Illustration by Dan Evans
This week's inductee to The Cult is a legend of Brazilian football, whose career tells a very human tale. You can read past entries here.
In a world which seems to put ever increasing value on physical perfection, there are few remaining athletes who do not conform to an aesthetic ideal. The modern sportsman lives a life of sports science, performance analysis and personal nutrition, and is consequently expected to inhabit an Adonis-like physique. We demand heavenly bodies from our athletes, calling on them to sculpt themselves into ever more celestial forms. Sportsmen are not 'us' anymore. They are meant to be something unattainable, something inherently better. We no longer relate to them, so much as ask them to live up to a standard of corporeal excellence, their efforts at which we then either critique or obsequiously adore.
Things haven't always been this way, of course. Athletes have not always been held up to such a high level of scrutiny, nor expected to transcend the physical norm. Once upon a time, the force of sheer natural talent was enough to propel a player to the summit of sporting achievement. The problem was, natural talent didn't always keep them there.
That was something which Ronaldo – original Ronaldo, Brazilian Ronaldo, the Ronaldo – found out to his cost.
In his turn-of-the-millennium heyday, Ronaldo was the best striker on the planet. What's more, he wasn't just the best in terms of his pinpoint finishing, his ludicrous goal return, his plethora of skills and his roaring pace. He was the best when it came to aesthetic pleasure. He was the most watchable footballer on the planet. He had every desirable attribute in abundance, and they came to him like a gift from heaven. Watching Ronaldo was like watching a river flowing, lightning flashing, or a herd of bulls stampeding across the plains. It was profound and beautiful, insomuch as it was a natural occurrence. Ronaldo was a phenomenon, and he inspired the requisite human awe.
Over the course of the 1996/97 season, his first and only campaign with Barcelona, Ronaldo made 49 appearances and scored a remarkable 47 goals. In his four full seasons with Inter Milan, despite his recurring injury problems, he struck an impressive 59 times. In his first three seasons with Real Madrid, he left the opposition net rippling on a whopping 85 separate occasions. This was Ronaldo at his peak, Ronaldo at his natural zenith. Unfortunately for him, the downward slope would be sharp and steep.
Even during his peak years, Ronaldo had suffered terribly with injuries. In 1999, while still at Inter, he ruptured a major tendon in his knee. This was the start of a litany of physical setbacks, including a further knee injury which saw him miss the entirety of the 2000/01 season and much of the subsequent campaign. Months and months of rehabilitation saw him recover, before he secured a €46m move to Madrid. While he was still fit enough to secure legend status with Los Blancos, his physical state would undergo an irreversible deterioration in the years to come.
While his first three seasons in Madrid were magnificent, what came next was a sudden slide. Niggling injuries continued to plague Ronaldo while, most noticeably, his weight seemed to spiral out of control. He had never been an Adonis, he had never had an immaculate physique, but it was impossible not to notice the bulging stomach and rounded features which he had started to cultivate, despite his status as a global superstar. Even prior to the age of physical perfectionism, Ronaldo no longer looked like an athlete. Indeed, in his conspicuous imperfection, he looked suspiciously like an average person. With his gut, his love handles and his chunky frame, he looked much like one of us.
With his weight gain, Ronaldo's effectiveness was limited. He lost the pace which had once seen him tear through opposition defences, even if he retained the stepovers, flicks and skills which once marked him out as a godlike talent amongst men. He was no longer lionised by fans, so much as affectionately ridiculed. The natural phenomenon was over, and what was left was something remarkably human and aesthetically flawed.
Having left Real Madrid in 2007, his ensuing years at AC Milan and Corinthians were a personal wilderness. He ruptured his knee at the San Siro, before bulking up even further in his native Brazil. In the last few games of his career, Corinthians supporters lost patience with his performances, going so far as to jeer and deride him. When even the fans' affection was waning, it was clearly time to call it a day.
Ronaldo looking somewhat portly at Corinthians, mere months before his retirement // PA Images
On announcing his retirement in 2011, Ronaldo rather shamed his detractors with the admission that he was suffering with chronic pain from his former injuries, as well as debilitating hyperthyroidism. His weight gain was, in part, a symptom of his thyroid problem, which had gone undetected for a number of years. Sports science was not what it is now at the turn of the millennium, and his body had not been managed in the manner of a modern athlete. While he had perhaps allowed his lifestyle to jeopardise his fitness during the last few years of his career, his bulk was not down to wining, dining and fine living, as some of the newspapers in his home country had suggested. The truth of the matter was that his brilliance had come to a natural conclusion, and his physique had gone into natural decline.
That is why, more than any other footballer, Ronaldo epitomises the human condition. In his prime, anything was possible, and he was hailed as the greatest talent of his generation. In his later years, when his vigour had faded, he served as living proof of our inherent transience. Though his physical downturn was out of his control, his distended frame still felt like a reminder that our golden years are all too brief.
We can all see something of ourselves in Ronaldo, whether we're at our all-conquering apex or in permanent decline. He was anything but the idealised athlete, and instead was something like a mortal archetype. He had his heyday, and all was well with the world. Then, time caught up with him, and he was forced to face the reality of his own decay.
Should anyone need proof of Ronaldo's inherent brilliance, a glance at his early years should do the trick. He was not built in the gym, he was not built on the training ground. He was born on the football pitches of Rio de Janeiro, and that is where his raw talent first caught the eye. Though he was overlooked by boyhood club Flamengo as a teenager, he was picked up by Cruzeiro at the age of 16. Two years later, he had scored 44 goals for the club. Speaking about the first time he watched Ronaldo play for Cruzeiro, Brazilian icon Cafu reflected: "He was still a kid, and it was in a game where he ended up scoring five goals. From that point on he showed he was truly a phenomenon."
The term 'phenomenon' stuck to the young Ronaldo, and stayed with him during his first foray into Europe with PSV Eindhoven. He arrived in Holland in 1994, and proceeded to score 54 times in 58 games. Those goals earned him his move to Barcelona, and then to Inter. It was the Italian press that officially dubbed him 'Il Fenomeno', a nickname which perfectly reflected his awe-inspiring ability, back when he was scaling the footballing summit and long before he began his inexorable fall.
It is impossible to capture the spirit of Ronaldo without also celebrating his talismanic influence on the world stage. While his club career was coming to its pinnacle, so too were his achievements with the Seleção, achievements which led to his apotheosis in Brazil. In some ways, the 1998 World Cup reflected his career in mirror image, with a stunning tournament ending in physical deterioration and a premature end. However, that seems like too disappointing an occasion by which to define Ronaldo. His peak came with his next World Cup final, and it is the tournament of 2002 for which he will be universally remembered.
In partnership with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, Ronaldo tore through the 2002 World Cup like a whirlwind. He nabbed six goals in the lead up to the final, with England the only team who managed to keep him out. When it came to the grand finale itself, he was determined not to see a repeat of 1998. He was fit and raring to go against Germany, and ready to unleash his inner phenomenon. He did so with two superb goals to seal victory, and Brazil's fifth World Cup win.
What is often forgotten about Ronaldo's World Cup triumph is that, in the weeks prior to the tournament, it was unclear whether or not he would be able to play. Still recovering from those knee injuries with Inter, his participation was practically miraculous. In hindsight, that was the last time he overcame a major injury and managed to recapture the inborn strength and stamina he had before.
"It's very hard to leave something that made me so happy. Mentally, I wanted to continue, but I have to acknowledge that I lost to my body. The head wants to go on, but the body can't take any more. I think of an action but I can't do it the way I want to. It's time to go."
Ronaldo, speaking in his farewell press conference at Corinthians.