Year Zero: The making of Ronaldo (Barcelona, 1996/97)
Between 1997 and his retirement in 2011, Ronaldo scored 207 goals in 365 games, won three league titles, a UEFA Cup, a European Golden Boot, FIFA World Player of the Year twice, the Ballon d'Or twice and the player of the season award in two countries. He also won two Copas America, the World Cup Golden Boot and the World Cup itself, scoring all of Brazil's three goals in the 2002 semi-final and final. That alone represents a career in the top 0.00000001%.
And yet, despite this laundry list of trophies, awards and accolades, Ronaldo's greatest season – the one that has lodged in the consciousness of a generation as perhaps the finest individual campaign of all time – was one in which he didn't win the league, fell out with the board, alienated his fans and didn't even pick up the player of the year award at his club.
Ronaldo that season didn't just accumulate great statistics – he thrilled like few others have while doing so
The numbers from Ronaldo's year in Barcelona might be enough for you: 47 goals in 49 games, 34 in 37 league appearances. Four hat-tricks. Seven braces. From mid-January, he failed to score in only five league games he played. Oh, and he'd only turned 20 a few weeks after signing.
But Ronaldo that season didn't just accumulate great statistics – he thrilled like few others have while doing so.
We remember this season because he combined everything that makes us want to watch football. Blurry-footed skill was matched with barely-human speed, in turn complemented by pulsing strength. He was cerebral, visceral and physical all at the same time: this was everything you could ask of a footballer, contained in one man.
It's often said of great players that they can run faster with the ball than without it. Ronaldo could run faster than most while doing stepovers.
“I’ve never seen any other player score an impossible goal in every match he plays,” said Laurent Blanc, his team-mate that season. "Marking Ronaldo is the hardest thing in the world,” said Cesar Gomez, an unfortunate Tenerife defender charged with keeping track of him in one game. “It was as if I’d just played five games instead of one."
Jorge Valdano infamously said he was “not a man, he's a herd” – a lovely line, but not quite accurate. A herd is uncoordinated, a mass of brute strength that will trample over something, but with little thought: Ronaldo was more precise, combining his undeniable power with otherworldly control. He showed that many more times throughout the rest of his career, but it was that one year in Barcelona when it was most consistently thrilling.
Gaspart’s quick thinking
Before he moved to Barcelona in 1996, Ronaldo was already a star. In Brazil he had scored 41 times in 45 games for Cruzeiro; the following two seasons at PSV Eindhoven produced 54 in 57, and had clubs tripping over their tongues as they flocked to watch him.
Marking Ronaldo is the hardest thing in the world. It was as if I’d just played five games instead of one
Barcelona were one of those, and club vice-president Joan Gaspart travelled to Rio to secure their man. But when he reached Ronaldo's hotel, some beefy security guards told him he wouldn't be getting through.
So Gaspart tracked down a Spanish waiter who worked at the hotel, commandeered his uniform and a glass of Coke. “I put on the disguise, said hello to the security guards and told them a guest had asked for a soft drink,” said Gaspart. “This time, they let me past. I knocked on Ronaldo’s door and he himself opened it. He signed the contract right there, on the bed.”
Eventually a world-record $19.5m fee was agreed with PSV, and the move was done.
He scored after five minutes of his debut against Atletico Madrid in the Super Cup, then added a further 16 in his first 14 games, including a hat-trick against Valencia in October.
Even at that early stage, opposition defences knew he couldn't be stopped by conventional weapons. Valencia's tactics seemingly extended to forming human walls in order to physically prevent this superhuman from getting anywhere near their goal. The problem? Ronaldo was so quick that he sped between these defenders-turned-barriers before they could get into formation, ploughing through like a speeding tank brushing aside a flimsy roadblock.
Valencia manager Luis Aragones stormed around the touchline, furious that his simple instruction couldn't be carried out, to which the obvious response might have been: “Well, you try it then.”
Next: “Can anybody, anywhere, show me a better player?”