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On Soccer With Rory Smith

The Enduring Appeal of Ronaldo, Soccer’s Original Phenomenon

The Brazilian striker’s lasting power lies not so much in a deep trove of highlight clips, but in what he showed was possible.

DAZN plans to release a documentary on Ronaldo later this month.
Credit...DAZN, The Phenomenon

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It is not, by any means, Ronaldo’s most significant goal. That title, by virtue of the status of the stage on which it occurred, must go to his second in the 2002 World Cup final, the one that steered with geometric precision past Oliver Kahn to restore Brazil to the pinnacle of global soccer and to crown his personal journey to redemption.

Nor is it his most beautiful. It is not, for example, the equal of the thunderbolt that completed his hat-trick at Old Trafford in 2003; or the elastic double shimmy that left Luca Marchegiani, the Lazio goalkeeper, clawing at air in the 1998 UEFA Cup final; or the blend of drive and delicacy that allowed him to barge through the entire Valencia defense in 1996.

In mitigation, the list of great Ronaldo goals is an unusually packed field, best illustrated by the fact that none of those already mentioned are regarded as Ronaldo’s masterpiece, either. That honor, instead, goes to the moment when he sprinted from the halfway line, the ball at his command and the entire Compostela team in his wake, during that year at Barcelona when it seemed he could do almost anything.

That may be the goal that best explains the enduring appeal of the player who, in recent years, has come to be known variously as the “Brazilian Ronaldo,” the “original Ronaldo,” or even, particularly in Italy, as “Ronaldo Fenomeno.”

The goal truly worth remembering is a fairly typical sort of a strike. In the second half of a UEFA Cup match between his Inter Milan team and Spartak Moscow, on a bitterly cold afternoon in April 1998, Ronaldo picks up the ball from a Luigi Sartor throw-in, bounces off one challenge, exchanges passes with Iván Zamorano, slips through three more defenders, and slots his shot into a corner of the goal. He wheels away, arms outstretched, crucifix bouncing on his chest.

To the modern eye, the backdrop the goal is set against is extraordinary. Most of the Spartak Moscow players appear to be wearing wool gardening gloves. In one corner of the stadium, there is a detachment from the Red Army, complete with what looks like an armored personnel carrier.

But it is the field that is the star of the show. The parts that do not look as if they have been recently plowed are filled not with grass but sand: huge expanses of it, giving the playing surface the same aesthetic appeal of a particularly lurid tie-dye shirt. The few flashes of green, the straggling survivors of the Moscow winter, were later alleged to have been painted, rather than grown.

Fields like that do not exist in European soccer anymore, certainly not in the semifinals of major competitions. (Spartak’s white uniforms, in the footage, are spattered with mud, which is quite jarring; there is, when you think about it, very little mud in elite soccer these days.) The setting places the occasion firmly in the sport’s past. That he can navigate it so easily, though, makes Ronaldo look like an emissary from the future.

Credit...ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Decades, as the author Chuck Klosterman notes in “The Nineties,” his treatise on the 20th century’s final act, do not run along strictly temporal lines; they are, in his view, related instead to perception. In Klosterman’s telling, the 1970s started at Altamont, in 1969, and the 1980s drew to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a couple of months before that decade’s scheduled end.

Soccer is no different. Its 1990s begin as early as 1986, with the Hand of God, and end 12 years later, when Ronaldo — the heir to Diego Maradona as the greatest player in the game — fails to arrive at the World Cup final with Brazil, the exact reasons for which remain contested, even now, almost a quarter of a century later.

In the last couple of years, the sport has started to nurse something of a fixation on that period, what might be termed its early modern age. It has manifested in a slew of jerseys, all of them drawing inspiration from that era’s designs; in a slate of books charting the rise of the Premier League, in particular; and, increasingly, in documentaries, a trend encapsulated earlier this year by Netflix’s examination of Luis Figo’s move from Barcelona to Real Madrid, and now by “The Phenomenon,” a DAZN Original focused on Ronaldo that is set to be released this month.

That appeal cannot be explained solely by the fact that making sports documentaries is substantially cheaper, but no less likely to command an audience, than buying live media rights. Nor is it purely an example of what should be referred to as Freeman’s Law: the theory, posited by the journalist and author Hadley Freeman, that popular culture exists on a 30-year loop, as children grow up, take control of the creative industries, and decide that everyone else has to relive an ersatz version of their youth.

Credit...Getty Images

There is, instead, something deeper at play. Klosterman characterizes our view of the 1990s as a “good time that happened long ago, though not as long ago as it seems.” Many of its cultural touchstones — “The Simpsons,” “Friends,” the German pop sensation Haddaway — remain so familiar as to feel almost (but not quite) current, while much of its reality seems impossibly distant. People did not have the internet in the 1990s. They bought CDs.

That same effect applies to soccer. Ronaldo and his peers are current in a way that Maradona, say, is not; they featured in video games and had their own special boot deals and struggled to escape the paparazzi.

But we were not nearly so exposed to those stars as we are their successors. The 1990s, Klosterman writes, “were a decade in which it was possible to watch absolutely everything, and then never see it again.”

Watching Ronaldo play even on television was a relatively rare occurrence, certainly before the waning days of his career. His every appearance was not broadcast around the world. His iconic goals were not played on a loop, endlessly, from the moment they hit the net. There is a fuzziness, a mystery, to him — and to the age in which he played — that subsequent generations do not possess. There are, still, unanswered questions.

They are important ones, too, because it is in soccer’s long 1990s that we see the roots of the game as we experience it today. It was not just the era in which soccer fully fused with celebrity for the first time, when the final vestiges of isolationism and national identity were abandoned, when transfer fees and salaries spiraled out of control, when what had been sport became entertainment.

It was also, in a sporting context, when the ideas that would shape the game’s future took hold. Some of that was administrative — the change in the backpass law, for example, had to happen for pressing to come into being — and some of it was philosophical, as the thinking of Johan Cruyff leached down to Pep Guardiola, among others.

But at least part of it was embodied by Ronaldo. As his former teammate Christian Vieri puts it in “The Phenomenon,” soccer had “never seen a player like” Ronaldo when he first emerged: a player of the finest, most refined technique, but one who also possessed a startling burst of speed, a ferocious shot, and a rippling, brutish power. Ronaldo was a forward line all by himself.

In time, he would become the prototype for the modern forward, and in the process he would end the sport’s decades-old assumption that strikers had to play in pairs. On that field of mud and sand, as he bounces off one defender and then bursts past another, Ronaldo looks like a player from the future because that is what he was. To understand him, and the impact he had, is to understand a little better the game as we know it today.

Credit...Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The word was sufficiently incendiary that its impact was not dulled by the haze of anonymity. Scarcely five months since he paraded around the field at the Parc des Princes, his future committed to Paris St.-Germain, Kylian Mbappé had decided he had to get out. And he had done so because, the unattributed quotes ran, he felt “betrayed.”

Hearing that, particularly in a week that included a crucial Champions League game and a Ligue 1 meeting with P.S.G.’s resurgent rival, Marseille, it was impossible not to assume that the club had committed some stark transgression.

Maybe it had not paid Mbappé. Maybe it had forced him to train with the reserve team, the second string, the no-hopers. Maybe it had mistreated some of those players whom he considered close friends. All of those might be considered grounds for such an accusation.

As it turned out, though, Mbappé’s complaints are rather less severe. He does not like having to play as a sole No. 9 — the role invented by Ronaldo — rather than in a pair. He wanted his club to sign a central defender last summer. He had hoped that Neymar, once his close friend but now, for reasons that remain somewhat opaque, his rival, might have been sent to another club.

No matter how sincerely Mbappé feels he has been misled, none of these quite add up to betrayal. P.S.G. spent the summer trying to sign a striker and a defender but could not land its primary targets. It tried to move Neymar, too, but failed to persuade a suitor to take on his salary. The transfer market can be complicated, even for clubs (like P.S.G.) with effectively unlimited resources. That may be a disappointment. It is not treachery.

That Mbappé is reported to have taken it as such — and, particularly, that he finds having to play a position marginally different from his preferred one so galling — reflects far worse on him than it does on P.S.G.

Mbappé, 23, has not only always been presented as a modest, mature sort of a character, levelheaded and prudent, that is precisely how he has come across. Mbappé is driven, ambitious, of course, but he is also humble and hard-working. He learned English and Spanish as a teenager to help him settle in should his career ever take him abroad. He has always seemed like the sort of superstar you could take home to meet your parents.

Increasingly, though, the portrait painted by his actions is far less flattering. If the conditions P.S.G. reportedly accepted to keep him from the grip of Real Madrid hinted at a player overreaching, his discontent at having to subsume his preferences for the good of the team compounds that impression.

Mbappé is, of course, the standout talent of his generation (Erling Haaland, 22, notwithstanding). He has decided he simply must leave P.S.G. as early as January. There should, then, be a glut of clubs on high alert, all of them clasping and clawing for his signature. And, most likely, there will be. But they will do so knowing that he comes with a bright, angry red flag. Signing Mbappé brings you one of the world’s finest players, it would seem, but only if you do everything his way.

A useful reminder from Derek Cairns — in reference to the suggestion that perhaps all-star games between leagues is not such a terrible thought — that there is no such thing as a new idea in soccer: There are just old ideas, repurposed, refashioned, and attached to some sort of NFT promotion.

“There was once an official series of matches between the Scottish league, the English league and, if memory serves, the Italian league,” he wrote. “I have a feeling that I recall a match between the Scottish and English leagues which had Denis Law playing in white.”

I don’t remember these, and so cannot vouch for Derek’s memory — there is a possibility that this was just some sort of Denis Law-infused nightmare — but there were, as we have mentioned previously, plenty of all-star equivalents as late as the 1980s. It is strange that soccer has gotten more, not less, resistant to change since then.

And I could not finish this week without addressing a request from Juliet Lancey, who is in something of a bind. Not only is she dating someone who “eats, sleeps and breathes soccer,” which I know from personal experience is not a great start to a relationship, but someone who is obsessed with a particularly miserable part of the sport’s grand cornucopia: the ongoing misadventures of Aston Villa.

“You would think if my boyfriend actually cared about me he would have chosen a team that didn’t leave me in the gut-wrenching throws of frustration every Sunday,” she wrote, and she’s right: I do think that. “But nope, Aston Villa it is.”

Credit...Craig Brough/Reuters

At this point, I assumed Juliet was asking me how to extract herself from this — for future reference, the sentence “Peter Withe’s goal was a fluke” should do it — but if anything, she is seeking to enmesh herself further in this entirely self-inflicted morass.

“I have gone in circles about why exactly a team filled with talented players like Villa cannot seem to just win some freaking games,” she wrote. “I guess my question is, in short, what is wrong with Aston Villa?”

It is a good question. As Juliet points out, Villa’s squad is hardly a bad one. (It is also not a cheap one.) Losing Diego Carlos to injury so early in the season was a blow, but of far greater concern than results — Villa has not lost since August — are the performances. Villa might not be a Champions League contender, but its resources are no worse than, say, Newcastle’s, and there is no earthly reason the club should be behind Fulham and Bournemouth in the table.

That, sadly, leaves one culprit. Steven Gerrard may or may not be a good manager, but it strikes me that he has failed to identify — and therefore to express — a clear vision of what he wants his Villa team to be. Villa is a disparate patchwork of talented players, rather than a cogent whole. What tends to happen, in such circumstances, is that teams can get it together every now and again, but that consistency proves elusive.

I hope that helps, Juliet. But also there is a very strong possibility, sadly, that this is just Villa being Villa. Don’t hold it against your partner too much. He is suffering, too.