Golden Goal: Ronaldo for Internazionale v Lazio (1998) | Football
Growing up as a football obsessive, by the time I was 17 I thought I’d seen pretty much everything the game had to offer me. You can probably see how I became a sportswriter.
Around then, I was also spending most weekday evenings hanging about parks, alleyways and pubs to state-alter in one way or another, often under the guise of watching a game. So in the summer of 1996, my parents – who’d spent a decade resisting my pleas to get Teletext – signed up to Sky, sagely rationalising that beaming industrial quantities of sport into our front room would inspire me to take school more seriously.
The effect was immediate. Within weeks I was skiving triple history on a Monday afternoon to broaden my horizons with Revista De La Liga – Sol! Soool! Sol Sol! Sooooooooool!– and it was here that I got to know Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.
Like lots of people, I’d first clapped eyes on him in 1994 – Ronaldinho, as he was known then, was a member of Brazil’s victorious World Cup squad. Barry Davies marked our card during BBC’s coverage of the final, but he didn’t get on the pitch and the show, such as it was, was stolen by a different youngster, Viola lighting up the drabbest of matches before pulling a Josimar and vanishing without trace.
Within two years, Ronaldo was installed as a common room hero, his alias arousing particular interest. Brazilians are famous for their nicknames, part of a culture that – pre-Bolsonaro – made their country the funnest in the world. Dunga means Dopey, after the dwarf; blonde-haired, blue-eyed Ricardo Rogério de Brit is known as Alemão, German; and Gabriel Gonzaga, the MMA fighter, answers to Napão, Big Nose. But though Ronaldo rocked a similarly send-uppable feature, his talent was so extreme and so consuming that only Ó Fenómeno would do; anything but Ó Fenómeno would’ve been ridiculous.
My first specific memory of Ronaldo is his famous goal for Barcelona against Compostela in October 1996. But that was not the first time I’d seen him, and though I can’t place the game, I can place the feeling – the shock and awe and joy and fear and laughter and love – because it’s still in me now. He could play.
I say play. The book of Genesis tells us that God blew into Adam’s nostrils with the breath of life and man became a living being. But what if he did that to a cyborg programmed with discombobulating skill, speed, power, mentality and intelligence, in order to become the acme, apogee, epitome, apotheosis and quintessence of everything a centre-forward should be? If, as David Foster Wallace wrote, watching Roger Federer was a religious experience, watching Ronaldo was a paranormal one: Federer explored the full range of human capability to reinvent our conception of the possible, whereas Ronaldo performed feats way beyond the limits of corporeality to reinvent our conception of the impossible, an emissary sent from far into the future to show us that everything we thought previously was a lie.
The Brazilian greats of the past – Garrincha, Didi, Pelé, Zico – were cuddly little guys who played samba football. Ronaldo, on the other hand, was a hyperreal animation of rubber, iron and heat, the Ready Brek kid on fast forward, and though he too enjoyed the beautiful game with a smile on his face, it wasn’t an act of philosophy or ideology, it was because it was the best way to kill you and your death was amusing to him. That’s what I mean when I say play.
Ronaldo only stayed with Barcelona for a season, 1996-97, scoring 34 goals in 37 games – enough to make him, at 20, the youngest recipient of Fifa’s world player of the year award. He also helped his team to the Copa del Rey and scored the clincher in the Cup Winners’ Cup final before leaving to annihilate Serie A with minimum effort and maximum prejudice, helping himself to 25 league goals as Inter finished second to Marcello Lippi’s great Juventus side. His teammates, meanwhile, were as disbelieving as the rest of us, routinely celebrating his goals by shining his shoes in an act of light-hearted deference that encapsulated the cosmic, chasmic gap between him and the rest of us pathetic earthlings.
Inter also reached the final of the 1998 Uefa Cup – at the time, the richest leagues were permitted just two Champions League entries, so competition was relatively fierce. Ronaldo scored against Neuchâtel Xamax in round one, against Strasbourg in round two as Inter overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit, against Schalke in the last eight – a game in which he also committed a savage, sadistic, exhibition double-murder – and a beauty in the semi against Spartak, despite a pitch made of eiderdown.
The final, to be played against Lazio in Paris, was the competition’s first over one leg. I Biancocelesti boasted the talents of Pavel Nedved, Roberto Mancini and Pierluigi Casiraghi, while Inter had Iván Zamorano, Javier Zanetti and Youri Djorkaeff, yet the game was billed as a confrontation between the world’s best striker, Ronaldo, and the world’s best defender, Alessandro Nesta.
Early on, Nesta hauled Ronaldo down to let him know he was there, but very soon, he wished he wasn’t. On five minutes, Zamorano put Inter ahead, and shortly afterwards the world’s best defender was left puddled on the ground as he tried to outmuscle the world’s best striker. But the highlight of the half came when Ronaldo collected the ball on the left of the D to send a shot of terrifying power shrieking, flaming and hissing against the far angle of post and bar.
On the hour, Ronaldo burned up Vladimir Jugovic, who responded with the traditional elbow to face – yellow card! – then Zanetti put Inter further ahead with a half-volley of unforgettable brilliance … whose brilliance has been largely forgotten, thanks to the brilliance of what came next. With 80 minutes gone, Francesco Moriero, who’d only been on the pitch a minute, stuck a ball in behind, just right of centre, and Ronaldo ran at Luca Marchegiani one on one.
The situation was one in which all strikers would expect to score, but for Ronaldo, that wasn’t enough: he needed to emphasise the difference between him and everyone else; in the moment, Marchegiani wasn’t just Marchegiani but all of us. So we watch Ronaldo sidewinding away from the ball, allowing it perfectly into stride with eyes focused on us, before taking another touch that invites us to narrow the angle. We know he’s going around us because that’s what he does because it is how we’ll look most stupid, but we also know it doesn’t matter what we know. Ball again left to its own devices, he shimmies outside and, transfixed, we follow him, then again when he shimmies back inside, even though we’re halfway down and no longer in control of our body. Ronaldo, meanwhile, eases back from whence he came to leave us a floppy, floundering mess like the Wicked Witch of the West, desperately throwing feet while he rolls into the empty net. His sixth in the competition, the goal puts him level with luminaries such as Gary McSwegan and Robbie Winter of Dundee United, but one behind Auxerre’s Stéphane Guivarc’h.
Naturally there was more, Ronaldo deploying footwork I’d love to describe, except 23 years and hundreds of viewings later, I’ve still as much clue what happened as Guerino Gottardi and Matías Almeyda did at the time; Almeyda was sent off for fouling him a few moments later.
Nevertheless, it’s the goal that sustains, probably the greatest moment of perhaps Ronaldo’s greatest performance, and a beautiful restatement of football’s infinite, eternal capacity to amaze even the most jaded of 17-year-olds.