‘O Fenômeno’ Turns 41: Looking Back At Ronaldo’s Greatest Performances

A footballing genius, gifted beyond belief and blighted by injury; Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, better known as simply Ronaldo, was perhaps the greatest No.9 of all-time.

Whilst notoriously overweight in his later years, Ronaldo was once the most dominant athlete in football; boasting a combination of blistering pace, unparalleled strength and breath-taking technical ability. Pre-injury R9 was essentially the ‘perfect’ footballer.

However, his story was also one of redemption. Ronaldo made a sensational recovery from a career-threatening knee injury to lead Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002 and forever banish his demons from 1998. Today marks Ronaldo’s 41st birthday, the perfect excuse to look back at five of ‘The Phenomenon’s’ finest performances.

5. SD Compostela Vs. Barcelona, La Liga, 1996

Ronaldo’s solitary season at Barcelona may truly have been his peak, an insane thought considering he had only just turned 20. Despite this, Ronaldo scored 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, including 34 in the league. The Brazilian consistently thrilled audiences week-in-week-out, boasting an electric fusion of speed, power and skill. He was football’s answer to Jonah Lomu.

It was against Compostela away in early October that The Phenomenon scored his most notorious goal in a Barcelona shirt; a goal so good that Bobby Robson could barely believe his eyes. Ronaldo completed a brace in the second-half, but his first goal will be forever remembered. SD Compostela now play in the Third Division of Spanish Football with Ronaldo’s unbelievable goal remaining their only source of relevance.

“You can go anywhere you want in the world, and you won’t find a player who can score goals like that. Can anybody, anywhere, show me a better player?” – Bobby Robson

4. Internazionale Vs. Lazio, UEFA Cup Final, 1998

Ronaldo’s time at Inter Milan was shrouded in injury problems after 1999. Even so, prior to this, the Nerazzurri did see The Phenomenon in full flow. The 1998 UEFA Cup Final was billed in the media as the best attacker in the world versus the best defender, Alessandro Nesta.

Despite the hype, Inter tormented Lazio on the night as Ronaldo made a mockery of Nesta’s presence. The Brazilian rounded off an emphatic 3-0 victory on 70 minutes, jinxing past the goalie in hypnotic style before tapping-in to finish. Minutes later he performed perhaps the most aesthetically perfect elastico of his career to leave two Lazio players in his wake.

“The worst experience I ever had was playing against Ronaldo when we faced Internazionale in the 1998 UEFA Cup Final in Paris. He’s an incredible player. I have watched that game on video so many times since then, trying to work out what I did wrong. We lost 3-0 but I don’t think now it was my fault. Ronaldo was simply unstoppable. He is so quick he makes everyone else look as if they are standing still.” – Alessandro Nesta

3. Barcelona Vs. Valencia, La Liga, 1996

Ronaldo scored four hat-tricks and seven braces during his year at Barcelona. It’s, therefore, almost impossible to pick his best performance for the Catalans. Yet his devastating hat-trick against Valencia at the Camp Nou somehow stands-out.

Just a couple of weeks after annihilating Compostela away, Ronaldo afflicted similar damage on Valencia in a 3-2 victory. Ronaldo put Barcelona 2-0 up going into half-time before Valencia made a second-half resurgence. But the Brazilian would not be denied. He completed a stunning hat-trick, bursting through the Valencia defence at an immeasurable speed, brushing aside two defenders as if they were children before finishing smartly.

“I’d seen him on television at PSV and thought ‘wow’. Then he came to Barcelona. He’s the most spectacular player I’ve ever seen. He did things I’d never seen before.” – Luis Enrique

2. Brazil Vs. Germany, World Cup Final, 2002

Redemption… Ronaldo had famously fallen ill before the 1998 World Cup Final and was denied his moment of glory. Then, having ruptured a tendon in his knee in November 1999, recurring problems prevented Ronaldo from regular football for the next two years.

After months of rehabilitation, The Phenomenon returned for the World Cup Finals in South Korea & Japan a very different player. Lacking the speed he once possessed, Ronaldo adapted to become a more intelligent forward, a goal poacher of sorts. Staggeringly, the Brazilian with his questionable hairstyle scored eight goals during the tournament, combining beautifully with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

In the final Ronaldo came up against the tournaments other star, Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. It was inevitable that the final would become a head-to-head battle between striker and goalkeeper. Nevertheless, after a barren first-half, Ronaldo latched onto a rare Kahn error to tap home and put Brazil ahead. 10 minutes later he sealed the win with a neat finish after Rivaldo’s glorious dummy. Ronaldo had returned in the most emphatic style and proved the doubters wrong. He was back.

“The best player I have ever played with? That’s Ronaldo, il Fenomeno. I have seen il Fenomeno do things that nobody else has ever done.” – Kaka

1. Real Madrid Vs. Manchester United, Champions-League Quarter-Finals, 2003

It was a tough choice, but this performance may top the lot. Ronaldo departed the field at Old Trafford to a standing ovation on 67 minutes, having completed a ruthless hat-trick. Years before Cristiano Ronaldo was receiving regular ovations from the Old Trafford faithful, The Phenomenon had turned up as part of a star-studded Galácticos side and stolen the show.

Real Madrid in fact scrapped through as 4-3 losers on the night, but Ronaldo’s performance would go down in football folklore. He may not have possessed the uncompromising pace he once did, but his movement and finishing were perhaps better than ever. Ronaldo was clinical and rampant.

The Champions League is the only trophy missing from Ronaldo’s cabinet and Europe’s biggest competition may not have seen the best of the Brazilian. But on this particular night against a strong United side, Ronaldo was incredible. His third goal in this stunning hat-trick remains the highlight.

“Without hesitation, Ronaldo is the best player I ever played with.” – Zinedine Zidane