When you look back on it, 1994 was a transformative year for soccer, one of those moments when the game’s history briefly shows its seams. It was the year Maradona was sent home from the World Cup, fuming and wretched after a positive doping test, and began his long slide into freakish post-relevance. David Beckham played his first important match for Manchester United, giving the world a hint of the paparazzi hurricanes to come. Zinedine Zidane, in his first match for France, scored twice off the bench and glowered like something out of Michelangelo. And in the Netherlands, PSV welcomed a 17-year-old Brazilian striker named Ronaldo, who’d played all of 14 matches the previous year for Cruzeiro—he scored 12 goals—and who had spent the entirety of the just-completed World Cup sitting on the seleção bench.
That first season in Dutch football, Ronaldo scored 30 goals in 33 matches and lit up European soccer. It can be hard to remember this now, but Ronaldo, who announced his retirement on Monday at the battered old age of 34, was an absolute joy of a kid. Zidane was more hawk than man from the start, and Beckham was more mannequin. But Ronaldo, with his big, blunt head, his toothy grin, and his improbably soft eyes, looked less like a world-class athlete than a gawky adolescent—which he was. He was impossibly fast, impossibly strong, and scored goals in every way imaginable. He’d barrel right at defenders, throwing whole back lines into confusion, then slip through the gaps he had made like a needle disappearing into cloth.
In his second season with PSV, the first of what would be many season-limiting injuries held him to 12 goals in 13 matches. The next year, 1996-97, he moved to Barcelona and turned in one of the great individual seasons in soccer history, scoring 47 in 49 and prompting iron-headed defenders everywhere to declare, generally from on their backs, that he was simply unguardable. At 20, he won his first FIFA World Player of the Year award. It was around then that the “potential to be the greatest of all time” murmurs started, murmurs that laid the groundwork for the future murmurs—you know how sports writing works—that his subsequent career was somehow a disappointment. That’s the narrative that’s now quietly written all over his retirement eulogies.
As a media figure, Ronaldo was never cool in the ruthless-visionary way of Zidane or in the lost-album-cover manner of Beckham. He seemed affable, funny, a little ingenuous, a little strange. Those qualities made him human, but they also made him a terrible fit for modern sports journalism, which knows how to handle only one kind of superstar—the kind who is entirely focused on being one. (That is, the kind of superstar who uses the media back.) It’s impossible to read the details of someone else’s experience, of course, but Ronaldo never quite seemed like he knew what to do with the cameras. They didn’t bother him, exactly; they were just more or less there.
He never learned to control his own image and never seemed to think doing so was part of his job. And so, since he never shook his injury troubles, never repeated that first season at Barcelona, and never, despite many brilliant seasons, fulfilled his “greatest of all time” potential to the satisfaction of the sort of people who say those things—it was probably inevitable that his eccentricities would someday overshadow his accomplishments. Over the years, Ronaldo somehow contrived to become the leading scorer in World Cup history, to become, with Zidane, the defining player of his generation, and yet, simultaneously, to become a joke. The mystery seizure before the 1998 World Cup final, the weight gain—when Cristiano Ronaldo appeared on the scene, bloggers started calling the Brazilian “Fat Ronaldo” to distinguish him from the young Portuguese star. When he made bizarre headlines for picking up, then fighting with, a group of transvestite prostitutes—”Ronaldo said he is not good in the head,” one of them sighed afterward—the sniggering was audible everywhere in the world.
And so, in the retirement stories, you get bizarre summations like this one, from Paul Wilson’s oddly half-heartedGuardian write-up: “His career choices may not have been ideal, his lifestyle questionable and his fitness, particularly his knees, suspect throughout, but in spite of all that Ronaldo deserves to be remembered as a remarkable player.” In spite of being the person who became a remarkable player, Ronaldo deserves to be remembered as a remarkable player. This is where you can either stay alive to what’s wonderful about sports or give up and admit you see players as oil wells. Ronaldo isn’t a quantifiable reserve of potential that was never efficiently tapped or a set of character traits that never reliably pumped out his natural talent. He’s a person, the interface of whose personality with the world produced some breathtaking moments in a game.
Ronaldo’s 1996-97 season with Barcelona was the sort of event in sports that you simply can’t count on witnessing. Rather than lamenting that it didn’t happen again, we should be marveling that it happened in the first place. Is it worth pointing out, too, that Ronaldo’s so-called decline wasn’t exactly the stuff of horror? He won a World Cup in 2002, scoring eight goals along the way; won two La Liga titles with Real Madrid; netted hundreds of goals; successfully retooled his game after twice rupturing a tendon in his knee; picked up two more FIFA World Player of the Year awards; and, after moving back to Brazil in the twilight of his career, won two trophies with Corinthians in 2009. I wish more athletes were such comprehensive failures.
What I loved most about watching Ronaldo was that—quite possibly because of the same vague goofiness that made him into a laughingstock—he never stopped playing like the game was just unbelievable fun. Two of my favorite Ronaldo moments came in games that had nothing, or very little, to do with the grim task of beating the competition. The first is the jaw-dropping goal he scored at a charity match in 2002. He and his Real Madrid teammate Raul pirouette in tandem through the entire defense, Raul plays the final pass just behind Ronaldo, and Ronaldo—casually, as if he did this sort of thing all the time—flips the ball up over his body with his heel, controls it with his chest, and slices it into the back of the net past the diving goalkeeper’s hands.
My other favorite moment came in 2008. Ronaldo, now very much in his dotage as a high-level player, made a rare start for A.C. Milan after a season of injuries. The game, against Napoli, was notable for marking the debut of the hotly touted 17-year-old Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato. Ronaldo, visibly delighted to be playing in Pato’s first match—and can you imagine, say, Michael Jordan being visibly delighted in those circumstances?—scored twice himself, including the match-winning goal, then spent the rest of the game trying to get Pato on the score sheet, urging the kid along, bounding around the pitch like he thought he was 17, too. When Pato finally scored, it wasn’t clear which of them was happier.
Remarkably, it’s that same feeling of exhilaration that comes across in the astonishing video of all his goals from the miracle year with Barcelona, as if he’d made the competitive aspect of the game secondary to pure play. Beckham made the game feel like a spy movie; Zidane made it feel like a war. Ronaldo made it feel like joy.