As Roberto Baggio lifts his spot-kick over the crossbar situated in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, a sea of yellow charges towards a celebrating Cláudio Taffarel. The goalkeeper is mobbed by teammates, overjoyed by the impending prospect of lifting the World Cup for a record-breaking fourth time, ending 24 years of hurt in the process.
Bebeto, Dunga, Romário; all the big names get their hands on the famous prize. So too does a skinny 17-year-old boy who failed to make it onto the pitch during the month in the USA. Nevertheless, in a mere four years, the presence of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima in the same game will be the talk of the football world.
The inclusion of Ronaldo in the squad for the World Cup at such a young age cannot be taken lightly given hindsight. Indeed, the man born in 1976 had made his senior debut for Cruzeiro a year earlier, going on to net 44 goals in 47 games. Meanwhile, his first cap for the Seleção came only three months prior to the tournament kicking off.
Going into the tournament, interest was unsurprisingly rife from across Europe. Giants such as AC Milan, Ajax and Juventus were all keen on taking on the prodigy. However, upon advice from his agents, alongside the personal recommendation of national teammate and former PSV Eindhoven player Romário, Ronaldo agreed to sign for the Dutch side.
“Romário told me that PSV is one of the most professional and best organised clubs in Europe,” remarked Ronaldo on his unveiling. “He said it would be best to acclimatise in Europe and the learn about European football. I think he is right.” Rejecting more lucrative European offers, the likes of which have ruined many a promising South American, it represented a move based on intelligence and foresight.
Ronaldo’s adaption to life on the other side of the Atlantic was mixed. A less than ideal domestic situation saw the striker living with both his girlfriend and mother in Eindhoven. No such difficulties existed on the pitch, however, with the Brazilian needing just ten minutes against Vitesse to show what he was about.
In many ways, it was a trademark Ronaldo goal. A ball over the top from midfield saw the Brazilian in a footrace that in reality was won from the outset. With his thighs powering ahead, the Brazilian proved too quick for the defender. Reaching the ball first, it required a few more steps forward before a cool finish under Raymond van der Gouw.
His first run out at Philips Stadion was no less emphatic, with a brace secured in a 4-1 victory over Go Ahead Eagles to thrill PSV fans into thinking they had found their replacement for Romário, who had departed for Barcelona in 1993. A further seven braces and hat-trick in a 4-0 victory over Utrecht contributed to a truly remarkable first season haul of 33 goals in 35 games. O Fenômeno had arrived in Europe.
With every passing game, spectators and scouts alike were amazed by the jaw-dropping singularity of Ronaldo’s talent. If one is searching for an epitomising performance, the Brazilian’s role in a frantic 5-4 loss to Bayer Leverkusen in September 1994 is a good place to look.
Ulf Kirsten nabbed a hat-trick for the victors, however, all talk post-match was about the man wearing number 9 on the losing team. Ronaldo was simply incredible, relentlessly picking the ball up deep and charging at the defence with pace, power and exuberance beyond his years. Such an intoxicating mix was on show in the 11th minute, with the striker winning and converting a penalty to draw PSV level at 1-1.
Leverkusen then took a hold of the game, scoring three times before the break, before Ronaldo gave PSV a glimmer of hope. Effortlessly jinking on the edge of the box, he unleashed a shot from the edge of the area into the top corner. Into the second half, a simple stroking in of Edward Linskens’ low cross completed the hat-trick. There were further chances for the Brazilian to score, although he was denied by Rüdiger Vollborn.
Despite losing the game, Ronaldo emerged with a heightened profile. The travelling contingent of PSV fans, already sensing what their new striker possessed, sang his name loud and clear throughout the match. On TV, the commentator urged caution, with amazement in his voice as he reminded viewers on several occasions “this is just a 17-year-old boy”.
Meanwhile, German legend Rudi Völler sang his praises following a goalless second leg in Eindhoven: “Never in my life have I seen an 18-year-old play in this way.” To be described in this manner by a World Cup winner, a mere five days after becoming an adult, is a rare treasure, but so is a footballer as gifted as Ronaldo.
Never before had a player appeared with a mixture of such beastly physique, intricate close control and composed finishing. In many ways, he was the complete forward. “If he goes on like this, he can play anywhere in Europe,” added the commentator.
While such a premonition would become true, it was not to be for another year. Ronaldo remained in Eindhoven for a second season in 1995/96. Unfortunately playing time was to be restricted by injuries that would come to define Ronaldo’s career as much as his God-given ability.
Another explosive start to the season saw Ronaldo hit braces in big wins over Heerenveen and Twente. There were also five over the two legs of an 8-2 aggregate rout of Finnish outfit MYPA. Shortly after this, however, came a brief lay-off in October 1995, with three games missed owing to complaints of pain in his knees. Further swellings in this area then prevented Ronaldo making any appearance between 16 December and 28 April.
During that time, PSV maintained their position at the top of the Eredivisie, until shortly before Ronaldo’s return in April when they ran out of steam, being decisively overtaken by Louis van Gaal’s Ajax.
Ronaldo was to end the season tangibly, playing for the final 15 minutes in the victorious KNVB Beker final against Sparta Rotterdam. He would also end the campaign with 18 goals in 19 games – quite the record considering his stop-start campaign.
These fitness issues didn’t affect the interest of potential suitors in the summer of 1996. Despite been understandably reluctant to lose Ronaldo, it appeared impossible that PSV would be able to hold onto their prized asset. A bidding war ensued between Barcelona and Internazionale, with the latter dropping out after viewing PSV’s asking price as too excessive given the balanced risk of injuries.
Unfortunately, Ronaldo displayed his youthful exuberance when being linked to Barcelona, claiming he would play in Catalonia “for free”. He also labelled PSV coach Dick Advocaat “stupid”, meaning he sadly left Eindhoven with a cloud hanging over his legacy. Leave he did, though, with the club grateful for the two years of mesmerising service received, alongside what was a then world-record transfer fee of £12.5m.
Fast forward to the present day and Ronaldo stands on far better terms with his former club. Indeed, rumours were rife that PSV wanted to re-sign the Brazilian in 2008 following his release from AC Milan. However, the transfer never materialised, with the Brazilian returning home to sign a contract with boyhood club Flamengo.
Perhaps it was a good thing. The return of a conquering king as a mere shell of what he had become would have dimmed the memories of his sheer brilliance as a raw teenager in the mid-1990s. Whilst arguably never reaching the enormous heights he displayed in the Netherlands, largely because of the aforementioned injury struggles, Ronaldo remains one of the greatest footballers in history, and one of the finest to display his talents in the Eredivisie.
Those who watched him at his mystifying pomp for Barcelona and then Inter will testify to how, on his day, he was unplayable. Going on to claim multiple Ballon d’Ors and play in two World Cup finals, by comparison one could look at Ronaldo’s lack of honours at PSV and cry foul of his time in the Netherlands. There is, however, far more to this spell than silverware.
What those two years in Eindhoven represent is the growth of an otherworldly talent. For 24 months the Eredivisie became Ronaldo’s playground, as a buck-toothed Brazilian boy effortlessly found his footing in world football’s most scrutinising arena. The first landing of O Fenômeno on European shores, within a few short years it had swept across the entire continent.
By James Kelly @jkell403