We all marvel at the skill determination and single-minded focus of individuals that achieve greatness across the sports, from Muhammed Ali to Tiger Woods and Roger Federer to Usain Bolt. Commentators and pundits today pour over the individual record-breaking scoring stats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who seem to perpetually pile in breathtaking numbers of goals and assists, season after season. But there is something that we all love and that is to see a partnership, a brotherhood, a team; a dynamic duo if you will.
We all have a soft spot for a good duo, as cheesy as that may be, from the 1980s television shows of Starksy & Hutch to Michael Knight and KITT in Knight Rider, and on the silver screen from R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys to Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour.
Discussions about the greatest of all time are timeless arguments in themselves as players are compared on a cross-generational basis, which is virtually impossible. But this is only the work of fantasy football and YouTube clips, as we will never be able to see Messi and Maradona take to the pitch together at their peak in the blue and white stripes of Argentina, nor Pelé and Neymar shining together in the gold of the Seleção, or Eusébio and Cristiano together in the deep maroon of Portugal.
The difference in the eras that these players played – in so many aspects – are worlds apart, from changes in speed, the quality of pitches, the technology that goes into football boots and the footballs themselves, even the rules. In bygone eras, the goalkeeper was allowed to pick up the ball from a back pass and defenders could legally tackle from behind – as ferociously as they wished almost – with little fear of a reprisal from the referee, let alone a yellow card.
There was, however, one very brief halcyon window in the modern football era where a dream duo, a partnership to rival all partnerships, was ready to be unleashed on the world stage. England fans may hearken back to Euro 96 and the partnership of Shearer and Sheringham, when it was hoped that football was coming home, but it was in 1997 in France where this rarity of the perfect storm could be seen.
I am referring to the gold and green of the mercurial talents of two strikers that would walk into most world all-star sides. Naturally, even their names synced, the two Rs, whose names would roll so naturally off the tip of the tongue of Barry Davis or John Motson, the famous voices of BBC tournament commentary.
Romário de Souza Faria and Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, known simply as Romário and Ronaldo, were two strikers whose very name on the team sheet would strike fear into defenders the world over, let alone both together. The immovable object and the irresistible force, side by side. Heading into the 1998 World Cup, both of these behemoths of the world game were being pencilled in to play next to one another as Brazil were going for an unprecedented fifth World Cup victory.
As with any good movie script there is always a back story, which often leads to movie houses successfully cashing in on the franchise and raking millions in the process.
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The strike partnership of the two Rs was one built on mutual respect and stretched as far back as 1994. Romário at the time was in his pomp, going to the World Cup in the USA openly declaring to whoever would listen that this was “Romário’s World Cup”. In Pasadena in 1994, he made good on this promise and, after a 24-year hiatus, lifted the coveted trophy for the world’s most successful football nation.
Ronaldo was a fresh-faced 17-year-old, still at Cruzeiro, who was taken to the World Cup for experience, and the young man could often be seen on the sidelines celebrating the goals of his mentor. Brazil knew they had a precocious talent on their hands, yet they did not feel the need to use him, letting him gain valuable knowledge and experience – despite being on the sidelines – in a World Cup winning campaign.
It was here that Ronaldo was able to observe first hand, as the sorcerer’s apprentice, the Romário masterclass of Matador-style finishing in the punishing heat of the US, where he was the one player who maintained the ultimate cool. Whether it was the calmness of one-on-ones versus Cameron, a darting move to stab a goal against Russia, the elegant caress of the opening goal against Holland in the quarter-finals, or the nonchalant penalty in the World Cup final shoot-out that glanced in off the left hand post of the goal, Romário was the pinnacle of striking anywhere in the world. And Ronaldo had a box seat.
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Read | The prized goalscoring ability of Romário
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Ronaldo’s club career in Europe initially saw him shun the big European leagues; instead, he moved to PSV Eindhoven – coincidently or by design – following in the footsteps of his mentor, who had taken the same path before arriving at Barcelona. Just as it was for Romário, the Dutch league was a finishing school for Ronaldo. After a return of 54 goals in 58 games, the step up would be to the Catalan giants and it would signal the boy wonder’s arrival onto the world scene. Forty-seven goals in his debut season and the best ever first year performance by any player at a major European team set up a salivating run-up to Brazil’s title defence in France.
In 1997, aged just 20, with Ronaldo crowned the youngest player to ever win the FIFA World Player of the Year award, the world got its first glimpse of the dynamic duo in Brazil’s famous gold and green. In that year the ‘Ro-Ro’ partnership scored 34 international goals together – of which Romário bagged 19 – and, for good measure, they lifted the Copa América as well as the Confederations Cup. There are two defining games from this period – and exemplified why Brazil went in as hot favourites to lift the World Cup again.
Brazil competed in two major tournaments that year. One was the Confederations Cup, held in Saudi Arabia, and although the final was played against relatively weak opposition in the form of Australia, in the end it became an exhibition in ruthless and efficient finishing, with Ronaldo scoring an impudent first goal. Hunting down an unaware defender like a Great White shark in pursuit of its prey, Ronaldo ran around him before producing the deftest of flicks into the bottom corner of Mark Bosnich’s goal. He would go on to complete a hat-trick but, not to be outdone by the young pretender, Romário also scored an equally classical hat-trick as Brazil ran out 6-0 winners. It was a meaty and notably equal kill.
In the summer of 1997, a dry run for France hosting the major international football carnival saw Le Tournoi held. The seminal moment of this tournament is still replayed today and was the sublime Roberto Carlos gravity defying banana free-kick versus France. This drew not only on the Brazilian flying left-back’s considerable thigh power, but on the heritage and technique handed down by fellow Brazilian left foot artists like Rivellino, Éder and Branco, and the swerve of Nelinho from 1978.
However, the highlight game of this tournament was a re-run of the 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy. This Hollywood blockbuster carried top billing and a who’s who of marquee players. The esteemed list included Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Leonardo, Denílson, Del Piero, Vieri, Zola, Albertini, Nesta, Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini to name but a few.
Italy were the quicker of the giants out of the blocks, with Del Piero giving the Azzurri a 1-0 headed lead from Christian Vieri’s centre. At 2-1 the game was on, but again the little maestro Del Piero stepped up to put Italy 3-1 up with a penalty, won by the irritant that was Pippo Inzaghi, in the 61st minute.
With the game almost over, Brazil would look to its two lions to find a way back. First it was Ronaldo, who feeding off the left-hand channel came inside and took a through ball from Roberto Carlos with his right foot, fainted a shot allowing him to glide past the lunging Fabio Cannavaro and producing an unerring finish that found the bottom left-hand corner past the wrong-footed Gianluca Pagliuca. It was 2-3, and the lions could smell blood.
Brazil pushed to get the equaliser and it seemed as if the sands of time were draining away under the Azzurri’s catenaccio-like spell; that was up until a pinball passing sequence on the edge of the Italian box in the 84th minute. The ball landed at the young Ronaldo’s feet, and with telepathic instinct and quickness of mind, he played a right-footed pass into the path of a surging Romário, who, in the most deft and clinical of movements, cushioned his first touch and hurdled his way past two falling Italian defenders. Faced with just the goalkeeper to beat, with balletic elegance meshed with the coldness of a sniper, Romário feigned a shot and sat the goalkeeper down, as if he was an usher seating a guest, before duly rounding him and nonchalantly passing the ball into the open net and drawing Brazil level once again on a balmy evening in Paris.
If Ronaldo was a dashing swordsman, ala D’Artagnan of Musketeers fame, with a flashing blade to cut through defences, then Romário was the cloaked ninja who would cut and thrust and be running off in celebration – before his opponent had even realised he had been mortally wounded and cut to shreds, and done so in silence with the proverbial ease of a knife through hot butter.
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Read | Ronaldo: in touching distance of becoming the greatest
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With the world seemingly at their samba-rhythmed feet, Nike, having seen Brazil victorious in their own back garden of the Rose Bowl in Pasedena, secured a multi-million dollar contract to tie up the world champions and set about a powerful marketing campaign that centred on the now famous airport advert set to the tune of ‘Mas Que Nada’. But a company even as powerful as Nike cannot control destiny; on the eve of the tournament, it was Romário who was left in tears as a muscle injury ruled him out of the finals.
Rumour has it that what is now known as the Nike Mercurial R9 football boot was previously branded the Nike Ro-Ro boot, but best-laid plans sometimes have to be metamorphosed.
The rest as we know it is history and the 1998 World Cup would be remembered just as much as it would for Michael Owen’s strike against Argentina, David Beckham’s ensuing red card and France’s partisan victory led by the pirouetting genius of Algerian origin, Zinedine Zidane, as it would be for the mysterious happenings around Ronaldo in the lead up to that final.
Perhaps the world would have been a different place and the alleged seizure suffered by Ronaldo on the eve of the final would never have materialised had there been less pressure on the young striker. Perhaps with a senior talisman next to him, a Mufasa to look over young Simba, Brazil would have gone on to successfully defend their World Cup title, as they had done consecutively in 1958 and 1962.
Ronaldo’s trials and tribulations were sadly just at the crescent of his wave as two career-threatening ACL injuries followed in the colours of Inter Milan. A record of 49 goals in 68 games at Giuseppe Meazza camouflages the lengthy bouts of absence that the broken down Bugatti Veyron of football suffered.
Despite these considerable setbacks, in a show of true grit, determination and sheer will of a champion athlete, Il Fenomeno managed somehow to get fit and make it to the 2002 World Cup. While he was no longer the firestarter of his debut season at Barça, brushing aside seven players on a run to goal against Compostela that left Bobby Robson’s hands on his head, Ronaldo had adapted his game so as to still be Brazil’s focal point and most lethal natural finisher.
It helped that alongside him was a world-class orchestra in Rivaldo and a young Ronaldinho. Ronaldo would lead the way for his team to fulfil his obsession of delivering the World Cup to his nation after the heartbreak of ’98, and in doing so almost emulated his countryman Jairzinho by scoring in every game of the tournament, only drawing a blank in the quarter-final against England. He still went on to claim the Golden Boot with eight goals, fending off Miroslav Klose’s four-goal haul against Saudi Arabia in the process.
A pivotal moment in the 2002 victorious run was at the semi-final stage with the game poised at 0-0 against a Turkey side that had already drawn against Brazil in the group stage. It was at this critical juncture that the wisdom of giving a young Ronaldo the experience of 1994 to draw on was highlighted as he propelled his side into the semi-finals with one clinical moment.
Donning the now iconic chrome Mercurial boots, the moment would come in the 50th minute when Ronaldo would pick the ball up, swivel and turn on the left-hand channel of the area and run towards goal with intent. Surrounded by four defenders, as well as the angle to goal becoming more acute by the millisecond, Ronaldo pulled off an audacious early toe poke with little back lift, which caught Rüştü Reçber off guard. He could only get a flailing hand to a ball that ended up in the bottom left-hand corner and won the game for the Seleção. Was it a moment of déjà vu?
Looking back to the 1994 group game of Brazil versus Sweden, a similar goal was scored by the sorcerer Romário, who also picked up the ball on left hand side of the box and would then proceed to slice through the oncoming defenders and provide an unerring toe-poke finish that left Swedish keeper Thomas Ravelli shrugging his shoulders to his teammates to demonstrate his helplessness, and Romário wheeling away in celebration, arms spread out wide like a Boeing 747.
The cameraman then cuts away and takes a snapshot of the Brazilian bench, where we are able to see a young striker celebrating with both fists clenched. Eight years later that young man would also be wheeling away in celebration, having taken his side on his shoulders and into their third successive World Cup final. Here, he would complete his mission – and legacy – of being a World Cup winner, scoring both goals against Germany to land the fifth star on the famous yellow jersey. Maybe the ghost of Mufasa is what Simba drew on in that vital moment in the semi-final when the door of opportunity seemed to be closing once again.
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Romário and Ronaldo had such remarkable, overlapping careers: both were World Cup winners, both icons of the striking art, both graduates of PSV, both wore the blue and maroon of Barcelona at their peak and both were touched with greatness. In their glittering careers they won every title of importance, including World Cups, Golden Boots, World Club championships, European Cups and Ballon d’Ors. It was in 1998 that the world might have had the chance to see an actual dream team partnership, but destiny had different paths for each of these iconic marksmen.
Despite the Galácticos period that Ronaldo was a major part of at Real Madrid, there will always be a what if moment when considering Ro-Ro – that most rare of eclipses when two of the world’s deadliest predators, hunting a World Cup together, would ever been seen. It would be left to the realms of fantasy and YouTube highlights once more to wonder might have been at France 1998.
Either way, despite their partnership never setting a World Cup alight, both successfully established their legacies as two of the game’s greatest strikers.
By Shazil Lone. Follow @shazil09