Great article by Tim Vickery…. as always…
It is one of the ancient battles of sport, the struggle between talent and the ravages of time. And it’s being fought out as the Brazilian Championship reaches a thrilling finale.
With eight rounds to go – and at least four clubs still in contention – one of the big questions is this: Can he really do it again? Is Ronaldo capable of staging yet another extraordinary comeback?
The previous one came when he joined Corinthians of Sao Paulo, the most popular team in South America’s biggest city. Surely now he had suffered one knee injury too many. He was all washed up, a bloated figure living on his reputation. But then he proved us all wrong once again by spearheading Corinthians to last year’s Brazilian Cup.
But that was supposed to be the aperitif. The main course was to come this year.
Winning the cup qualified Corinthians for the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. All their local rivals had won it but Corinthians had yet to reach a final. Putting that right in 2010, the club’s centenary year, was the dream of every Corinthians fan.
But they were knocked out early, losing on away goals to Flamengo of Rio. Rescuing the centenary year – and centenary years are taken very seriously in South America – would mean winning the domestic championship, or at least finishing high enough to ensure qualification for the 2011 Libertadores.
And they would have to do the hard work without Ronaldo. He played – and scored – in the opening round of the championship back in May but then did not reappear until managing an hour in a match at the end of August. Then 45 minutes – and a goal – on 8 September. Then nothing.
His body was in rebellion. Some, especially in Europe, labelled him a dilettante. But this is the man who has scored more World Cup goals than anyone else in the history of the competition – 15 – many of which have come after he forced his way back from injuries that threatened to end his career.
I am reliably informed that Ronaldo’s current weight problem is, in part, a consequence of the medication he needs to soothe his battered knees.
As far as Corinthians were concerned, the absence of Ronaldo hardly seemed to matter. They were even able to shrug off the loss of coach Mano Menezes, who took charge of Brazil shortly after the World Cup. They were on top of the table, apparently in a two-horse race for the title with Fluminense. A place in the Libertadores seemed certain.
But then the wheels fell off. A big part of the problem was the sheer number of games. Out of sync with the rest of the planet, Brazil’s ludicrous football calendar is especially insane in World Cup years. While everyone’s attention was on South Africa, the local championship shut down for five-and-a-half weeks, leaving a backlog of fixtures to plough through in August and September.
Brazilian squads are not deep enough to permit the kind of rotation practised by European clubs, so, after 15 rounds in seven weeks, players are exhausted, overworked and picking up injuries.
Corinthians suddenly collapsed. In six games, they picked up just two points from two draws and four defeats. They slipped to third – and would have been lower were it not for the fact that their rivals also dropped points.
Coach Adilson Batista was sacked. Delegations of supporters went to the training ground to either encourage or intimidate the players into greater efforts.
Come the crisis, send for Ronaldo. He has always thrived on this type of pressure.
The 2002 World Cup is perhaps the greatest example. Injury kept him out of the entire qualification campaign. Without him, Brazil were a shambles, fortunate even to get to the tournament. With him, it was a different story. He happily took on the responsibility for leading the attack. Rivaldo, so lost without Ronaldo, blossomed in his shadow as Brazil won all their games.
Ronaldo in his prime at the 2002 World Cup. Photo: Getty Images
But that was more than eight years ago. Ronaldo still wants the responsibility and will gladly take the burden off his team-mates. But is he still physically capable of doing so?