Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Farewell El Fenomeno: Ronaldo retires

Sometimes it's difficult to divorce memories of a player from their off-field exploits. In Australia, the names Wayne Carey, Shane Warne and Gary Ablett Sr loom large: the best of the best in their fields, but with overall legacies tarnished somewhat by their myriad social incompetencies. The football world too is not immune, as names like Paul Gascoigne and Robin Friday are iconic not only for their ability but for their - putting it mildly - foibles.

And as much as we'd like to do so with Ronaldo, he's much the same. "El Fenomeno" has retired, robbing the world of a final valedictorian-style goodbye that such a figure deserves. His last stint in Brazil, hacked short by injury has closed and the thirty-four year old admitted his body had denied him the chance to continue building his legacy. The dual World Cup winner and three-time FIFA Player of the Year has ended his career and now the only questions still to ask concern his place in the spectrum of brilliant Brazilians.

From the time he was spotted by Jairzinho as a teenager and blooded for Cruzeiro as a sixteen year-old, there has been no greater finisher than El Fenomeno. From his early whippet-like form to his recent fatty boombah days, no one could slot a goal like him. That he ended his career with puddin' around the midriff only shows that there was more to Ronaldo than football, and his weight issues that followed horrendous knee injuries will go down as part of the reason he perhaps never fulfilled his nonpareil potential. It was only when he announced his departure from the game that he admitted publicly to suffering from hypothyroidism, a metabolism-slowing disorder for which the medication required would have contravened World Anti-Doping Associating laws.

More to Ronaldo than football is appropriate because never has a man had such a talent for high-profile mishap at times of greater importance. Of course Steven Gerrard can apparently destroy a DJ, or Beckham can tear an achilles tendon at crucial stages of a season, but no-one in modern football underwent what Ronaldo did prior to the World Cup final in 1998. In that episode - at the time attributed to everything from drugs to stress to epilepsy - he underwent the most shocking pre-game routine any player could nightmare about, yet still went out to play (understandably badly). After a steamrolling 42-in-43 spell at PSV Eindhoven, he went to Barcelona and dominated, establishing himself as the best player in the world: strong, fast, clever and lethal. Then came his move to Inter Milan and the twin knee injuries, the second sustained a mere six minutes into his comeback match.

Once sold to Real Madrid, his place in history was assured: not only was he one of the first Galacticos, but his hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford left the most battle-hardened and cynical Red Devil fans with no choice but to offer a standing ovation for his work. In the box, no-one was better. But as his knee, held together with tungsten, steel and blu-tack, deteriorated so did his condition. In former times, after partying he could work the extra kilograms off on the track and while in Spain showed less of a willingness - or, crucially, ability - to do so.

After a transfer to AC Milan and another knee injury, he recuperated in Brazil and was involved, while fighting for his European (and therefore big money) career, in an incident allegedly involving three transvestite prostitutes. Fate seemed to choose the worst times to taunt Ronaldo and though, in future generations he will always be thought of as one of the greats of South American Samba football, it will be impossible to separate Ronaldo the man from his deeds on the pitch. Which is sad, really - because we like sports stars who have more to life than their day jobs; only Ronaldo's off-pitch activities will be forever an addendum, like those of Diego Maradona. Where Maradona's problem was (probably) cocaine, Ronaldo's was just that fate liked laughing at such a natural.

Farewell, Ronaldo. We loved everything about you.

Ronaldo and Robin Friday will both be featured in a new Balanced Sports feature series: Sports Stars you Should Know.

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