London: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima — the great Ronaldo — has quit his game.
Three times the world player of the year, twice the winner of the World Cup, the record scorer in the World Cup — the list goes on.
“I wanted to continue,” he told the Brazilian news media before confirming his retirement Monday. “But I can’t do it the way I want to. The head wants to go on, but the body can’t take it anymore.”
To the umpteenth microphone shoved in front of his nose in São Paulo, he confessed Sunday, “In recent days, I have cried like a baby.” Not a baby, perhaps, but ever a child in a man’s body, Ronaldo did something very few players in history ever could. He defined not one World Cup, but two.
At St.-Denis, the stadium on the outskirts of Paris, news broke on the afternoon of the final in 1998 that Ronaldo had had a seizure, reportedly epileptic, in his hotel room. He was in a hospital and would miss the game.
But when the team lineups were handed out minutes before the kickoff, Ronaldo’s name was on Brazil’s. It was overwritten in ink on the typed script.
He appeared, but he barely figured in the match. It was as if Ronaldo was there in body but not in spirit. Brazil lost, and Zinédine Zidane was what Ronaldo should have been.
Four years later, in South Korea and Japan, Ronaldo reversed that puzzle. His knees, gutted of sinew through operation after operation, clearly pained him. His frame was heavy, and the top end of his once-searing speed was withered.
Yet by his presence, by his desire, by his belief and, above all, by his astonishing accuracy with either foot, he outscored every player in that tournament, scoring two goals that beat Germany in the final in Yokohama, Japan.
By common opinion, he should never have started the 1998 final. By acclamation, he transcended the tournament in 2002. And by medical and sporting standards, his triumph over doubt was, and probably will always be, beyond the call of duty.
His desire overcame all things. Even Brazilians put him in a hallowed ring of three incomparable World Cup achievers — with Pelé and Garrincha.
And his career span sits somewhere between those two, because Garrincha, a fantastic wing who triumphed over childhood adversity, had a glorious decade from the mid-1950s to 1960s but died tragically lonely of alcohol poisoning before he reached 50. Pelé, of course, still enjoys global fame in his 70th year.
Ronaldo is 34, and if he sticks to his decision to retire, he has the rest of his life to find a new meaning.
He has been called by fans in Italy, one of three European countries where he played and conquered, the Phenomenon. It is a description that has fit him like a soccer shoe.
At 17, he followed Romário’s path to PSV Eindhoven. He possessed some of Romário’s uncanny instincts around goal, and developed some of his appetite for nightclubbing, partying and womanizing. From Eindhoven to Barcelona, where Ronaldo had one brief but memorable season, scoring 34 goals in 37 games, he then moved on to Inter Milan, to Real Madrid, to A.C. Milan and finally to Corinthians in São Paulo.
He collected injuries and accolades along the way, and children born in and out of wedlock. His responsibilities to the teams he played for were never doubted. His irresponsibility, to his own body and to the lifestyle that coaches tried to impose on him like a corset, was legion. But he will be remembered for his absolutely boyish openness. To meet him was to know instantly that with all his distractions, he lived for his game and through it.
When the specialists opened and reopened his knee joints, and when the skeptics prematurely pronounced him finished on at least three occasions, he just kept coming back, and delivering.
At his best, he displayed a clarity of mind and an ability to strike out of nothing that defied all manner of attempts to stop him.
His 62 goals in 97 games for Brazil’s national team pretty much squared with the hundreds he accumulated with seven clubs in two hemispheres.
So much for statistics. They tell you nothing about the joy of seeing him in action. They reflect little of the sheer defiance he displayed in playing at all when his body was breaking down.
A big athlete at 6 feet, he carried weight that in his later years prompted opponents and spectators to chide him as the Ice Cream Man or just, crudely, Fat Boy.
But at his farewell news conference Monday, Ronaldo wanted to put the record straight.
“Four years ago at Milan, I discovered I was suffering from a complaint called hypothyroidism,” he said, describing the diagnosis as a thyroid problem that slows down the metabolism. “To control it,” he added, “ I was told I would have to take some hormones that are not permitted in football because of antidoping.”
The sporting cycle turns. As time and pain at last caught up with Ronaldo, Brazil’s under-20 team crushed Uruguay, 6-0, in the South American youth event. A heralded Neymar scored twice and an 18-year-old midfield player, Lucas, struck three excellent goals on a bog of a field in Peru.
We might hesitate before calling these boys phenomenal.