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Brazil's Ronaldo Has the World at His Feet

By Michael T. Shepard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 1998; Page A1

He is a 21-year-old who never has been even a bit player in the quadrennial soccer drama known as the World Cup. But when the curtain rises next week on the world's most-watched sports competition, no one doubts where the spotlight will shine the brightest — or the hottest: On No. 9 in the mystique-laden yellow jersey of soccer's most decorated and mesmerizing nation, Brazil.

Ronaldo, two-time world soccer player of the year. Ronaldo, cultural phenomenon. Ronaldo, soccer persona for the world's most ubiquitous sports marketing icon. Ronaldo, the best-paid player in the planet's most popular sport whose uncanny ability to score already has earned his comparisons with history's most famous soccer player, Pele.

His countrymen will settle for nothing less than another world championship. The legions of Brazilian and Italian boys who have shaved their heads to imitate their idol's ultraclean cut await more highlight-quality goals for them to imitate while wearing replicas of his Brazil or Inter Milan jerseys. His corporate sponsors at Nike — who have given him a $15 million deal that puts him in the same endorsement league with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Michael Johnson — have bet hundreds of millions of dollars that he and his Nike-backed and outfitted compatriots will leave swoosh marks all over the World Cup.

"We know for a fact that he is the most global of all athletes today, bar none," said Joaquin Hidalgo, director of Nike's Brazilian marketing unit.

He's the star of a recently unveiled Nike television advertisement that features Brazilian national team players skillfully goofing around with a soccer ball to the rhythms of a classic samba tune while going through an airport — ostensibly on their way to France. Ronaldo has a slickly designed home page, with versions in Portuguese, Italian and English.

When handed the telephone for an interview, he greeted a somewhat startled reporter in simple, informally personable Portuguese: "Sou eu, Ronaldo." — "It's me, Ronaldo."

Did he ever think, as a boy playing the game barefoot on the impoverished outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, that he would become this well-known?

"No, nothing like this. But I always did dream of being a famous player," he said from Milan. "The emotions are always very strong for me — to be able to play this game, to be able to score goals."

As a player, Ronaldo is a rare combination of speed, strength and finely honed soccer skills. As an athlete, he possesses that preternatural ability to summon an extra burst of speed or strength.

Although technically gifted, he does not dawdle with artful ball work before making an offensive rush. When he sees an opening, he slices through the defense like a rapier and rams the ball home.

But it is not just his prolific goal scoring that has won him admirers. In an age when famous athletes often make headlines for antisocial behavior, Ronaldo defies the curve.

Despite the swirl of attention, the $5 million annual salary from Inter Milan and the millions more from Nike and other commercial endorsements, he maintains a coolness unnatural in someone so young. He charms people wherever he goes with a gap-toothed smile, boyish good looks and impeccable manners. Neither adulation nor criticism seems to faze him.

"I always try to stay calm, forgetting all of the pressures that exist outside soccer," he said. "I try to live a normal life."

But it can be hard to stay calm when an entire country refers to you as il fenomeno — "the phenomenon," a moniker coined by the Italian media. And when the public eye creeps into his private life, Ronaldo bristles, especially when it concerns his girlfriend, Susana Werner — a Brazilian model, soap opera star and soccer player for the Fluminense club women's team in Rio de Janeiro. He is said to dislike especially the public's nickname for her: "Ronaldinha."

Ronaldo's agents in Brazil, Reinaldo Pitta and Alexandre Martins, represent 67 other soccer players, including national team members Carlos Germano and Junior Baiano. But for these agents, Ronaldo has been a personal favorite since they first signed him as a 13-year-old.

"He's kind, he's responsible, and he has an exceptional character," Pitta says. "Ever since he was a boy, he knew what he wanted from life and he knew he could achieve it."

Starting Early
Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima was born and raised in a forlorn suburban town called Bento Ribeiro, about an hour from the center of Rio de Janeiro.

He is the youngest of Nelio Nazario de Lima and Sonia Barata's three children. Both parents worked for the state phone company, Telerj. His mother stopped working soon after the birth of their first child, Ronaldo's older brother, Nelio Junior.

His parents separated when he was 11. To support the children, his mother found work behind the counter of a luncheonette, working up to 12 hours a day for a little more than the minimum wage.

Soccer seized Ronaldo at a young age. Much to his mother's chagrin, it quickly became more important than school. He skipped most of his classes and quit altogether after the seventh grade.

"I could not accept the fact that my son thought only of playing soccer. What kind of future would he have?" said his mother, Sonia, in an interview last year with O Globo newspaper in Rio de Janeiro. "I always found him on the street playing ball with friends when he should have been in school. I know, I lost my battle."

Ronaldo began chasing his dream when he joined the Social Ramos athletic club's indoor soccer team, which paid him a small stipend for lunch, bus fare and soccer shoes. He led the city youth league in scoring and in one game, scored 11 of his team's 12 goals.

He yearned to play for Flamengo, the famed club in downtown Rio de Janeiro where his idol and Brazilian national team star Zico played during the 1980s. He tried out for the Flamengo junior team and played well enough to be invited back, but he could not afford the fare for the hour-long bus ride to the next day's practice.

Instead, he moved from Social Ramos to a struggling suburban Rio de Janeiro club called Sao Cristovao. Pitta said he and Martins went to see the young Ronaldo play at Sao Cristovao after hearing the boy's coach rave about his abilities.

Something about the scrawny 13-year-old impressed the two agents. Maybe it was the five goals he scored in the 9-1 Sao Cristovao victory.

"We saw right away that he could be something different than most other players," Pitta said.

They purchased his player's pass for $7,500, which probably rates as one of the better investments in Brazilian sports history. His rise as a professional has been meteoric. With each of his clubs, he managed to score almost a goal per game. And with each change of clubs, he and his agents received at least the usual 15 percent cut of the transfer fees, which have soared.

From Sao Cristovao, his contract was sold in 1992 for $25,000 to Cruzeiro, a club in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. In 1994, after winning the Brazilian championship, Cruzeiro sold the 17-year-old's contract to the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven for $6 million.

During the 1996 Olympics, PSV sold Ronaldo to Barcelona for a record $20 million. With Barcelona for the 1996-97 season, he scored 49 times in 51 games.

To sign him in June 1997, Inter Milan paid him a reported $14 million signing bonus and paid Barcelona another $28 million in transfer fees.

In each new European city, Ronaldo has won the respect of fans and the soccer media. He has done it the hard way, which included learning some of the local language, be it Dutch, Spanish or Italian.

"Now, if you go to the training grounds and ask for him for an interview, he replies in Italian," said Lucca Valdiserri, deputy sports editor for the Milan daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

After less than a year with Inter, Ronaldo also has adjusted to the challenge of playing in the Italian Serie A, considered by many to be the world's toughest professional league, known for crushing defenses and low-scoring matches. He led his team in scoring with 34 goals, including 25 in Serie A play.

"I continue to play my game, and I always try to improve, but without worrying too much about the defenses — which, yes, are getting tougher," said Ronaldo, who has filled out his 6-foot frame with a leanly muscled 175 pounds.

Air Apparent
Ronaldo's impact on the game already has been such that Nike signed him to a 10-year contract that will pay him a reported $1.5 million annually. As part of a campaign to conquer the global soccer market, Nike signed a 10-year, $200 million deal in December 1996 with the Brazilian Soccer Federation (CBF) to outfit the national team. And more recently, Nike made an 11-year deal with Inter Milan worth a reported $242 million.

By signing Ronaldo, Nike has made him chief spokesmodel for all of soccer. It may end up being their biggest endorsement ever: According to estimates of soccer's world governing body, FIFA, more than 200 million people play the game in 190 countries.

In March, Nike unveiled a super-lightweight soccer shoe called the Mercurial that has been tailored to his speed-driven style of play and stands as Nike's top-of-the-line shoe, a la the basketball Air Jordan.

"I think he is changing the game of soccer the way that Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball," Hidalgo said.

Carrying the Weight
The most burdensome expectation of Ronaldo is the one generated by his country's rich soccer tradition. Brazil's national team has won four World Cup titles, more than any other national team, and has qualified for each of the 16 World Cup finals played since 1930.

Ronaldo was chosen to the national team that won in 1994, but did not play. Though expected to lead Brazil's scoring this year, he cannot win the title alone.

The offensive burden borne by Ronaldo became even greater Tueday when Romario, his partner at forward, was cut from the team because of a lingering calf injury.

Disappointment awaits unless the team finds some cohesion on offense — something that was sorely absent in late April during a 1-0 loss to Argentina in its pre-World Cup farewell in Rio de Janeiro.

"We'll have some more time to train together now. These two weeks will help us improve, without a doubt," Ronaldo said hopefully before joining the team in France.

Ronaldo dreams not only of hoisting the coveted Jules Rimet Trophy and joining his teammates in a victory lap July 12. He also has said he hopes to break the seemingly unbeatable record of Frenchman Jus Fontaine, who scored 13 goals during the 1958 tournament.

Although Fontaine led in scoring that year, Brazil won the championship, led by the legendary Pele, to whom many compare Ronaldo.

But Ronaldo himself bristles at any such comparisons. He tries assiduously to maintain his identity and does not allow outsiders to reshape it against his will.

"Pele is Pele," he has often said, with characteristic directness. "I am Ronaldo."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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