Ronaldo finds himself with an odd label: underrated
Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima has been in
the international-soccer spotlight for more than a decade and during
that time he has been called many things: phenom, prodigy, the next Pele'.
But "underrated" never has been one of them.
Heading into next year's World Cup, however, that's the only word that
comes to mind when I think of Ronaldo.
While Brazilian soccer fans have hyped sensations such as Ronaldinho,
Adriano and Robinho (whom Real Madrid signed for $30 million to push
you-know-who for his job), Ronaldo has sat by idly, unfazed by his
fading star, unmoved by the attention that has gone to players whom he
believes he is still better than. He knows that, in time, they all will
be judged by the same barometer that all Brazilian players are judged by
in their careers: World Cup trophies, the same golden statuettes that
seem to serve as the chapter points in Ronaldo's career.
"We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only
their own pain and renunciation."
-- Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
No one can say truthfully they know what Ronaldo has gone through in his
life, because no one has experienced a career full of as many ups and
downs that have been chronicled on such a global stage as he has.
He grew up in poverty, playing soccer in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro,
signed a multimillion-dollar professional contract and won a World Cup
at the age of 17; was blamed globally for single-handedly losing the
World Cup in 1998 when he played poorly after suffering from a
mysterious illness the night before the final; nearly retired from the
sport after several knee operations that sidelined him for over two
years; and finally redeemed himself by leading Brazil to World Cup glory,
winning the Golden Boot award and scoring the final's only two goals.
As I sat beside him in the back of a black Escalade parked outside of a
youth center in Los Angeles, listening to him talk about a career that
has spanned three World Cups (and counting) and four major European
clubs (and counting) it was hard to believe Ronaldo is only 28 years old.
While he gazed out at the hundreds of children chanting his name, he
finally smiled, revealing the famous gap in his front teeth that has
become as synonymous with Brazil as the samba. Despite being hampered by
a strained hamstring that will keep him out of an exhibition game with
the Los Angeles Galaxy later in the day, the Real Madrid striker is
He has come to terms with the perception that his country no longer
needs him to win its sixth World Cup after it won the Confederations Cup
without him last month. He knows that's not really the case and plans on
holding another gold trophy in his No. 9 yellow jersey before retiring
from international play 2006.
"It'll be my fourth World Cup and I have to let younger players take
their chance," he says.
He is OK with the notion that his best years are behind him and that his
three-year stint at the Bernabeu has been a disappointment because he's
led Real Madrid to only one league title and no Champions League crowns
since coming over in 2002 for $35 million.
"I understand that soccer is all about how well you played in your last
game, and I am confident that I'll find success here before I retire
He is even at peace with the fact that his personal life -- his marriage
to model Daniela Cicarelli lasted about three months before ending in
divorce this year -- often gets more press than his professional
accomplishments. "That's just part of being a recognized soccer player."
He is fine with all that because he doesn't care how people perceive him
or care to meet the standards placed upon him by others who don't know
him. He is content with where he is in his life, personally and
professionally, although there is one frontier that many feel still
awaits him: one final tip of the cap to Pelй, the man to whom Ronaldo
has been linked since childhood, and the player he will likely pass on
the World Cup-goals-scored list next year.
While Ronaldo says he plans to play out the final four years of his
contract with Real Madrid and retire with the Spanish giants, he's never
ruled out the possibility of pulling a Pelй and finishing his career in
It's a decision that makes sense for Ronaldo, who has vacationed in the
States the past few summers, enjoying the sun-kissed beaches of Miami
and Los Angeles while improving his English. While David Beckham may
think he will have a strangle hold on the U.S. soccer scene when he
retires from European club play, Ronaldo could have an even larger
impact here than Becks.
Not only is Ronaldo arguably the greatest striker of our generation and
one of the biggest heroes in the Latino community, he is the only player
who can match Beckham's pop-culture cache in the U.S. Need more proof
than the bevy of models Ronaldo has been linked to, the lucrative
endorsement deals he has signed and the infamous hair styles he's made
popular? Look no further than one of the most popular women's athletes.
During the Real Madrid-Galaxy game at the Home Depot Center in Southern
California, tennis superstar Maria Sharapova stood and watched the game
from a suite above the home goal and fiddled with her cell phone as she
eagerly awaited the game's conclusion so she could meet her favorite
"I'm here to see Ronaldo," she said, dressed in a tight vintage top and
acid-washed jeans. "I've always been a big fan of his no matter what
club he's on and I really wanted to meet him."
Although the possibility of seeing Ronaldo play out his career in Los
Angeles or New York might seem remote, the possibility of attracting
millions of new fans in the States and millions of dollars in new
endorsements may be too much to pass up in the twilight of his career.
If Ronaldo ends up winning another World Cup next year and captures a
Champions League medal before his Real contract expires, there would be
no better way to finish his career than a final victory stint in the
U.S. At the very least, if he plays in the MLS, even at the end of his
career, the last thing he'll be known as is "underrated."