This feature is part of The Football Italia Years
RONALDO WAS MORE force of nature than footballer. He was an irrepressible dribbler, a powerful runner and an unerringly precise finisher. In Italy, the term ‘fantasista’ is strictly reserved for playmakers, but it also applied to this Brazilian striker, who was pure fantasy. Indeed, his combination of blazing speed and stocky build was something usually seen only in virtual reality.
He was the PlayStation attacker every gamer has created, at one point or another, just to see what it would feel like for someone so unstoppable to exist on a pitch. Opponents could only watch and hope, defenders were rendered obsolete. Ronaldo, in his prime, was a collective footballing hallucination made real.
However, on 12 April 2000 he looked devastatingly human. After months out through injury, he returned to the field of play that day in order to try to turn around a game. Inter Milan were trailing Lazio by two goals to one in the Coppa Italia final first leg and they needed their superstar. But, while no mere marker could prevent him from scoring, his own body could.
Receiving a flick-on, Ronaldo looked to run at the Lazio defence. Expectations rose as this icon, this irresistible force, began to gain momentum. The ball was at his feet and the penalty box was near, which meant, in all likelihood, that a goal loomed on the horizon. For Inter fans, these moments signalled hope. But as soon as dreams of an equaliser had appeared they faded away again amid a heartbreaking sight.
Having motioned to turn right, Ronaldo’s right knee buckled. He fell swiftly to the ground clutching his right leg, crying in pain. Immediately, the Lazio players who seconds before had feared him sought to help him, waving their arms in the air for medical assistance. As Ronaldo was carried off on a stretcher, Interisti hope was definitively crushed.
Inter lost 2-1.
AC Milan were the team to beat in Italy throughout the early-to-mid-1990s. Following their retention of the European Cup in 1990 under Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello took the reins in 1991 and implemented a functional yet thrilling style of play that saw them win three successive Scudetti and dismantle Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final. And, after a rude interruption by Marcello Lippi’s Juventus in 1995, they returned to the top of the Serie A hierarchy the following year.
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Not only did Capello’s Milan have one of the finest back fours of all-time, replete with Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, but they were showered by foreign stars courtesy of Silvio Berlusconi’s millions. Marcel Desailly relentlessly patrolled the midfield, Zvonimir Boban created and Dejan Savićević worked his magic between the lines. The Rossoneri had it all, and their great city rivals could only look on enviously.
Inter were the ‘other’ Milanese team during this period, their form wavering erratically as they bounced from title tilt to mid-table nothingness with disconcerting speed. However, in 1995, Massimo Moratti became president of the club and, in a bid to rejuvenate the ailing giant, spent big in the transfer market.
Paul Ince was one of the first to arrive, signing from Manchester United, and over the following two years the Englishman was joined by a procession of exciting new players. Inter brought in the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, Iván Zamorano, Aron Winter, Nwankwo Kanu, Benoît Cauet and Diego Simeone in their attempts to compete once again for the Scudetto.
And then there was Ronaldo.
At just 20 years of age, the Brazilian was already of international renown by the time Inter paid a world record transfer fee of £13.2 million to take him from Barcelona in June 1997. In all competitions during his one year with the Catalan giants, he scored 47 goals in 49 games, building on the 54 in 57 outings for PSV Eindhoven in the two years prior. On top of that, he had been crowned FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996, becoming the youngest ever recipient of the award.
Ronaldo wasn’t simply a signing; he was a statement. At a time when many of the finest players from around the world found themselves in Serie A, the very best had chosen Inter as his next destination. The misfortune was over, the gloom had been lifted. Moratti had financed the deal to end the waiting, Inter would be Milan’s ‘other’ team no longer. No more would they feel the need to curse Berlusconi, an alleged Interista, for financing Milan’s domestic hegemony. The tables, it appeared, were turning.
The first six months were surprisingly predictable. Ronaldo scored goals, and lots of them. And Inter won games, regularly. The Nerazzurri went undefeated for the opening 12 fixtures of 1997/98 and, at the halfway point of the campaign, were one point behind Juventus in the race for the title. Furthermore, they had beaten their rivals from Turin at the San Siro thanks to a strike from Djorkaeff. The provider of the goal? Ronaldo. Shrugging off Paolo Montero and evading a lunge from Ciro Ferrara, his cross left his French team-mate with the easiest of finishes.
Luigi Simoni, appointed head coach in the summer of 1997, had galvanised the team, building a fast, reactive, counter-attacking unit with Ronaldo as his attacking hub. ‘Il Fenomeno’ was the only Inter player instructed not to get behind the ball in the defensive phase, acting as a beacon for Inter’s attacking transitions with his pace, strength and aggressive running.
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Ronaldo’s adapting so quickly to the tactically detailed, defensively resolute confines of calcio was noteworthy, as was his ability to carry the fantasies of a club, owners and fan-base included, that so desperately craved a concerted period of success. His shouldering of the burden was all the more impressive considering the calibre of those who had failed before him; when he retained his status as FIFA World Player of the Year in 1997, he saw off competition from Roberto Carlos and Dennis Bergkamp, two ex-Inter players who experienced sharp upturns in their personal fortunes after leaving the club.
After a rocky mid-season spell, Simoni’s men won six league games in a row, with Ronaldo scoring in each. This streak of form included a 3-0 victory over Milan in which the player found the net with a wonderful lobbed finish. It was one among many outstanding moments in his stunning debut term. But, cruelly, Ronaldo and Inter’s first Serie A season together would end in acrimony rather than celebration.
Essentially, the Scudetto race boiled down to one match: the Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Inter. They met at the Stadio delle Alpi with four fixtures left, and with just one point separating them at the top of Serie A. Tensions were high throughout the game as robust challenges and cute dives punctuated this special clash of Italian football titans; Simeone was studded by Edgar Davids, while Ronaldo was repeatedly hurdled off the ball by uncompromising markers.
Alessandro Del Piero gave Juventus the lead at the midway point of the first half with a beautiful improvised shot. This forced a retaliation from Inter, who knew defeat would mean the opening up of a four-point gap. But, try as they might, an equaliser wouldn’t come. And, with just 20 minutes left, there was an eruption of controversy.
Ronaldo, bursting into Juventus’ penalty area, was unmercifully body-checked by Mark Iuliano having toe-poked the ball beyond the Italian centre-back. But the penalty didn’t come. Referee Piero Ceccarini allowed the game to play on and, as the home side launched a counter-attack, he found himself running away from vociferous protests. Seconds later he did blow his whistle, however, pointing to the spot after Del Piero was decked by a mistimed Taribo West kick.
Simoni and his players could barely contain their outrage and, even though the spot-kick was saved by Gianluca Pagliuca, the feeling of being cheated carried through as Juventus went on to win the match and, subsequently, lift the title.
Away from contentious domestic affairs, Ronaldo dazzled in continental competition, aiding Inter to the UEFA Cup final where they saw off Lazio. He was unplayable against the Roman outfit, hitting the bar with a scorching long-range effort before sealing a 3-0 win having coolly rounded Luca Marchegiani to pass into an unguarded net. Yet, in spite of the victorious finale, Inter’s 1997-98 season was permeated by a sense of injustice.
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What could have been? This is the question all Inter fans must silently ask themselves when reflecting upon the Ronaldo years.
His first campaign had been intoxicating. Even the most dogged Italian defences were left floundering in his wake. His dribbling style, an avalanche of step-overs, feints, twists and turns performed all at once and at lightning speed, was spellbinding. His explosiveness was a genuine wonder, but even then his body was seemingly in a constant struggle to keep up with itself.
In 1998/99, the injuries began. He played just 28 times and scored 15 goals, less than half as many as he had managed in his maiden Serie A voyage. Inter slipped to eighth in the league. Coaches came and went, and an underwhelming normality was resumed.
Ronaldo ruptured a tendon in his right knee on 21 November 1999 in a league game against Lecce. He went away determined to come back stronger, but by this point the weight of the club’s hopes, the media glare and the lucrative sponsorship deals was too much to handle.
He returned in the 2000 Coppa Italia final, emerging eagerly from the substitute’s bench, begging his body to comply with his demands. But his ascent from a very personal hell lasted just seven minutes. Floored by one of his own feints, there was a disturbing hopelessness to the player’s trauma. Beforehand, Ronaldo’s name conjured up a fierce aura. The world had looked on in anticipation with his every touch. Now the world still looked on, only this time in horror. He was prone, he was fragile and, at 23-years-old, his future was uncertain.
The striker Jorge Valdano had once likened to a herd was now a lonely individual, looking on from the sidelines. Countless operations followed in a bid to get him back to his best, but he would miss the entirety of the 2000-01 season as Inter finished fifth.
Ronaldo would rise again, but not with Inter. And Inter would eventually end their long wait for a Scudetto, but not with Ronaldo. The partnership of player and club was, ultimately, one of unfulfilled expectation but, if only for a short while, it produced spectacular results.
It’s 3 March 1998 and Ronaldo is where he likes to be: the opposition penalty area. It’s the UEFA Cup quarter-final first leg and Inter are playing Schalke. Johan de Kock watches on intently, no doubt whispering to himself, “Keep your eyes on the ball”. Olaf Thon steams in to help his team-mate. Ronaldo sees the German coming and pulls the ball back. De Kock sticks out a scared left leg, but Ronaldo drags the ball out of sight again. Then, with Thon encroaching from behind, he nutmegs de Kock.
Three seconds, three subtle movements, two defenders without the ball. Ronaldo carries on. Inter fans watch on with hope.