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Ronaldo Is Ready to Have the Time of His Life

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, July 11, 1998; Page B4

PARIS — A particularly dramatic photograph shows Pele, high off the ground, hip to hip with the Swedish goalkeeper, challenging him and looking unstoppable. Pele was unstoppable. It was the 1958 World Cup title game, and he was the 17-year-old new sensation of the soccer world. He scored twice in a 5-2 victory and Brazil won its first World Cup. Brazil will be seeking its fifth Cup on Sunday against France, and soccer writers of the world are massed here, poised to declare Ronaldo "the new Pele."

It takes a magnificent combination of ability and temperament to meet one's potential in the most important game and deliver the victory. Michael Jordan has repeated the feat often. Ali did it time after time. Pele returned 12 years after his debut with a powerful header to start Brazil to its third World Cup title with a 4-1 victory over Italy. West Germany's Gerd Mueller in 1974, Italy's Paolo Rossi in 1982 and Argentina's Diego Maradona in 1986 rank among soccer's immortals because they seized the day. Blessed with the ability to decide the biggest of their sport's games, they did it.

Ronaldo, 21, has been acknowledged as a potential talent of the highest order since he was 13. Four years later, at the age when Pele starred, Ronaldo watched from the bench as Brazil won the 1994 World Cup. But the stage can be all his Sunday against France; it could be the time when Brazil's No. 9 yellow jersey converts all his potential to reality. Ronaldo has been written up around the world as a mild disappointment in this World Cup. But there are two sides to his performance. He has lacked the sustained brilliance that had come to be expected of him. He has been more an implied than an actual threat. He has been something else, too.

Brazil would not be in the final without the shaven-headed Ronaldo's all-around contributions. He has scored four times — otherwise he would not be positioned to claim the tournament as his in one day's swoop. This he can do if he gets two goals at the right time in addition to the four he now has and Brazil wins; then he could lift the Cup as his team's dominant player and the tournament's top scorer. He also has heeded the instruction of Brazil's wise coach, Mario Zagallo, and polished his ability to create goals as well as score them. He assisted twice to beat Denmark in the quarterfinals and one other time.

Ronaldo almost established his claim to being this World Cup's premier player in the semifinal against the Netherlands. He scored in the first minute of the second half and came close repeatedly to what would have been a decisive second goal before Brazil won in penalty kicks, of which he made Brazil's first. By small margins, almost always the way in soccer, he was denied on several occasions. But it took master work by a talented group of Dutch defenders and a worthy goalkeeper to hold him off as they did. As it was, Ronaldo engaged enough opponents enough of the time — sometimes by his actions, sometimes by threat — to enable his side to reach the tiebreaker, which goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel's saves won for Brazil.

Italy's Rossi was a ruthless opportunist in scoring in his team's last three games of the 1982 tournament. He scored three times in a 3-2 victory over Brazil, twice in a 2-0 semifinal victory over Poland and the first goal of the final, 3-1 over West Germany. Ronaldo can't accomplish all that, but he has the last, and most important, canvas to create his masterpiece. But Brazil's semifinal against the Dutch defined how hard it is in this era of soccer for even the most brilliant individual offensive player to break away. Far more emphasis is placed on defense than two decades ago. "Teams don't let you play football anymore," Pele said recently.

Ronaldo has said he does not want to be "another Pele," "another Maradona," "another Zico." But he has proven to be especially gifted with Cruzeiro in Brazil, PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, FC Barcelona and Inter Milan, which paid the Catalan club a record $30 million transfer fee last summer.

He has averaged almost a goal a game in both the top leagues and international competition. Twice he has been voted FIFA world player of the year. Sunday for Ronaldo is about meeting expectations, reaching heights that few goal-scorers and goal-makers have. As great as France's Just Fontaine was, tallying 13 times in the 1958 World Cup finals, he didn't have the chance to decide the last game and raise the Cup because France went down to defeat beforehand. Instead, the world was introduced to Pele.

Now the world will be watching Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima. Brazilians have been obsessing about his bruised ankle, sore knees and, before that, his sore thigh. But physically it's said that he will be ready. At the Brazilian camp in nearby Ozoir-La-Ferriere, he has looked relaxed, talking with fans at the fence surrounding the practice field after daily afternoon practices. Ronaldo's mild manner could help him during the biggest game of his life by preventing frustration, because he might experience difficulties finding space in France's defense.

Ronaldo probably is blessed with as good a mentor as he could have. Zagallo is the stitching that connects the best of Brazil's World Cup experiences. He was Pele's teammate in 1958 and 1962, Pele's coach in 1970 and the team's chief adviser in 1994 — World Cup champions all four times. On Sunday, he hopes to hear the sound that Ronaldo wants to create and was once described this way by a countryman: "The sound of a football hitting the net is the most beautiful sound in the world for a Brazilian."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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