RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Former Brazil striker Ronaldo, who retired on Monday, was a player whose extraordinary eye for goal made him a threat even when he was not in ideal physical shape.
When he was fit, Ronaldo was unstoppable.
Three times World Player of the Year, twice World Cup winner and overall topscorer in the tournament — not a bad record for a player who suffered three serious knee injuries and was constantly fighting weight problems.
Ronaldo was often mocked for his extra kilos and not even the country’s president could resist the temptation to have a jibe.
During a video conference with the team on the eve of the 2006 World Cup, after Ronaldo had weighed in at 95 kilos for the training camp, then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva asked: “And what about Ronaldo, is he fat or isn’t he?”
Lula later apologised, saying no offence had been intended. Ronaldo, however, was clearly not fully fit and Brazil bowed out in the quarter-finals after losing 1-0 to France. Twenty-nine at the time, Ronaldo never played for the national side again.
It was his fourth World Cup and, despite his obvious fitness problems, he still managed to score three goals, taking his career total to 15 at the finals and beating the previous record held by Gerd Mueller.
He burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old with Cruzeiro, scoring 12 goals in 14 appearances including an amazing effort against Boca Juniors when he dribbled through the entire defence.
Included in Brazil’s squad for the 1994 World Cup, he did not play but still took home a winner’s medal.
By 1996 he had reached Barcelona, where he scored 47 goals in 49 outings. Still only 20, he become the youngest winner of FIFA’s World Player of the Year, an award he retained the following year.
When the 1998 World Cup came around, Ronaldo, who had helped Brazil win the Copa America in 1997 and was now with Inter Milan, the expectations were huge.
His emergence had coincided with a new era of commercialism in the sport, Brazil had signed a multi-million dollar contract with Nike while the player became one of the planet’s most photographed personalities.
There was Ronaldo driving his new car, Ronaldo in Hong Kong, Ronaldo opening his new bar, Ronaldo taking a helicopter to go shopping during the Copa America in Paraguay.
At the same time, Ronaldo was lending his name to a host of products in return for millions of dollars in sponsorship. Somehow, he found time to play football.
Brazilian commentators began wondering whether it was not all too much for a player who was only 21 at the time, and they appeared to get their answer at the World Cup final against France.
Hours before the game, Ronaldo — who had scored four goals in the tournament — had what his team mates described at the time as a convulsive attack at the team hotel and was rushed to hospital.
Despite this, he played in an apparent daze and France strolled to a 3-0 win. Many feel the episode has never been properly explained.
Then came the knee injuries. The first was in 1999 and sidelined him for five months. The hammer blow came when he suffered a new injury on the same right knee. Many felt his career was over.
In his absence, Brazil struggled to qualify for the 2002 World Cup but they squeezed in after Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as coach for the last few games.
Ronaldo had played a few matches for Inter Milan, yet Scolari — defying public opinion — showed tremendous faith and took him to Japan and South Korea.
He was rewarded as a resurgent Ronaldo scored eight goals - although one was clearly a Costa Rican own goal which FIFA re-awarded on Ronaldo’s personal appeal - and led Brazil to a fifth world title nobody had imagined possible.
That was to be the high point of Ronaldo’s career. Since then, he has moved to Real Madrid, back to Italy to play for AC Milan, and finally to Corinthians in Brazil.
He suffered another knee injury with AC Milan and, although he again showed tremendous resilience in bouncing back, he has never regained full fitness and has continued to suffer jibes about his weight.
His private life got plenty of publicity, whether he liked it or not. He first marriage was with Milene Rodrigues, whose talent of keeping a ball in the air had earned her the nickname “the Queen of the Keep-ups,” and they had a son, Ronald.
He later married Daniela Cicarelli at a French chateaux in 2005, but they split up three months later.
The most publicised incident came three years ago when police said Ronaldo went to a love motel in Rio de Janeiro with three call girls, only to find out they were transvestites.
“Behind the personality which I carry, I’m a normal person and I have my weaknesses and my fears,” he said.
Ronaldo had planned to carry on until the end of year, hoping to win the Libertadores Cup - the South American equivalent of the Champions League — with Corinthians.
But a shock elimination against provincial Colombian side Deportes Tolima and a hostile reception from the supporters, who repeated the “fat” jibe, hastened his decision.
Writing by Brian Homewood; editing by Justin Palmer