Now 35 years of age, there is little that has not already been said about Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. Indeed, the lethal goalgetter’s achievements speak volumes, with O Fenômeno the all-time leading scorer in FIFA World Cup™ history, the proud owner of two FIFA World Cup winners’ medals, a three-time FIFA World Player and two-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Having overcome adversity aplenty - particularly in the form of a series of long-term knee injuries - in order to write his name large in the annals of world football, the prolific former front-man is currently a member of the Management Board of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Local Organising Committee (LOC).
Taking time out from his busy role, the man who plundered goals aplenty for the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid spoke to FIFA.com on issues including his glittering career, the pressure on today’s Seleção and their chances of success in 2014.
FIFA.com: As part of the Brazil 2014 LOC, what are your expectations for the tournament?
Ronaldo: We’re very proud to be hosting the World Cup in Brazil. We’re going to have a great opportunity for growth, which is what’s most important for the population as a whole, because there’ll be huge investment in infrastructure, airports, motorways, hospitals and hotels. There’ll be a legacy that will remain for the rest of our lives, one that only a World Cup can provide.
How ready do you think A Seleção are for the tournament?
There’s been a generational overhaul in the national squad, which definitely isn’t playing its best football yet. And I think it’s going to take more time still for it to peak. But between now and 2014 there’s time to find a good level of consistency, competitiveness and become capable of being crowned champions.
Neymar, Alexandre Pato and Ganso would appear to be the standout players of this new Brazilian generation. What’s your verdict on this trio?
They’re three very young and very talented Brazilians who are shining for their clubs. I think Neymar is the most gifted and, at just 19 years of age, he’s already got incredible ability. He scores loads of goals and has won Brazil over. The international experience he had against Barcelona [in Santos’ 4-0 final defeat at the FIFA Club World Cup 2011] wasn’t a good one, but I’m sure it’ll have taught him a lot. Pato, for his part, has already proven his talent in Europe, while Ganso is also very good – he just needs better luck with injuries.
Do you think there’s still room for experienced performers such as Ronaldinho or Kaka?
They’re important players, of course. In terms of their role out on the pitch, it’ll depend on their form and if they’re playing their best football once the World Cup comes around. But they’ve also got an important role off the pitch, and their experience will be vital in a squad of such young players.
Where would you rank the current Brazil side in global terms?
We’re not in the top three right now, but I do think we’re among the world’s top five national teams, even though we’re not on fire at the moment. Making changes is never easy and these new young players need time to mature. There’s no need to panic, they must be given time to get good results.
If you had to pick out one player to tag as ‘the new Ronaldo’, who would it be?
Leandro Damiao, from Internacional de Porto Alegre. He’s tall, strong, a very good goalscorer, a threat in the air and skilful with both feet. He’ll play a big part in 2014.
Let's look back at your own playing days. You played in Brazil, Spain and Italy, so where would you say are the fans most passionate?
I think that they’re all football-mad countries, though they enjoy the game in different ways. In Brazil the stadiums are very old and in a lot of them the fans have to stand, and support their team by jumping up and down and breaking a sweat. Aside from the heat, it’s not as formal as in Europe and the atmosphere’s more passionate. In Europe, even though it’s colder, the spectators also really make their presence felt, particularly in big derbies, which are a great spectacle.
Based on your own experience, how would you compare European and Brazilian club football?
The European game continues to be faster, more competitive and harder-fought than in Brazil, where it’s still in our culture to play a slower and more controlled style of football. The game has changed everywhere and that’s something we’ve got to get to grips with. I think that the standard in Europe is better than anywhere else. However, I think that once the World Cup is over, and thanks to the new stadiums and improved infrastructure, this change will take place in Brazil too.
Of all the teams you’ve played for, which have remained closest to your heart?
I look back at my time at Real Madrid with a lot of affection, I think it was the best period of my career. I also really enjoyed it at Inter, I fell in love with the team and the city of Milan. But wherever I played I made a lot of friends and had a great time.
Looking back at your early career, how important was it for you to travel to USA 1994 at just 17 years of age?
It was very important. Seeing players of the calibre of Romario and Bebeto up close had a real impact on my future. I was able to learn from them, look out for the small details, how they trained, how they found their focus. Romario used to boss me about, getting me to fetch his boots and his coffee, as if I was a youth-team player! But he’d always treat me with respect, that was just the pecking order in the side.
By France 1998 you had made a starting berth your own, though the team went on to lose in the Final against the hosts. What feelings does that experience stir in you?
I’ve got very good memories of 1998. We had a spectacular World Cup until the Final, when we played really poorly against France. But I prefer to remember the atmosphere that day. I tried to play well in that match, we all did, but it’s very tough to play a World Cup Final against the host nation, particularly when [Zinedine] Zidane is enjoying an inspired evening. Later on when we were team-mates he’d wind me up about that, but of course I got my own back in 2002, when we won the title and they went home after the first round.
Tell us more about your experiences at Korea/Japan 2002…
I got injured and there were doubts as to whether I’d be ready in time. But as soon as I started playing our warm-up friendlies I knew we were going to have a great World Cup. We had a really top side, which was very solid, very united and ended up being very effective. That was the best Brazil team I played in; we had quality to spare in every area. Moreover, it’s my greatest memory, because you simply can’t describe what it’s like to win a World Cup.
Coming back to the present day, which team do you like most at the moment?
I’m Merengue and I really like the way Madrid are playing, but you can’t ignore Barcelona, who have a fantastic team. They may not be the most spectacular, but they make everything look so simple. Every single player in every area of the side knows what they have to do at any given time, then you’ve got their ability to keep hold of the ball and the way they patiently work their way towards the opposition goal. The great job that [Pep] Guardiola’s done shines through: it’s one of the best teams I’ve seen in my 35 years on the planet. It hurts to say that, since I’m Madridista, but I still think we can pip them to some titles this year.
When you see them play, does it make you want to slip your boots on once more?
No, no! (laughs) I enjoyed my time as a player and now I’m enjoying myself as a fan.
Finally, which players would be included in your all-time Brazil XI?
That’s a tough one, but I’d go with Taffarel; Cafu, Aldair, Lucio, Roberto Carlos; Junior, Zico, Rivelino; Pele, Romario and me, of course! It’s a very attacking team! Everyone would be bombing forward! (laughs)