When Ronaldo Nazario de Lima finally called time on his playing days in February 2011, it was after an 18-year career of remarkable sporting success and more than his share of devastating injuries. While he made great use of his considerable strength and pace, it was his natural goalscoring ability that he is best remembered for.
The Rio de Janeiro native plundered opposition defences with clubs sides in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and his homeland, while at international level he was a member of Brazil's squad at four FIFA World Cups™, twice collecting winners’ medals.
Now synonymous with the game’s showpiece event, at which he remains the all-time leading scorer, FIFA.com pays tribute to O Fenômeno by recalling the evening of 16 June 1998 in Nantes, where he netted the first of his 15 finals’ strikes.
Ninth minute for No9
Brazil came into France 1998 as defending champions, tasked with winning back-to-back world titles just as their esteemed counterparts had done at Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962. After a narrow victory over Scotland in their opening game, A Seleção’s second fixture against Morocco was a chance to seal their progress to the knockout phase.
With just nine minutes on the clock, Brazil’s No9, who had spent all of USA 1994 on the substitutes’ bench, opened his FIFA World Cup account. “It’s a wonderful feeling,” the player told FIFA.com when asked about his strike against the north Africans.
“It came from a flighted pass by Rivaldo and I finished it off with a diagonal strike. It was a tough game. They had a rearguard that was difficult to get past, even if we finally managed to find the spaces.” Indeed, A Canarinho ran out 3-0 winners in the end to secure their berth in the Round of 16.
Ronaldo went on to play five more times at France 1998, finding the target on three further occasions. “It’s always nice to see those goals again. I was 21 at the time but already a seasoned player,” he said with a smile.
“Aside from the problem I had during the Final, I think I had a good World Cup in France.” Few would disagree even if his side would lose the deciding game to the jubilant hosts and their inspirational Zinedine Zidane.
In the years that followed, the centre-forward picked up an impressive array of titles and individual accolades, punctuated by a series of career-threatening injuries. Battling back from these, he would compete at two further FIFA World Cups, an achievement he is clearly proud of.
“To go to a World Cup is a dream come true, and I can claim to have experienced that four times." said the adidas Golden Ball winner at France 1998. "That means a great deal to a player and can change the course of your career, as unquestionably happened to me.”
Records are made to be broken
Ronaldo next graced the FIFA World Cup in 2002, albeit with major doubts over his fitness following almost 15 months out with injuries. However, Luiz Felipe Scolari stuck by the striker, who repaid his coach’s faith in him with eight goals in the Far East that contributed hugely to the team’s fifth world title, at the expense of final opponents Germany.
Then aged 25, the Brazilian had 12 finals’ goals to his name, just two shy of the record held by Gerd Muller. “I think all great players set a target for themselves in their careers,” he continued. “Mine was to win a world title with Brazil, which I did twice. I wouldn’t say it [setting the scoring record] was an obsession, but when I realised that I could match and surpass Muller’s mark, I thought it would be good to do so."
As well as the usual anticipation that a FIFA World Cup brings, Germany 2006 had the added prospect of Ronaldo beating Der Bomber’s record in his own backyard. As it transpired, the Carioca native would match the German’s haul with a brace against Japan in Brazil’s third group game, before consigning the 32-year-old record to history by going one better against Ghana five days later.
“Kaka started the move with a wonderful defence-splitting pass. I beat the defence to it, dribbled around the keeper and stroked it home. It was the goal that gave me the record and is unforgettable, just like my first World Cup strike,” he enthused.
One behind him on 14 goals is another German, Miroslav Klose, who as an active player still poses a threat to O Fenômeno’s record. Asked about this, Ronaldo was both frank and sporting in his answer: “I’m not going to say that I want him to break the record, even less so in Brazil,” he said smiling, “but if Germany and Klose are at the next World Cup, it’s clearly a possibility.”