When someone mentions Ronaldo’s greatest performances, there are a few that immediately spring to mind.
The World Cup final in 2002, the UEFA Cup-winning masterclass for Inter Milan in 1998, the eviscerating hat-trick for Barcelona against Valencia in 1996, the demonstration of three goals against Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2003 which earned him a standing ovation from the faithful of Old Trafford.
But back to the first half of the 1994 season in Brazil and Ronaldo, for those eagle-eyed few who watched from Europe, staged a two-act play that through a combination of resilience and of brilliance, hinted at the phenomenon that it was to become in the following years across the pond.
Ronaldo was playing for Cruzeiro. In the Copa Libertadores, they had been drawn in a group of death with Brazilian champions Palmeiras, future winners Velez Sarsfield and powerful Boca Juniors, Argentina champions in 1992.
Velez and Palmeiras might have been the best teams, but Boca was Boca – an away trip to Bombonera and the home game against them at Mineirao, Cruzeiro’s third and sixth group matches, were the most intimidating prospects. .
In the first game in Buenos Aires, Cruzeiro won 2-1, but Ronaldo was sent off from the game. In the second, he got his back the only way he had ever known how to do it. Ronaldo was only 17, but his scoring style was second to none.
Boca’s ties were two of the few that made the Brazilian a force to be reckoned with, a true budding superstar who could compete with the best. This is how they happened.
At the start of the first match at La Bombonera, in front of a barking crowd that included Diego Maradona, Ronaldo made his intentions clear. He did two dart runs behind defense, both of which were called offside. The second time around, he was dragged to the ground with the flag raised. Then he bit into the box and was shot, but nothing was given.
There was a clear danger and Boca’s defense decided they would need to deal with him. The next time he picked up the ball, this time in front of all four full-backs, Boca left-back Carlos Mac Allister, father of current Brighton midfielder Alexis, came in and, as Ronaldo moved in was returning, missed it. The message was not difficult to interpret: YesYou might be quick, but you won’t get through the sun that easily.
A decisive free kick
The second half started out much like the first was over, with cynical challenges weighing on the teenage Brazilian striker. Some of them reached him, others he jumped, but he couldn’t find a way to reach the goal.
Fourteen minutes after the break, Ronaldo picked up the ball, charged forward again and was dragged down again. Yet this time it was not entirely in vain. His mentor and teammate, Cruzeiro’s right-back Paulo Roberto stepped in and hit the free kick to the top corner in true Brazilian full-back style.
The farewell gift
Cruzeiro scored again with a quarter of an hour to go, but Ronaldo’s brutal treatment didn’t end there. Later, as he ran towards Boca’s half once again, he was on the receiving end of a thigh-high and crampon challenge that sent him falling to the ground.
Between the two games with Boca, Cruzeiro had beaten Palmeiras at home and lost to Velez away. So, as we approached game six of the group stage, they knew they had to beat their visitors from Argentina to advance to the round of 16. Ronaldo, luckily for them, was ready for revenge. Never one to take on challenges, he would seek revenge in the way he saw fit, distributing a well-deserved humiliation.
Boca manager Cesar Luis Menotti, who led Argentina to the World Cup in 1978, had chosen Ronaldo in the preparation as the Boca player had to be wary and Ronaldo’s first contact was an indication of the kind of mood in which he was. the night of April 6, 1994.
Receiving a throw-in in midfield, the young striker was knocked out by Carlos Moya. Moya’s legs were a little apart. Ronaldo saw the opportunity and seized it. A nutmeg elicited an early cheer from the crowd, which always poured into the stands. This came to naught with Ronaldo unable to retrieve the ball from the other side. But with a minute passed, Ronaldo had set the tone in his personal battle with the man tasked with scoring him.
The game quickly got worse from Cruzeiro’s perspective. A mistake by 20-year-old goalkeeper Dida in the third minute allowed Manteca Martinez to shoot at home.
Ronaldo was ready though, and at fourteen minutes showed another side of his game. Rather than receiving the ball behind the defense, he brought it back to goal on the edge of the box and left it to Luis Fernando, who burst into the box and slid it into the bottom corner.
The great return on investment
One each wasn’t enough for either team, but as the minutes went by neither could break the deadlock. It was exactly the kind of game that would bring in the old ‘something special’ cliché of an English co-commentator. There was something special about the game, but before that, Brazilian radio co-commentator Osvaldo Faria had time to suggest it wouldn’t be Ronaldo’s day. After all, the Boca branding was just too tight and violent.
But then, 15 minutes from the end, Ronaldo turned it on, like he heard Faria and thought, “Damn, take some of that then, old misanthrope.”
The teenager found a small pocket of space between midfielder and defense, received the pass, turned around and faced Boca’s four defenders between himself and the goalkeeper. Two came out towards him, but Ronaldo was too quick. He jumped between them, the ball under his control as if it were on the other end of an imaginary piece of string. Despite a surface that had more pompom than your grandfather’s old woolen sweater, he was heading for the goal.
As a third defender faced him, Ronaldo took another touch to the left, bursting into the box and now a one-on-one with the ‘keeper’. After that? You really don’t have to ask, do you? Ronaldo dribbled around the goalkeeper in his signature style and pushed the ball into the empty net with his left foot.
There was still some time to waste, of course, 15 minutes to hang on to a valuable result. Ronaldo was pushing and doing his defensive duties admirably, but there was still a little more humiliation to do.
A Cleisson cross was too long for Ronaldo to hang on, forcing him out of the way with a man in pursuit. An experienced player could have headed for the corner flag. Ronaldo thought differently. He saw Moya come up behind him again, twisted left and then right without touching the ball. Moya was already in a whirlwind.
Then Ronaldo took the ball to his right and turned to face Moya, to look into the whites of his eyes. Another shot the other way and Moya was gone. Ronaldo slipped past and brought him down to Douglas, whose shot flew over the post.
It didn’t matter who misses it, it was all over. Cruzeiro was crossing and Boca was sent home to contemplate the beatings inflicted on them by this indomitable teenager.
Of the goal, Ronaldo, in the simple style of a boy for whom such brilliance was normal, told internal magazine Cruzeiro: “I had the ball in midfield, and when I turned a few players came to me. , but I dribbled around them all. When I got into the box I took him around goalkeeper Navarro Montoya and just hit him in the net. A defender tried to stop him by sliding, but he also ended up in goal. It was a Golaco, unforgettable.
It was a coming-of-age display, one of the few Ronaldo produced in the few months he spent with Cruzeiro, and PSV must have looked at it with envy. A few months later, Ronaldo was gone, moving to the Netherlands for his first experience of European football and opening a new chapter in a glorious career.
By Joshua Law
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