Walking into Milanello, AC Milan’s plush training ground, you could be mistaken for thinking you’re entering a top-class golf club. Set in the midsts of a forest, perfectly-manicured green grass around every corner and without another building in sight, it’s easy to forget why you’re here. What jolts you back to reality is the small crowd of supporters gathered outside the main gates, waiting noiselessly for an autograph.
Today, Ronaldo is late. In truth, that’s not unusual. You never know what time he will arrive. Sometimes he doesn’t arrive at all. Yesterday he picked up a minor injury at the end of the training session and we were forced to postpone our interview for 24 hours. So, as we sit in the sunshine, FourFourTwo crosses its fingers tightly and says a little prayer.
Since his return to Italy from Spain, this is the first time Ronaldo has agreed to speak to the foreign press. Although he would probably deny it, he is not too proud to understand that you always have something to prove to someone. Even if you are one the greatest players ever to have played the game. Even if your nickname is The Phenomenon and you have three FIFA World Player of the Year awards (1996, 1997, 2002) collecting dust on your mantelpiece. And where you prove yourself is on the pitch, rather than with your mouth.
In January, after four and half years at the Bernabeu, Ronaldo asked Real Madrid for a transfer, agreeing to a drop in salary, because he was desperate to play. Play football and score goals, something he does better than anything else in life (and better than almost anyone on the planet). It doesn't matter for which team – Cruzeiro, PSV Eindhoven Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid or Cruzeiro – Ronaldo is always Ronaldo, never belonging to this club or that. For some, he is a no-team footballer, son of the modern game’s star system. For others, a futuristic forward who scores the kind of goals of which others only dream.
When he finally appears, it’s late afternoon and the sun is edging towards the tops of the trees. Dressed in a pale pink t-shirt, oversize denim rapper pants, white trainers and sporting a new, sleek haircut, he looks younger than you might expect and certainly fitter than most fans would imagine. And he’s in good spirits – even if he does start grumbling immediately: he’s “tired”, “too busy”, “in a rush and already late” for his next appointment. He plays the media game, Milan’s press officer explains to FourFourTwo. And in truth, he’s anything but a prima donna. Polite, easygoing, bordering on friendly, he goes along with all the photographer’s requests. And after 20 minutes of pictures, he sits down on a huge white sofa, ready to answer your questions.
Who were your heroes when you were a kid? Who was the greatest: Pele or Maradona? And is it true that many Brazilians rate Garrincha above Pele?
Dean Brown, Yeovil
When I was a child, my hero was Zico who was a big star for Flamengo and Brazil. My father was a Flamengo supporter so I began watching them and Zico was my favourite player – very skilful, with lots of goals. I was a big fan of his. On the rivalry between Maradona and Pele, let me remind you that I’m Brazilian – that should give you your answer. And as for Garrincha, he was one of the best ever Brazilian footballers, but I never had the chance to see him play. Many people have told me many good things about him, though, and all Brazilians still love him.
At the start of your career you changed your name from Ronaldinho to Ronaldo then a few years later a certain goofy young Brazilian player did the opposite. Why all the complicated name changing?
Hannah Moore, Liverpool
Actually I’ve never changed my name, it has always been the same. My family name is Ronaldo, but when I was younger I used to be called Ronaldinho which means “little Ronaldo”. So I was called that for a while, but when I got older, it just became Ronaldo.
What was Jose Mourinho like as an interpreter at Barcelona? A special one?
Tom Cleavin, Ealing
I had a good professional relationship with him. At that time he was a nice man. Today I can't claim to know him very well and people change during their life, but I know that at least he used to be a nice person.
How close is your relationship with Bobby Robson? Did he really try to lure you to Newcastle?
Jon Hall, Newcastle
Robson is a really nice gentleman and I had great time with him in Spain. He helped me a lot when I moved there, helping me to settle down when I was still very young. When I was at Barcelona, my first time in La Liga, I think I played the best football of my whole career. But moving to Newcastle? From what I know, he never tried to take me to Newcastle.
What’s the closest you’ve ever come to moving to the Premiership?
Jim Cox, via e-mail
The truth is I’ve never had a real chance to move to England. Maybe it's a pity that I never played in Premiership. Perhaps I would have liked it. But I must say, I'm more than happy with the career I’ve had. I’ve played for several years in Italy and Spain, two of the best leagues in the world and I'm completely satisfied with that.
We’ve heard several versions of what happened on the eve of the 1998 World Cup Final. What’s yours? Is there any more truth that has yet to be revealed?
Jason Swanson, via e-mail
Honestly, I would prefer not to talk about that again. Too many people have already spoken too much about it.
I’m going on holiday with my friends to Rio. What’s the best way to impress Brazilian ladies?
Robert Francome, via email
Don't worry, Robert. The Brazilian ladies will show you everything as soon as you will be over there.
You never seem to have had any trouble getting the ladies, but have you ever considered getting your teeth fixed?
Ben Gallagher, Sutton
Who’s the best manager you’ve ever worked for?
Grace Whale, via e-mail
There are several I like but if I have to say only one name I would go for [Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning coach] Mario Zagallo, who was the coach of the Selecåo in 1998. A great coach and a great man.
If you could become not famous for one day what would you do?
Peter, via email
It’s not really an issue. Every day I do whatever I want anyway. I don't care if people look at me because I’m famous, my life is pretty ordinary and I do everything I want to do.
In your experience, who was a bigger party animal, Edmundo or Romario? Or is there somebody even more crazy?
Gary Sharples, Bedfordshire
Look, I don't like to judge people. Who I am to judge others? Every person is different so I would never call anyone “crazy”, not in a serious way and not in a funny way either.
Who could do more ‘keepie-uppies’: you or your ex-wife Milene Domingues?
Phil Remington, Cambridge
Who’s the greatest defender you have ever faced?
Carl, via email
Paolo Maldini is the best I’ve played against. I’m glad he’s on my team now!
That haircut for the 2002 World Cup Final. Any regrets?
Damian Hall, Honduras
No, no, I still like it. It was my idea and I'm proud of that. At the time I was looking for something totally new, something distinctive, and I think I achieved my aim [smiles].
Which Brazil national team is the best you ever played in?
Keith Anderson, Kings Lynn
At the 2002 World Cup, we had a great team, the best I ever played in. We had Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, me… It was a team where we could find a goal in every minute in every way, and win every game. That’s why we won all seven games and that’s why we were world champions even though at the beginning of the tournament people doubted us.
Did you feel you were a little hasty to leave Inter Milan for Real Madrid, after they had paid for your rehab for the previous two years? How have you been received by them since you returned to Milan?
Stuart Staves, via email
Not at all. People should always remember I never asked to leave Inter. I was forced to leave. Inter sold me to Real Madrid. That was their choice. That’s why today I have no problem playing for Milan – there’s no reason for me to feel bad about that. I have no regrets.
Steve McManaman says that when you play golf, you employ a number of questionable tactics to ensure you win, such as distracting other players when taking a shot and moving your own ball to a more favourable position. Is this respectable behaviour for a sporting legend?
Bernie, via email
[Laughs] It's true that I like talking when I play golf. To me, it’s normal to enjoy and relax while playing golf, but I also know the rules and when I have to stay in silence. That said, it's not true [laughs] that I make tricks to win.
Are you aware that your hat-trick against Manchester United for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League inspired Roman Abramovich to buy into football? Does that make you feel guilty?
That's a very malicious question. To tell the truth, I didn't know that story about Abramovich but I can say it's good for Chelsea to have such a rich owner. I can’t feel guilty about scoring a hat-trick at Old Trafford. It was a great night for me.
David Beckham says he’s swum in your pool. How close were you two really?
James Frith, via email
We are really good friends, and we’re still in touch. The reason is that although I can't speak English very well, I could make myself understood so when David moved to Madrid I tried to help him. We spent lot of time together, not only the two of us, but also our families and children. For me he was, alongside the Brazilians in the squad, my best team-mate.
Having taken a fair bit of flak yourself, have you offered any advice to Ronaldinho after he was recently criticised for being overweight?
Michael Charles, via email
No, I don't think he needs any advice from me or others. He knows what is the best for him.
In your opinion, which nation has the best-looking women? And what do you think of British women?
Graham Smith, via email
[Thinks for long time] I have to say that first are the Brazilians. [Another long pause as he thinks again] Second the Swedes. [Long pause] And third the Colombians. British girls? I don’t know what to say because I don’t go to England very often even though I like London very much.
Apart from your home, what’s the most expensive item you’ve ever bought?
Trevor Pearson, Belfast
I don't care so much about money. I don’t spend too much, I'm not stuck with material goods. Sometimes I buy a clock but after a week I have already forgotten about it. So I can't really answer because I’m not interested in luxury. It’s not what’s important.
What’s your favourite goal from your career?
Fiona Kerr, Aberdeen
I can’t pick just one, it has to be two. And my choice is simple: the two goals I scored during the World Cup Final in 2002. Not only because they were two good goals but especially for the value they had. It’s not every day you win the World Cup.
At your peak where do you rate yourself among the world’s greatest ever strikers?
Hugh James, via email
I don’t like to judge myself, I prefer to let others do that. I'm not a journalist but a footballer.
Have you patched up your differences with Pele since you called him a ‘two-bob opportunist’ prior to the 2006 World Cup? Why have you had such a turbulent relationship with him?
John Ryland, Wilmslow
We are not friends, we don't know each other very well, but on the other hand, you can’t say that we are enemies. I respect him and his history and I think he could say the same about me. So, really there’s no problem with Pele.
How much was your breaking of the World Cup finals scoring record tainted by the fact that you were booed by some Brazil fans and Brazil failed to retain the trophy?
My biggest memory of the last World Cup is that we lost against France too early. We were all really sad about that defeat because we believed were were able to do well, to win the World Cup again. All the rest doesn’t bother me at all.
What was your relationship with Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello like? Was he the reason you left Madrid?
Gwynne Dixon, Surrey
I don't have any relationship with him, it’s as simple as that. He was not the reason why I moved. I left Madrid because I wasn’t playing regularly and I wanted to. I know that at the end of the day it's up Capello to take decisions but I never had any particular problems with him for the simple reason that we never had any relationship.
Why did you decide to wear the No.99 shirt for Milan? Why? Are you a big fan of the 99 ice cream (the one with the flake stuck in it)?
Ravi Beeharry, London
It's a funny joke but I’m afraid it’s not true. When I moved to Milan the number 9 shirt was already on Filippo Inzaghi’s back so I couldn’t have that. So instead, I decided to go for the double 9. Nothing to do with ice creams.
Having played for Barça, Inter, Real Madrid and now Milan, which set of fans have you had the most flak from? Can you rank them?
Andrew Johnston, Birmingham
I don’t want to rank the teams individually, but I will say that the Italian fans are the best because they support their team for the entire 90 minutes. In Spain, people go to the Bernabeu or Nou Camp in the same way that they go to theatre or to the cinema: for them football is a show, they want to be entertained. They don’t support in the way the Italians do.
How do you see your future in the Brazil team. Do you think you have another World Cup in you?
Matt Bargain, via email
I really don't know. But neither do I know if the coach [Carlo Ancelotti] is playing me next weekend. I don't want to think about the national team for the moment, I want to give everything to AC Milan. For my future there is plenty of time to think about it. I’m only 30 years old.
Is there anything you haven’t achieved in your career that you wish you had?
William Murphy, Whitney
Yes, I'd love to win the Champions League. I hope I can one day.
Will you play for more teams after Milan? How tempted are you to join Beckham in the US?
Neil Waterman, Shropshire
I live day by day. For now I’m 100% focused on AC Milan and that's enough. Never say never in football but for the moment playing in the USA is not on my agenda.
What do you plan to do once you retire?
Clive Stevens, via email
I’m looking forward to chilling out, to relaxing, enjoying the life and not having any more commitments or deadlines. I love to think that when I retire I won't have any clock in my life any longer. That will make me happy.
Interview: Lorenzo Amuso. Portrait: Studio Buzzi. From the July 2007 issue of FourFourTwo.