Nobody does it like Ronaldo. A couple of weeks ago, he says, a fan club sent him some stats. They had worked out that he had dribbled round the goalkeeper to score more than 90 times in his career, more than a fifth of his absurd goal catalogue. There is a gasp and not for the first time – not for the last, either – that smile flashes across his face and there’s a glint in his eye again. A man you could bet your house on, it’s just what he did over a career that took in three World Cup finals, two Ballons d’Or and more than 400 goals. Just don’t ask others to emulate him, even if you explain how. He knows – he has tried.
Now the owner of Real Valladolid and Cruzeiro, Ronaldo explains: “With five minutes left in one my first games as Valladolid president, Keko Gontán was clean through one on one. Three metres out, desperate, he shot straight at the goalkeeper. After, I said: ‘Bloody hell, man, what did you do?! You could have gone round him. Anything but kicking it straight at him.’ He said: ‘It’s hard when you’re out there’.”
Not the way Ronaldo tells it, it isn’t. “I told him in that position, you can have all the calmness in the world: everything is in your favour. Whatever you do, it’ll work. I’ve never seen the goal look small, although I’ve seen goalkeepers grow, but you have peripheral vision, see it all: keeper, ball, goal. I explained how I did it, the movement. If he comes to you, you’ll beat him for speed going round him; if he holds and you shoot even a metre from him, he can’t get down. I explained my technique, and …”
The 46-year-old Ronaldo cracks up again. “And Keko says: ‘Yeah, but you’re ‘Il Fenomeno’. I reached the conclusion that I can’t explain it because it was difficult for him to understand, and in reality it’s very simple.”
That’s how Ronaldo made it look, at least. A player so good, so superior, so assured, it appeared effortless. Like he could just turn up and be the best. The personality helped too. Even now, sitting here, there’s an ease about him, an enjoyment: few footballers were as fun to watch, or to talk to. And Ronaldo can talk.
Instantly likable, intelligent and incisive, he chats enthusiastically about how goals are like his children – lots of them and loved equally – how he adapted when injury left him unable to “beat five or six”, and why false 9s are not for him, the greatest No 9 of all. “I never believed in that,” he says, laughing “and, look, now Pep’s in love with a No 9 as well.” He talks about Neymar and Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Kylian Mbappé, “the player most like me”, and addresses the eternal debate over Brazil’s style and why he could never manage the canarinha but would like Guardiola to.
Yet being Il Fenomeno wasn’t always fun. While not one to linger long on the bad moments, there have been plenty of them – and simple really isn’t the word. Almost the first he uses as he sits down is pressure and in purely sporting terms there may never have been a player who paid as high or public a price for it, a crisis unfolding before the world’s cameras. One so huge it sparked a million conspiracy theories and became a parliamentary inquiry, the victim called to testify, interrogated as if he were the accused.
In 1998, Ronaldo suffered a seizure on the day of the World Cup final. Rushed to hospital, he was there by kick-off, only he wasn’t really there at all. Now that day and the long, painful journey back to the final in 2002 – from the moment the pressure provoked the anxiety attack that destroyed his greatest dream to the horrific knee injury doctors said would end his career entirely – is told in a powerful, often painful film from Zoom Sport and Dazn studios.
There is a scene in The Phenomenon in which he and roommate Roberto Carlos talk about that day. “How long was I out for?” Ronaldo asks. “Three minutes,” he is told.
Ronaldo doesn’t remember any of it. Nor did he truly appreciate what it was and what followed made things worse; aided by therapy over the past two years, with the film too, he understands better now. When the director, Duncan McMath, took the final cut to London to show him, Ronaldo cried. “I didn’t understand why so many bad things were happening to me,” he says. “If everyone loves me, I’m a good person, honest, funny sometimes, why? It was so hard. The decisions someone so young, just 22, had to take. All the pressure, and without psychological help.
“It wasn’t something really talked about, a thing. Nowadays we talk a lot about the mental health of sports people. In that era, we were gladiators: they threw us into the arena and let’s see who comes out alive. The pressure pushed me ever further down. You’re so young you don’t know how to manage it. It has a cost. I’ve learned talking by taking hostias [hits]. It was hard, but it was beautiful.”
Because four years later, he was in another final. Brazil had faced England en route to redemption – “Ronaldinho always says, very convinced, that he wanted to put that shot there but he tried it again 10 times for TV and didn’t hit one,” Ronaldo laughs – and although Michael Owen’s goal “frightened us”, they beat Sven-Göran Eriksson’s team in the quarter-finals, then Turkey. Germany awaited. “The ghosts of 98 haunted me,” Ronaldo admits in the film but in Yokohama he scored twice, making Brazil world champions.
On 90 minutes he was withdrawn, everything flooding back. Ronaldinho embraced him, holding tight. “I don’t remember what he said,” Ronaldo jokes. “I could invent something if you like, something like: ‘What are we doing later?’ It was very emotional and I do remember what I said to Rodrigo [Paiva, the team’s communications director]. He had been with me through the recovery, saw me suffer, and I couldn’t hold my emotions any longer. We hugged, remembering everything we’d been through.”
“God has been good to me, hasn’t he?” Ronaldo told him.
It closed a cycle, and not just for him. That was the last time Brazil or any non-European nation won the World Cup but Ronaldo is excited about Qatar now, optimistic that the seleção can be successful again.
“There’s been a European dominance: winning and playing well. Dynamic, aggressive football, organised tactically, even scoring goals à la Brasil. Football arte,” he says. “France, Spain. Germany are always there. England produced a great Euros. But Argentina have gone 35 unbeaten. Brazil look very good, super-favoritos, although that doesn’t count for anything. In Brazil, we want to win. People talk a lot about 82, who played very well, but didn’t win. In 94, people say we didn’t play well and, well, who cares?!
“Let’s see what Tite does. He has options up front, very good ones. Vinícius has to start – he would start in any team in the world. On the right, Raphinha is playing incredibly, but we have Rodrygo, who would get in anywhere. Then there’s Neymar. He’s got the desire, he’s sharp and in good shape.”
Yet not well-liked? On Ronaldo’s wall at home is a photograph of the standing ovation at Old Trafford in 2003, a night when he left “feeling grateful, in love with Manchester United fans”; it’s hard to imagine with Neymar. Despite scoring 75 international goals, two behind Pelé’s Brazil record, there’s not the same warmth surrounding him.
“No, people love him a lot,” Ronaldo insists. “If we talk specifically about football, I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t love him. His private life transcends football but I’m not interested. He’s daring, has skill, variety, is quick, scores goals, has personality. You could compare him to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, even though they’re from a different planet. On the pitch Neymar is one [thing], then people mix in all the other stuff.”
That includes publicly backing Jair Bolsonaro in the elections. The president has successfully adopted, even appropriated, Brazil’s shirt – politicising it to the extent that some suggested the national team stop wearing yellow. Ronaldo has watched the debates, lamenting the level, and sighs when the subject is raised. Asked who the shirt belongs to, he replies: “To all Brazilians.”
“Whoever wants to use it, uses it. There’s not appropriation. There’s a political war in Brazil now like in Spain, the US, everywhere. We’re in a very polarised moment, very intolerant. You choose a side, the other side hates you. I ask us to be more tolerant of different ideas. Less radical. There can only be dialogue, improvement, without extremists. I haven’t declared my vote precisely because of where the Brazilian people find themselves. I’m calmer, accepting of people’s choices. Everyone needs Brazil to be a better country.”
Ronaldo returns to the team, the forward line called to emulate him, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. “Gabriel Jesus is playing very well again having joined Arsenal,” he says. “Richarlison guarantees goals. Antony, too. Tite has a problem.”
It’s not a problem he would fancy. “I dribbled round being a manager: I bought the teams instead. But I don’t interfere, eh!” he says, grinning. “Managing never attracted me, no, no: zero, zero, zero. I love football but the idea of being a coach kills me, always killed me. A player does what he has to, goes home, that’s it. A coach has 25 guys – young, bastards, sons of bitches – all wanting to screw you. Unthinkable. Never. But I admire them, their love for football. I love football but couldn’t put up with that; they were born for it.”
Ronaldo is not so sure Tite will walk after the World Cup, despite reports Guardiola had been offered the job and that a non-Brazilian could take the seleção for the first time. The idea divides but Ronaldo insists: “I would love it. A European not just with the Brazilian national team but the entire Brazilian football industry. A Pep or an Ancelotti could be historic, it could change our history for 100 years.”
There’s just one problem: Pep said no. Could you convince him to sign? “For Cruzeiro or Valladolid?” Ronaldo shoots back. “I have budget issues!”
Besides, Qatar comes first. If it can’t be Brazil, would you like Messi to win the World Cup? “If he nationalised for Spain,” Ronaldo says swiftly, flashing that smile. “The Brazil-Argentina rivalry is so big. We had incredible battles, with respect, and that’s the loveliest thing in football. But Argentina winning the World Cup doesn’t bear thinking about. Does Messi deserve it? Of course he does – but not with my support. I love him and he’ll understand because I’m sure he would feel exactly the same way. When you win there’s respect too: like Diego, who’s so respected in Brazil. But, nah.”
Laid on a plate like that, even Keko couldn’t miss this one. So, Maradona or Messi? “That’s unfair,” Ronaldo, who is now 46, replies. “I think there is a very, very special group where you have Diego, Messi, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Pelé, Van Basten, Ronaldinho. I would include myself. Let the fans say, let them debate it in the bars. But you can’t rank them, can’t compare generations.
“People call me Original Ronaldo but, bloody hell, there were others – and they weren’t false. I’m not the only one and more will come along and be better than me, in everything.
“I did what I could, the best I could. I’m doing other things now, important things, and I want to keep improving myself. As a footballer I can’t do any more now.”
He has done enough, and quite unlike anyone else ever. The hard way too, however easy he made it look.