One second you see it, the next you don’t. A flash of Mercurial Vapor. The front of a shirt becomes the back of a shirt as you fall to the floor, overcome by Rio de Janeiro’s finest.
Welcome to the Ronaldo show. For 18 years, Ronaldo beat defenders in every way possible. From nutmegs to stepovers, flip-flaps to roulettes, R9 couldn’t be stopped mid-dance. It became a badge of honour to be sent looking for a ball that the Brazilian had already charmed elsewhere.
For those watching on, the spectacle was breathtaking. Ronaldo was regularly executing moves that, pre-YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, had never been seen on a football pitch before. It felt like he was making history with every feint.
But what was it like to be on the receiving end? What was it like to try and defend against the undefendable?
Ronaldo was just 17 when he left Cruzeiro to join a PSV Eindhoven side who had just finished 3rd in the Eredivise and were still struggling for goals following Romario’s move to Barcelona.
At the time, Robert Molenaar was playing as a defender for FC Volendam, where a young Andre Ooijer was also learning his trade.
Molenaar faced Ronaldo twice during the 1994/95 season. On both occasions Ronaldo failed to score.
“I remember that he often dropped into midfield to collect the ball and tried to get to great speed and pace in his dribble,” Molenaar recalls.
“Every time he could turn on you and run at you you felt that you were in big trouble.”
Ronaldo would finish the season as the Eredivise’s top marksman, helping himself to 30 goals in 33 games. Molenaar’s feat of keeping the Brazilian quiet over 180 minutes was something to be proud of.
The Brazilian put that right in their third meeting, netting the first in a 5-0 thrashing.
Molenaar explained: “He’d learnt to work together in the team by then, I guess. And he’d become ruthless in front of goal. That combination of great speed and technique was so hard to defend against. He was just from another planet.
“I remember he even scored with a header against me, which I wasn’t very proud of.”
So did Molenaar think, even back then, that Ronaldo would reach the heights he did? “Oh yes. I already had experience with Romario and he was from that same ‘planet’,” Molenaar smiles.
For what it’s worth, neither Ronaldo or Molenaar played when Volendam and PSV met for the last time in the 1995/96 season.
PSV ran out 7-0 winners, with Luc Nilis netting twice and a teenage Eidur Gudjohnsen coming off the bench to score his first goal for the club.
On that evidence, Molenaar was clearly carrying Volendam’s defence on his back. No wonder George Graham spent £1million to bring him to Leeds the following January.
Ronaldo left PSV at the end of the season and moved to Barcelona, where he lifted the Copa del Rey, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and Spanish Super Cup on the way to being named the youngest ever World Player of the Year.
With the addition of the 1997 Ballon d’Or award, Ronaldo went into the 1998 World Cup as the world’s greatest player, although he’d swapped Barcelona for Inter Milan to break the world transfer record for a second time.
Ronaldo’s stature was such that, prior to the ’98 final, France’s vaunted defensive unit of Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Frank Lebouf talked at length in a conversation that was caught on camera about how to stop him.
Marcel Desailly warned Lilian Thuram: “He did it to me at Milan. I didn’t see the ball. Whether he goes right or left, you don’t see the ball. Where’s the ball? It’s magic.”
Thuram, who was playing for Parma at the time, responds with his own message to Lebouf, explaining: “The first thing is, don’t get right on him. Don’t get too close. You know what he does? He uses you. He waits and, because he’s big, he can turn.”
Desailly adds: “Tackle him if someone’s behind you, or be ready to take off in the opposite direction.” You can’t imagine too many other strikers keeping Desailly, Thuram and Lebouf up at night.
By the time the 2006 World Cup appeared on the horizon, Ronaldo had left Inter to become a Real Madrid Galactico.
But all was not well. Injuries had limited Ronaldo to 23 La Liga appearances in the season leading up to the 2006 World Cup. The explosiveness was no longer there.
Nine days before their opening Group F fixture against Croatia, Brazil organised a friendly with New Zealand in Geneva. It provided Carlos Alberto Parreira the chance to try out his magic quartet of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka.
Danny Hay had the unenviable task of keeping Ronaldo and his Brazilian team-mates quiet that afternoon.
“Ricki Herbert didn’t really concentrate on any specific players. That Brazilian team was loaded with some all-time greats, so it would have been a little bit daunting to go through each player one by one trying to work out how to stop them,” Hay recalls.
“That being said, of course Ronaldo, Kaka and Ronaldinho weren’t far from the mind, being some of the best attacking players in the world at the time.”
“I remember that there was fair bit of press speculation and fan chatter about Ronaldo’s fitness levels leading into the 2006 World Cup. The game against us was Brazil’s last prior to their opening game, so I remember thinking that he would want to put on a good showing.
“Like all great strikers at the time, he really came to life in the attacking third. Our concentration levels had to be absolutely spot on every time he moved off the ball or tried to get possession. I think the thing that really stood out was his size and power to go with his unbelievable technical ability.
“He didn’t produce any of those great moments that are indented in the memory of all football fans, but it was obvious, even at that stage of his career, that he was special. It was a pleasure to get the opportunity to mark him.”
Ronaldo was withdrawn at half-time, by which point he’d scored the first goal of an eventual 4-0 win.
Of the substitution, Hay said: “Our entire team understood the reasoning. They were protecting him for the World Cup, so it made total sense to bring him off. The fact that Brazil could bring Robinho off the bench sums up the incredible strength in depth of their squad at the time.
“Having succumbed to injury myself just before half-time, it was quite nice to be able to swap shirts with him. It’s one of the few shirts I have framed and hung up, simply because Ronaldo was, and is, one of the GOATs.”
That GOAT status was underlined when Ronaldo went on to score his 15th World Cup goal during the round of 16 game against Ghana, breaking Gerd Muller’s record in the process.
Defenders can rest easy now he’s hung the boots up.
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