Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima hardly requires an introduction. Better known as 'O Fenómeno' (the phenomenon), or simply Ronaldo, he is one of the greatest strikers the world has ever seen. The FIFA World Cup’s all-time leading scorer with 15 goals, the former Cruzeiro, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Corinthians player is celebrating a special anniversary this year. Two decades ago, on 25 May 1993, he took the first step of his storied, tremendously successful career.
A far cry from the 16 year-old kid who found himself playing among the experienced professionals of Cruzeiro against Caldense in the Minas Gerais state championship in 1993, Ronaldo took time out of a recent trip to Zurich to recall his beginnings in an interview with FIFA.com. He talked about the nerves he felt that day, how he felt when he got his first wage packet, his experiences of playing for a number of fierce rivals, and the World Cup party coming to Brazil in 2014.
FIFA.com: Ronaldo, this year marks the 20th anniversary of your debut as a professional. What can you remember about that day?
Ronaldo: It was a long time ago! I remember everything about my career like it was yesterday, right from the beginning. I remember how it felt to come through the ranks and turn professional at Cruzeiro. I’d always dreamed about being a footballer and it was such an exciting feeling when I realised it was happening. It was magical. My legs, arms and even my hands were shaking. But once the game started I managed to calm down.
How did you feel when the coach told you were in the team?
I felt so nervous and my heart was racing. But at the same time I felt optimistic. It was all I’d ever wanted: to play. I had butterflies because of the nerves and the pressure, but at the same time it was what I’d been working towards all my life. So I managed to get the nerves under control. Players usually feel nervous before a game, but it passes. You forget everything once you are in the game.
Who did you tell first?
In those days there were no mobile phones. I remember that most of my friends in Bento Ribeiro (a neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro) didn’t even have phones in their houses. I told my family and managed to get the news to a couple of friends. Everybody was thrilled. The game wasn’t on TV, so my dad went to another part of town, up on a hill. He had an old high frequency radio, and he tuned it to a station from Belo Horizonte, which is about 450 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro. He listened to the game live, and we won. It was really exciting.
If he scores more than me, I’ll congratulate him, and of course I admire him. But he’ll never take away my goals or my history.
Your life is very different now. Do you remember what you did with your first wage packet?
I remember. I gave it all to my mother because back in Bento Ribeiro my brothers and my parents had beds, but I slept on the sofa. My mum had the sofa reupholstered as a thank you present, so I would have a better place to sleep.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
No. Thanks to the discipline I had, the sacrifices I made and my dedication to football, everything has worked out the way I wanted. In fact, it’s been even better than I could have imagined. I never thought I’d go so far. I’d always dreamed about being a footballer. So my sporting life was perfect.
Perfect, but not easy. You had to move to Holland when you were very young. How was that experience, considering how far from home you were, and how difficult it must have been to stay in touch with your family?
It was hard. I was only 17. Holland is very different from Brazil. Once, the temperature hit 30 degrees below zero! No fun for a carioca! I really suffered because of the cold. Everything froze during training; my feet, my legs, my hands, my neck, and my ears. I’d never imagined living in such a cold place. The food was a problem too. I didn’t speak Dutch, so it was difficult to choose things from the menu. It was tough to learn the language. It took me two years! And now I’ve forgotten most of it, as I haven’t spoken it in so long. But I enjoyed myself on the pitch. So the sacrifice was worth it.
Which strikers did you admire in those days?
Zico has always been my idol. As for strikers, well in those days it was (Marco) van Basten. One of the greatest centre forwards.
Was there one situation in particular that changed your career for the better? Just one...
It’s hard to pick out just one situation. I’d say that all the decisions I made were the right ones, and I made them at the right time. Choosing Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter, and the other clubs I played for. That was the most important thing.
Was there a specific team you would have liked to have played for?
Not one team in particular. I definitely would have liked to try my hand at English football, but it wasn’t to be.
I gave it all to my mother because back in Bento Ribeiro my brothers and my parents had beds, but I slept on the sofa. My mum had the sofa reupholstered as a thank you present.
You were a huge star at Barcelona, but you also played for Real Madrid. And you also had spells at both Inter and AC Milan. Millions of fans love you, but maybe there were some who weren’t quite so keen...
As a great Brazilian writer (Nelson Rodrigues) once said, any unanimity is stupid. I don’t worry about not pleasing a few people. As long as I made most of them happy... (laughs)
A year after your first game as a professional you won the FIFA World Cup in the USA without even stepping foot on the pitch. What was it like spending time with players like Romario, Dunga and Bebeto?
Spending time with Romario, Bebeto, Dunga, Rai, Leonardo, players I’d seen on TV and that I admired so much, was amazing, like going back to school! All of a sudden I was there with them, playing and learning. I remember training, and watching how Romario and Bebeto moved. It was a great learning process.
Brazil 2014 is getting closer. How do you think the national team is shaping up? The Confederations Cup isn’t the same as the World Cup, after all...
It’s not the same, but the team showed its potential at the Confederations Cup. With time to train, Brazil improved a great deal. It really gave Brazilians hope that we might win the World Cup at home. We’ve got a great chance.
Who are the favourites for the World Cup?
Spain and Germany are candidates, but Brazil have shown how strong they are, and we’ll be playing at home. I’d say that the favourites are Brazil, Germany and Spain, in that order.
Did you know that Miroslav Klose is just one goal away from equalling your record as the World Cup’s top goal scorer?
Yes, lots of people have mentioned it. I believe that records are there to be broken. It doesn’t worry me. Someone is bound to break the record one day. I made my name scoring lots of goals, and that will never be forgotten. My personal history and my 15 World Cup goals will never be erased. If he scores more than me, I’ll congratulate him, and of course I admire him. But he’ll never take away my goals or my history.
If that happens, it would be a revenge for the Germans, after you broke Gerd Muller’s record in Germany...
Maybe. The record could go back to Germany. But it’s a record that brings personal satisfaction, not victory for the team. It helps the team too, of course, but it’s more important to win things together.
Lastly, thinking about everything that’s happened over the last 20 years, what advice would you give to the Ronaldo of 1993?
I’d tell him to be patient, ambitious, and disciplined. I haven’t changed that much as a person over the years. I’d do everything exactly the same way.