount spent on securing his services during his career to over £60m.

*Ronaldo was named the BBC's Overseas Sports Personality of the year in 2002.

*In the same year he picked up his second Ballon D'Or award, having already won in 1997. He also won a hat-trick of Fifa World Player of the Year awards – in 1996, 1997 and in 2002, the year of Brazil's most recent World Cup victory.