Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The King Is Dead. Long Live the King

When I first began to play the game as an adolescent in North Carolina, I had no footballing background to speak of.  I had no experienced older brother from whom I gleaned all my knowledge, as he was on par with me with zero footballing experience.  My dad, although more than supportive of my sporting choice despite being a college track star, knew nothing of the sport either.  When I began, the only reference I had for the game was the Eurosport catalog, FourFourTwo magazine, and every VHS tape I could get my hands on.

Despite this, I fell fully in love with the game.  From the beginning, despite never having seen the man play live, I also fell head over heels for a goofy, light-skinned Brazilian named Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.  From the first time I saw videos of this man steamrolling his way through defenders one minute, then dancing his way around them the next, I was hooked.  This was to be my favorite player of all-time.

Unlike those privileged enough to follow his career fully from nearly the beginning, I survived on video clips, magazine articles and word of mouth for years until the 1998 World Cup rolled around.  As Ronaldo smiled his way through the group stages alongside Rivaldo, Bebeto, Roberto Carlos and the like, I couldn't help but want to step into his boots and be the man himself.  Finally able to see the man play in real-time on  TV, I was forever a Ronaldo fan.  With the news of Ronaldo's fit before the France match and seeing the shell of a man that trotted around the pitch in the final, I was more than convinced that Ronaldo had been drugged by sinister forces just to keep him from being at his unstoppable best.  Despite his performance, my faith in him was unshaken and my love never wavered.

Living close to Eurosport's home, I was constantly in and out of the home office/warehouse, attempting to coerce my parents to buy me everything Ronaldo-related, including the newly introduced technological marvel, the Nike Air Mercurial.  While the boot itself was unattainable due to the extravagant price, the owner Mike Moylan was kind enough to allow me to try on the boot Ronaldo himself had tested for Nike.  I had long read that Ronaldo stuffed his feet into tiny boots to strike the ball better, but was completely taken aback and awestruck when I was handed a shoe barely bigger than a size 7 or 8.  Even more awe-inspiring was the fact that the great man himself had worn the same golden slipper I had on my foot.  Had I been a lesser boy, the experience would have made me cry.

Despite choosing to pledge my devotion to Juventus at a young age, I could never let my allegiance to Ronaldo be shaken despite his signing for Inter Merda Milan.  For me, Ronaldo was forever an entity, not bound by the jersey on his back.  When Ronaldo had his famous tandem knee injuries on November 21, 1999 and April 12, 2000, I was distraught.  The fact that knee problems had the potential to slow my hero down and even cut his career short was a sobering fact.  When the great man returned for the World Cup sporting a new haircut and looking as healthy (if a bit heavier) as ever, I couldn't help but wear the same goofy smile as O Fenomeno.  As Ronaldo tore through the opposition, I danced for a month straight, culminating in his famous brace in the final against Germany.  Watching as I dressed for church that morning, I jumped on my bed and did a lap around my house for each goal he netted.  Nothing could have made me happier.

With his move to Real Madrid and more access to international footballing coverage, I was better able to follow Ronaldo's exploits in Spain, especially in Champions League play.  Towards the latter end of his stint however, it was clear that he was in a regression.  As his waistline grew, he suffered a spattering of injuries here and there, his smile faded more and more.  Ruud Van Nistelrooy's acquisition in 2006 seemed to spell the end of his Real Madrid career, if not the end of his career, period.  The fact that times had changed and Google searches for "Ronaldo" yielded more hits for a whiny, temperamental Portuguese winger only served to exacerbate the feeling that Ronaldo's reign was to be short-lived.

It was bittersweet news to hear that Ronaldo had transferred to AC Milan for the 2007-2008 season.  I was more than happy to hear his retirement had been forestalled, but not as jubilant about his signing for another Milanese rival.  However, his struggles continued with Milan, despite a rare moment of joy against Napoli during which Ka-Po-Ro finally made an appearance in the form of Kaká, 17-year-old Pato and (now known as "Fat") Ronaldo.  Ronaldo's emotional double was overshadowed by his clear joy in playing with Kaká and Pato, as he lumbered bounded about the pitch attempting to link up with his younger Brazilian compatriots.  When Pato finally scored, Ronaldo's joy was so contagious it was impossible to smile and jump along with him.

When Ronaldo ruptured his ligaments yet again in a match against Livorno in February of 2008, I cried. I was sure that his career was done, and it was too much to bear.  I hoped against hope that he would return to the pitch, but in all honesty, I saw no reason for him to play again.  The man had nothing to prove, and for selfish reason, I couldn't bear to seem him break down yet again.

News of Ronaldo's recovery and training with Flamengo sparked a tiny flame of hope, but I refused to get ahead of myself.  When he announced his return, signing with Corinthians in December of 2009, I celebrated in a muted fashion; happy that his career wasn't over, but disappointed that he hadn't returned to the club he loved, Flamengo.  I followed his performances as he showed flashes of his previous brilliance, but it was painful to see the toll his injuries and (recently admitted) hypothyroidism affect his play.

Rumors swirled around his retirement the last few days, but yesterday, when Ronaldo officially announced he was hanging up the boots, I felt an intense sadness.  No rumor of tears stung my eyes, but to know that the player I grew up emulating has moved on is an indescribable feeling.  Gone are the days when I would practice every move he did in my backyard.  No longer can I tune in on a Tuesday, Wednesday or weekend to see him torment opposing defenders with a look of pure joy on his face.  Never again will I see his name on a World Cup squad list.  In my opinion, there will never be another Ronaldo.  No player will affect the game in the manner he did, with such a combination of skill, consistency and athleticism mixed with humility and joy.

Long live the King.  The King is dead retired.

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