Fat Boy Ronaldo

“Fat chance” was the least cruel assessment made at the beginning of this year 2009 as to whether Ronaldo could regain his status as a world class forward when he turned up for preseason training in Sao Paulo with his new club Corinthians. The more subtly insulting claimed he was now twice the player he used to be. It was true he didn’t look good when it first started. On arrival at the Corinthians training camp in early February he claimed to be 5 kilos overweight. GGW had to double check the metric conversion table that 1 kilo was indeed merely 2.2lbs, which meant he was claiming to be only 11lb overweight. A quick look at him suggested that 111lb might be nearer the mark. As the photo shows, his face alone looked 11lb overweight. Surely after 12 months out at the age of 32 years and with a well-documented dissolute life style, he could not return to top level football.
Ronaldo showed a nice sense of irony at the start of his training with Corinthians. He accepted he was overweight but stated that he was on a special diet, he would lose a kilo for every goal he scored, the implicit subtext being “if I score a lot of goals they’ll stop seeing me as a fat failure” He also stressed that his private life is his own affair, that he is only human and has never killed anybody.
There were the other issues too, as well as the weight gain. Capello at Real Madrid had privately written him off as a fat lazy bastard, although his record with Real Madrid even at the end was as good as anywhere. Even in his brief post-Madrid spell with AC Milan, his score rate at 9 goals in 20 games was very respectable. But the smart view was that he had lost it, that Ronaldo no longer had the discipline and commitment to train and abstain, required for a top athlete. When in June 2008 he rescinded his contract with AC Milan after his serious knee injury months earlier, and returned to Brazil, most football folk thought that was the last the serious football world would see of Ronaldo, by far the greatest goalscorer of his generation. And the stories filtering out about his lifestyle, with parties, drinks and drugs didn’t suggest an athlete desperate to return to full competitive fitness.
The low point was probably the transvestite affair, when three transvestites Ronaldo had hired thinking they were female prostitutes, blackmailed him with the threat of exposing his alleged cocaine use. Transvestites they may have been, but to be fair they would have fooled 95% of drunken Glasgow males(the other 5% would not have minded). That episode produced from Ronaldo the classic defence line “I thought I was hiring 3 prostitutes for a night of drinks and sex”. As all but the more unreasonable manager might say “Oh well, that’s all right then, no problem”.

Drugs of one kind or another have featured in Ronaldo’s story for many years now. First there was the transition from lean goal machine to stocky thighed mammoth which many suggested could only have been achieved with the assistance of steroids Although he never tested positive. Then there was the still never completely explained mystery of what happened to him in the 24 hours before the 1998 World Cup Final, which certainly involved drugs of some kind. Then there were the subsequent rumours of recreational drug use throughout the first years of the new Century, an accusation most recently repeated by Pele.

So by February 2009 you could have got very good odds against Ronaldo ever featuring as a serious footballer again. And if you had taken these odds you would be a much richer man now. Because in the 6 months since then Corinthians have won the Sao Paulo State League and have also won the Brazil Cup, victory in which gives automatic entry into next year’s Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League. And the hero of these triumphs has been none other than Ronaldo, with 11 goals in 17 games including 2 in the State League Final and 1 in the Brazil Cup Final. Having now scored that number of goals the diet can be seen to have worked.

Ronaldo has now made impossible comebacks so often now that he is in danger of making Lazarus look a one trick pony in comparison.
He was written off as finished in 2001 when a second consecutive serious knee injury looked to put an end to his time as a top-class forward. The story of how he came back to dominate and eventually win the 2002 World Cup for Brazil, being elected player of the tournament and later FIFA player of that year, seemed a miracle never likely to be repeated.
Many people thought he showed great ingratitude to Inter Milan who had paid his wages for nearly two years without playing when he forced a transfer to Real Madrid in 2002 on the back of his World Cup success. Four and a half seasons of growing criticism in Madrid were followed by a mid-winter return to Milan, for two half-seasons with AC until another very serious knee injury seemed to mark the end.

Even signing for Corinthians caused much controversy, certainly in the red and black half of Rio de Janeiro. Flamengo, the best supported team in the world, and the worst organised, thought they had Ronaldo secured, as he trained with them for months as he worked his way back into some semblance of fitness and health after his knee injury. They supported him through the transvestite saga and their millions of fans assumed it was inevitable his comeback would be in the famous red and black hoops of Flamengo. Then one morning in late December 2008 out of the blue it was announced that he had signed for Corinthians, the other sleeping giant of Brazilian football who had almost incredibly been relegated to the Second Division in 2007 and promoted straight back in 2008.

The comeback with Corinthians didn’t start brilliantly. As well as the over-weight concerns, before he even made his first team debut he was fined for missing training after a night on the Carnival tiles. But he gave himself a shake, buckled down and finally made his debut. Then the goals started coming and the team kept winning.
The Final of the Sao Paulo State League was a two leg affair against the famous Santos Club. The first leg in Santos with their most famous supporter Pele in attendance was one of these strange games where the home team Santos dominated, played the better football throughout, and were decisively defeated 3-1. The main reason for this gross injustice was two goals from Ronaldo, one of them truly sensational. In the second leg a week later in Sao Paulo, Corinthians played cautiously, drew 1-1 and finished up as State Champions without having lost a game. Ronaldo didn’t score but he ended up their top goal scorer for the tournament with 8 goals while playing in less than half the games.

The first leg of the 2009 Brazil Cup Final pitted Corinthians against Internacional Porto Alegre, World Club Champions in 2006 and Copa Sudamerica winners in 2008. And the fairy tale continued with Corinthians winning 2-0 in front of over 40,000 of their fanatical supporters with Ronaldo getting the second goal after a fast dribble took him through the Inter defence. It was the end of a brief goal drought following the euphoria of the State Final when injury, illness and a suspension for pulling a centre-half’s hair had meant 6 consecutive games without a Ronaldo goal. The second leg was an exciting affair before 56,000 hopeful Inter fans but after Corinthians took a 2 goal lead in the first 30 minutes they tightened the game up and although Inter got two back in the second half, Corinthians never looked like losing their first leg lead. Ronaldo played the full 90 minutes and although he did not score he was one of the key players in their overall victory. So the Brazil Cup was added to the Sao Paulo State League to give Ronaldo two trophies out of two since his return.

In his return, he had demonstrated that he still possessed that goal scorer’s instinct that had seem him score nearly a goal a game in spells with PSV ( 42 goals in 45games), Barcelona,(34goals in 37 games), Inter Milan (49 goals in 69 games), Real Madrid (83 goals in 127 games), and AC Milan (9 goals in 20 games), plus his 62 goals in 97 games with Brazil. And the World Cup finals all-time record of 15 goals. While the old blistering pace has dulled, he is still astonishingly quick over 5-10 yards, enough to give him a killer edge. Streaking towards goal he remains one of the most exciting sights in world football.

Already some serious Brazilian commentators are raising the possibility that he could be recalled to the national squad for the 2010 World Cup. Ronaldo himself has stated that the trip to South Africa is his goal. He wants to round off his career with one more season with Corinthians and success in the 2010 World Cup. Dunga the Brazil manager and former team mate of Ronaldo’s, has been very careful not to rule out the possibility of a return to the Brazilian side. He has a standard line he gives in answer to all the questions about a possible Ronaldo return “If he continues to make progress he will have his chance” And the opposition in front of him is not awe-inspiring. Luis Fabiano of Sevilla is the current holder of the number 9 jersey and has scored enough goals to merit his place. Next in line would seem to be Nilmar of InterPA, a player who was a failure at Lyon. The precocious Pato of AC Milan seems more likely to compete for the other forward place, currently occupied and likely to be held in 2010 by Robinho. So a fit lean scoring Ronaldo could be included in the Brazil squad for 2010. And remember the star of the 2006 World Cup was Zidane who in 2005 had retired from international football Watch this space but he might be worth a small wager as top scorer.

One of Ronaldo’s main rivals for the World Cup number 9 shirt has also made his way back to Brazil in controversial circumstances. After abandoning Mourinho’s Inter in an alcoholic huff Adriano has signed for Flamengo giving them the talismanic leader they lost with Ronaldo’s defection. And in nearby Fluminense, Fred another world class striker, has deserted Lyon and returned to his roots. The stories of Adriano and Fred will feature in future letters from South America but at least Ronaldo is not alone. And he has already proved that fat chances can have rich rewards.

Update March 2010
Ronaldo perhaps inevitably has not maintained the incredible rate of progress of his first 6 months but he has continued to do enough to validate himself as still one of the best current goal scorers in the world. Corinthians were never likely to be serious challengers for the 2009 Brazilian Championship in their first season back from the Second Division and so it proved. Having already qualified for the 2010 Libertadores Cup through their Brazil Cup victory, they had no great motivation to finish in the top four and spent most of the campaign in mid table, eventually finishing up in 10th place. They handled Ronaldo carefully and he rewarded them with figures of 12 goals in the 21game s he played. These goals gave him an overall record for the year 2009 of 23 goals in 38 games, a very respectable and top class performance.
Corinthians fans watched on in delight as their bitter state rivals first Palmeiras and then Sao Paulo threw away great chances to tie up the 2009 Brazilian League which was eventually won on the last day by a Flamengo team inspired by the other great returner Adriano.
Corinthians had made it clear from September 2009 that the main goal was to win the Copa Libertadores in 2010 in what would be their centenary year. To that effect, they persuaded Ronaldo to sign up for the whole of 2010 with them. They also recruited another golden great, bringing Roberto Carlos the ex-Real Madrid left back with the legendary shot, back from his semi-retirement in Turkey. Several other judicious signings were made of experienced heads like Iarley, Marcelo Mattos, Tcheco and Danilo and promising young players like the Argentinian Defederico and Brazilians Ralf and Moacir. They are serious contenders for the Copa Libertadores and might be worth a slight flutter at current odds of 5-1.
Dunga, an inherently cautious man, has continued to resist the various calls to give Ronaldo another chance at international level. He did give an opportunity to the other returner Adriano who took it greedily. Along with Nilmar, now playing in Villarreal since August 2009, these two are the likely back-ups to first choice forwards Luis Fabiano of Sevilla and a Robinho revitalised since his return home to Santos. Young Pato has been in outstanding form for AC Milan this season but it was Grafite, a consistent goalscorer with German champions Wolfsburg who was pulled in as cover for the most recent Brazil friendly early in March. It would require an exceptional combination of circumstances over the next few weeks including injuries to some of Luis Fabiano, Robinho, Nilmar, Pato and Grafite; a further fall of the wagon by Adriano; and sensational goal scoring form by Ronaldo in Corinthians’ Libertadores campaign before the possibility of his recall could become more realistic.
Ronaldo himself seems to have begun to accept it will probably not happen. He recently committed himself to playing for Corinthians until the end of 2011 after which he claims he will retire from football. That still gives him ample opportunity, at 33 years of age, to add Brazilian and Libertadores trophies to his amazing list of medals which includes two World Cup winners medals, two Americas Cups, a Uefa Cup and a CupWinners Cup and a Spanish League and 2 Spanish Cups. But even if he never wins another trophy in the next two years, this amazing fat man will still always be remembered as one of the greatest forwards ever to play the game of football, one who came back from the dead three times and proved all the doubters wrong. Even now he is as good as it gets and is worth a current place in the pantheon of greats.

17th March Update
The odds against Corinthians winning the Copa Libertadores shortened tonight as Corinthians went to Paraguay and beat Cerro Porteno 1-0 with a goal scored by who else but Ronaldo. This win has virtually guaranteed them qualification for the knock-out stage of the competition.