When something is perfect, it’s tempting to think it will remain the same forever. That’s how it felt watching Ronaldo in his early peak, particularly at Barcelona and in his first season at Inter.
That was first-phase Ronaldo. Ronaldo the herd, the player who was a visceral, exhilarating mix of force and delicacy, who satisfied the brain, the soul and the gut, the player who devastated defences and, as James Horncastle pointed out on the Totally Football Show, was the consensus choice among all the era’s great Serie A defenders as the best striker they’ve ever faced.
“I don’t think we’d ever seen anything of his like before, in terms of what he could do at speed and with that skill,” said Horncastle. “That for me was the year of Ronaldo, for good and bad reasons.”
Indeed. 1998 was an odd year for Ronaldo because it essentially ended that first phase. People tend to split his career into pre- and post-knee injury, but although the knee collapsed in the first half of 1999/2000, the real fitness problems started to take hold in the season before.
But this was the year of the World Cup final, the seizure, the anonymous performance against France and the confusion that turned into a Brazilian national scandal as inquiries were held and people looked for something or someone to blame. It was also the year of possibly the last great club performance of the first phase Ronaldo – the 1998 UEFA Cup final.
A young Julien Laurens was at the game that night, to watch Ronaldo and his Inter teammates dismantle Lazio. “100%, the best performance I’d ever seen live,” said on the Totally Football Show. “It was really breathtaking. The whole Parc des Prince was just waiting for Ronaldo to touch the ball because every time he did something happened. He did that incredible piece of skill, the flip-flap where he went past two players. In that game he was unplayable.”
Ronaldo was a phenomenon that night, distilling the previous two seasons of brilliance which had brought 81 goals in 96 games, into a sensational 90 minutes. He menaced the Lazio defence to such an extent that the usually unflappable Alessandro Nesta squared up to him towards the end, trying to literally lay a glove on him after being frustrated that he couldn’t figuratively do so.
“The worst experience as a player I’ve ever had,” he later admitted. “I’ve watched that game so many times on video trying to work out what I did wrong. Ronaldo was fantastic.”
Mathias Almeyda, a defender you can probably file under no nonsense, was a little more flappable and had enough by the 88th minute (even though he’d only been on the pitch since the 49th), aiming a reducer at Ronaldo that may well have cut him in half had he connected. Luckily he didn’t, but a red card was issued nonetheless.
The goal, of course, was the highlight. Ronaldo coasting through the gaps left in a bamboozled backline, lollipopping towards Luca Marchegiani making the man who had at one point been the most expensive goalkeeper in the world look like a confused dog circling underneath a frisbee in the wind, before depositing him on his behind before sliding into an open goal.
At that point, to the outside world, his destiny looked set: the World Cup with Brazil that summer looked a shoo-in, and years of dominance would ensue. But one man’s destiny is another’s crippling pressure, both through the expectation that greatness was a formality and his incredible overexposure. Nike would brag that Ronaldo was the most visible footballer in the world, meaning it as a good thing, but ultimately it would contribute to what would come next.
Diego Simeone, Ronaldo’s Inter teammate, once likened playing without Ronaldo to going out in winter without an overcoat, but they would have to get used to being pretty chilly. By the following season, the pain in his knee that had been present for a while – the root of which was essentially because his thigh muscles were disproportionately powerful and caused too much strain on the rest of his leg – was starting to become chronic.
He went to see a specialist halfway through the campaign and complained that the pain would come and go without any real pattern, but partly from medical advice and partly due to pressure from all quarters for the most electrifying show in football to stay on the road, he didn’t have surgery and Inter tried to manage the problem through rest. He was only fit enough to play 28 times for Inter that season, barely two-thirds of the total in the previous two.
The following summer he was brilliant at the Copa America as Brazil won, but the knee was becoming more and more troublesome. In November 1999, in a game against Lecce, he snapped his patella tendon, even if it didn’t look too bad at the time. Ronaldo limped off the pitch, but it became clear soon enough what had happened and he had to have surgery in a Paris clinic. Four months of recuperation followed, in which time he got married to Milene Domingues, who gave birth to their first child – Ronald – before returning in the first leg of the Coppa Italia final against Lazio.
But 20 minutes after he emerged from the bench, as he was running towards goal, the knee collapsed, the same patella tendon demolished. He didn’t play again until the back end of the 2002 season, just in time for the World Cup, and while his post-injury career was tangibly more successful, with that redemptive victory in Japan and South Korea plus his only European title with Real Madrid, he was a different player. Still brilliant, but different.
So you can see why this performance against Lazio is so beloved. “He was unplayable that night,” said Horncastle. “He could beat you with pace, he could beat you with skill, and it was something that came so naturally to him. As his Inter teammates found out: he trained when he wanted, he would often come in after a night out with Christian Vieri, and he was still the best player in training.”
What a performance. What a player. Still, the goal in the final was Ronaldo’s sixth of the tournament, while one player got seven. “He wasn’t the top scorer in the UEFA Cup that season though,” added Laurens, triumphantly. “Who was? Stephan Guivarc’h!”
This feature originally appeared on The Totally Football Show.