Anyone who followed football in the 1990s will remember the sensational rise of Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, commonly known as Ronaldo. It started with initial rumours of the existence of a future superstar at Cruzeiro, which were in no way dispelled by reports of his fine performances for PSV Eindhoven once he had moved to Europe.
His subsequent eye-catching displays with Barcelona and Inter Milan, and his explosive appearances at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, which coincided with the growth of satellite television, served to propel the dynamic Brazilian to global stardom.
As extraordinary as it may appear, the knock-on effects from that period are clearly in evidence at the ongoing FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017. “After the 1998 World Cup, Ronaldo became my dad’s favourite player,” Vanuatu forward Ronaldo Wilkins told FIFA.com. “My dad was a huge Brazil fan,” added Venezuela’s Ronaldo Chacon.
“Mine became a fan of Ronaldo when he was at Barcelona,” said Mexico's Ronaldo Cisneros, while Venezuelan striker Ronaldo Pena chimed in, saying: “My dad’s a massive football fan – he played for Portuguesa in Venezuela and he always loved watching world-class players.” A third Venezuelan, Ronaldo Lucena, remarked: “Mine also played for Portuguesa. He wasn’t a fan of Brazil or Barcelona, but Ronaldo still made a great impression on him.”
There are a total of five Ronaldos – all named after Il Fenomeno* – *competing at Korea Republic 2017 and, curiously, all of them represent teams drawn in Group B. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), four of them are forwards and still sit down to study videos of their namesake, enjoying but also analysing the play of a man whose career was drawing to a close just as they were entering their teenage years. Lucena, a skilful midfielder, no longer watches such footage like he used to, when he played in a more attacking role, but it remains ingrained in his memory.
“Ronaldo, El Gordo, is my idol,” said Pena, the powerful Venezuelan No9, using the Brazil legend’s erstwhile nickname – which translates as “the chubby one” – in an affectionate rather than disparaging manner. His use of the present tense demonstrates the high regard he still has for a player who last graced a pitch six-and-a-half years ago and whom he first started to admire after reading football magazines bought for him by his father, long before YouTube came into existence.
“He was a gifted striker – like nobody else I’ve ever seen,” he continued. “I still love watching him get away from his man. He was able to escape three opponents with a quick dribble. He had such raw power. You try to copy things like that to improve your game.”
“I wasn’t able to see him play in the flesh, but I’ve obviously seen clips of his moves, and the way that he used to ghost past opposing players so easily,” said Chacon. Lucena added: “The way he was able to go around the ‘keeper amazes me.”
Wilkins’ huge admiration for the former Real Madrid star is such that he has made him his role model, because he is “anxious to improve”. In addition, he came to the conclusion early on in his life that bearing Ronaldo’s name could be advantageous. “He’s an icon in Vanuatu. When I was six, I realised that the name could help me because it meant that everybody knew who I was."
As for Cisneros, he has no doubts about one aspect of Ronaldo’s career. “I firmly believe that if he hadn’t got injured, he would have become the greatest of all time. His explosive pace and eye for goal were incredible.”
Cisneros is the latest example of a phenomenon that has become quite common in Mexico. Following the World Cup in 1970, Edson and Jair – after Pele and Jairzinho, the big stars of the tournament – became fashionable names. After Mexico 1986, a spate of Diegos emerged, named as a tribute to Maradona. And there is currently a player in Santos Laguna’s youth academy, Ronaldo Zinedin, who takes this trend to new levels. But as he is only 14 and not in Korea with the others, the football world will have to wait for a future global tournament to hear the story behind his name.