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Black History Month: O Fenomeno

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He’s one of the greatest strikers ever, and he could beat you in every single way.

Soccer World Cup Final 2002: Brazil vs Germany - Ronaldo cheers Photo by Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images

If you were born in the 1990s or early 2000s and wanted to play at striker, there was one player who was more prolific than the rest. He set records, he won trophies, and he could beat you from anywhere on the field in a matter of seconds, finishing with surgical precision. He, in short, was phenomenal, and that’s why he carried that nickname for his career. This is the story of Ronaldo.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Ronaldo loved soccer so much, he quit school when he was 11—shortly after his parents separated—to pursue a professional career. His classroom was the streets of Rio and the futsal courts where he lived. He joined his first futsal team when he was 12 years and led the league in his first season with 166 goals. He got his first soccer agents when he was 13, and after a few years, he was picked up by Brazilian powerhouse Cruziero.

He made his professional debut in May 1993 for Cruzeiro against Caldense, and it didn’t take long for him to make his presence felt. In November 1993, he scored 5 goals in a match against Bahia, and that’s when Brazil began to take notice. He made his debut for the Brazilian national team on March 23, 1994 against Argentina, and he scored his first international goal against Iceland in a match just two months later.

Ronaldo spent 2 seasons at Cruzeiro, scoring 44 goals in 47 appearances. He made Brazil’s roster for the 1994 World Cup, which the team won. He didn’t appear in any matches, but as a 17-year-old, he was coveted by many of Europe’s best teams. He ended up signing with PSV Eindhoven. At PSV, he dominated everyone, scoring 54 goals in 57 matches. After 2 seasons, Barcelona broke out their wallets and broke the transfer record to bring Ronaldo to the Camp Nou. In 1 year, Ronaldo scored 47 goals in 49 matches across all competitions. He won the Pichichi Trophy (La Liga’s Golden Boot) and helped Barcelona to the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Supercopa. At age 20, he was named FIFA World Player of the Year, the youngest player ever to win the award. After that season, Inter Milan broke the transfer record again to bring Ronaldo to the San Siro.

It was during that time that Ronaldo became “O Fenomeno,” and for the national team, he scored 15 goals in 20 matches in 1997. He entered the 1998 World Cup as the most feared striker on earth, and Brazil had expectations to win it all for the 2nd straight time. Brazil stormed all the way to the final, where they would meet hosts France. However, hours before the match, Ronaldo suffered a seizure. Brazil removed Ronaldo initially from the starting lineup, which stunned the entire world. However, shortly after that, he was reinstated into the lineup. He wasn’t the same, looking tired and playing like the shell of himself. France would go on to torch Brazil, winning their first World Cup in front of their home fans. Still, Ronaldo would go home with the Golden Ball and later win his 2nd World Player of the Year award, but the circumstances surrounding that World Cup final remains one of the great mysteries in world soccer history.

Ronaldo would remain at Inter for 4 more seasons, but they were marred by injuries. Recurring injuries to his knee would sideline him for the entire 2000-2001 season, but he came back with force. He excelled in 2002, destroying the entire world in the 2002 World Cup. He scored 8 goals in the tournament to lead Brazil to its 5th World Cup title, and he was once again named the FIFA World Player of the Year. He then secured a move from Inter to Real Madrid.

Once again, he dominated La Liga, but this time it was in the white kit as one of the crown jewels of Los Galácticos. He scored 104 goals for Real Madrid in 4 seasons at the Santiago Bernabéu, winning everything possible for Madrid except the Champions League. While he was with Real, he continued to torch everyone on the international level. He was a star for Brazil during the 2006 World Cup, where he eventually set the record for most World Cup goals all-time (his record was later broken by Miroslav Klose).

After the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo’s time with the national team was basically done. He suffered through a couple injury-filled seasons with AC Milan before returning home to Brazil to play for Corinthians in 2009. There, he had a mini-revival, scoring 35 goals in 2 seasons before crowded stadiums of adoring fans. Brazilians called for his return to the national team, and in 2011, Ronaldo got one final sendoff on June 7th in a friendly against Romania. He ended his international career with 62 goals in 98 matches.

Ronaldo’s success was based on the fact that he could play from anywhere on the field. He could hold up possession, turn and find a teammate with a pinpoint pass or cross, and he could shoot up the field like he was shot out of a cannon. He was powerful, could dribble into space, and finish with precision most people could only dream of having. Because of that combination of skill, he could explode past defenders or freak them out of their shoes, leaving them to lay in the dust as he sped towards goal. He was beloved and respected by his peers, as he did everything others could but somehow on another level. When the world’s best was in 5th gear, he found a way to go in 7th. If someone was strong on the ball, he was stronger. The best couldn’t hang with Ronaldo in his prime, and that’s why he was a talent the likes we may never see again.

His list of accolades is so long, it could stretch across an ocean. He was a 3-time FIFA World Player of the Year, won several Golden Boots and Golden Balls, several league titles and domestic cups. He was a part of 2 World Cup-winning Brazil squads and won a Confederations Cup. In 2004, fellow Brazil legend Pelé named him to the FIFA 100 as one of the greatest players to ever live. There was no denying that. Ronaldo will forever be O Fenomeno, and we may never see a forward dominate like he did in his prime.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.