I'm about to interview Brazilian football legend, Ronaldo. Not Portuguese Ronaldo, not Ronaldinho, but Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima; who like Cher, is commonly referred to by just one name. I glance at his bodyguard, and cross one question off my list—the one about his 2002 World Cup haircut.
Ronaldo is here in the Bahamas playing in PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. He's no slouch at the table, and isn't just here to be a famous face behind the chips. Ronaldo now plays professional poker for team PokerStars — he finished 26th at last year's PCA tournament. But he's still a relative novice at poker compared to his soccer abilities. Ronaldo began his pro soccer career at 16-years old and played his first World Cup match with Brazil in 1994. The man known as O Fenomeno made 98 match appearances for his country, scoring 62 goals.
VICE Sports: Do you find players are intimidated when they sit down and find you at their poker table?
Ronaldo: Ah, I hope! (Big laugh.) I hope they do that. But it depends on the cards you have and the way you play it — and not because I'm famous.
Last year, there was some player and he took a picture and I was in his picture. And then he put it on Twitter. And everybody talked about the picture because I was in the picture. And he was asking everybody: "Who is this guy? He's at my table and everybody is talking about him. " Not everybody knows me.
Do you also find the opposite, where someone is at your table and they're like: "Okay I'm going to go after Ronaldo."
Yeah, I feel like that. When I'm on the table, and I have action, I feel that someone at the table will pay to see my cards because someone wants to fuck with me. That's my feeling. Because its news: "I beat Ronaldo" - and it's big news for the guy.
How did you make the transition from football into the world of poker?
For many years I played poker. But three years ago, I started a relationship with PokerStars — and then I started studying and reading books about poker. I played more seriously and I took a class about poker and I tried to improve my game — and I think I improved a lot.
And what is the mindset you bring from the soccer pitch to the poker table as far as competitiveness goes?
I'm very competitive. But I don't think it's something about football that helped me about poker. I don't think so.
Ronaldo on his new playing field. Courtesy Neil Stoddart.
You don't think there's something that translates to the game such as wanting to win?
No. I think in football, I was very, very calm to make decisions; to score a goal. I was very relaxed in football situations. Here, I'm not that confident. I have to think a lot about it — any decision!
How does it feel to go from one scenario where you're really confident to this scenario where you're not so confident?
It's hard to be a new guy here. But last year I finished 26th — and I will try to improve that position. It's not easy.
And what would the other players say about poker player Ronaldo?
(Laughs.) I don't know — I never ask. But I think they start to be a little bit scared about me because I play to win. I'm not a very big fan of whole strategy. I just play for fun — and that's going to make some of the other players scared.
And when you win a huge hand is that a similar sort of adrenaline rush as kicking an amazing goal?
Yeah, almost the same. When I get an ace, it's like "whoa!" The hand is like a penalty kick — you still have to score but it's a great opportunity to win a hand. In football, in a penalty kick you just have to kick — and you just have the goalkeeper in front of you. Most of the time the player scores — but not every time. So when you have an ace, you still have to play well to win.
I heard that in Brazil people are growing as fanatic about poker as they are about football.
Yeah, I'm very happy because I played a month ago in Brazil, and we made a big record over 16,000 players at the event distributed in 32 tournaments.
Poker in Brazil is very popular. So many famous people in Brazil play poker. People start to understand that poker has completely changed. It's not like the old time when people smoke and drink — and with the girl chasing — but there's a good way to play poker as the professional.
Let's segue into football. What teams right now in football really excite you?
Barcelona. Bayern Munchen. I like Real Madrid the most because I played there for 5 years — and I love Madrid — but they're not playing well right now. Zidane is the new manager, so I hope Zidane can make a difference over there.
What do you think the Brazilian team needs to do to get back on top again? What aren't they doing that's preventing them from being back on top?
Ah, so many things we need to do to change around our situation right now. We will see, because of all the corruption stuff, that will change the whole football world. And we hope that can change also in Brazil the way they manage football.
Ronaldo practicing his poker face in his younger days. Courtesy EPA.
What was it like to come up the football ranks as a teenager in Brazil even before you went pro?.
Yeah, kids in Brazil grow up with dreams to play as a professional player, to defend the Brazilian colors on the national team , and I was just another one to get the dream. I was so excited. I was real young in America when we won the World Cup in 1994, and it was beautiful. It was great. I hope we can see other young players in Brazil like a Neymar and many other players. And we need that.
Did you feel pressure such in the World Cup final in 1998?
No. When you get on the pitch you just think how to play better for the team. I talk for myself, when I was on the pitch I felt no pressure, no pressure at all.
From everything that you experienced what would be your takeaway philosophy on life? From everything you experienced from football to poker.
I take everything. Everything for me is experience, is a unique moment. Poker is new stuff for me and I try to do my best. Everything I do I try to do my best!
One last question. Last year you hinted at coming back and playing football in Florida.
Yeah, for my team (The Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL). I promised I would last year if our team went to the playoffs. Its very difficult to comeback, you know, lose weight, too many problems to comeback to play football. I prefer poker. (Laughs.) My weight doesn't matter.