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‘22 Goals’: Ronaldo, 2002 World Cup Final in Japan

The second installment in Brian Phillips’s series chronicling the most iconic goals in the history of the World Cup belongs to soccer’s “original” Ronaldo

Daniel Zalkus

As the 22nd men’s FIFA World Cup approaches in November 2022, The Ringer introduces 22 Goals, a podcast by Brian Phillips about the most iconic goals scored in the history of the World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves the “original” Ronaldo from the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

1. Bus Fare

Rio de Janeiro, the wonder city. Gateway to Brazil. Many people think it is the most beautiful city in the world. Its startling beauty is dramatically framed by nature.

Hi. Welcome! Let me introduce you to an American travelogue about Rio from 1955.

It’s full of quotes like:

Across the bay is a curtain of cloud-patterned beauty, pierced by sunlit rays.

(Translation: Being an American tourist in 1955 was the cat’s pajamas.)

Strong silver wings have carried us to this modern airport.

(Translation: The U.S. dollar in the decade after World War II was doing A-OK.)

And we are happy to be in this fabled land, for this is the carnival season, and days and nights of magic are before us!

Well. That’s one way to talk about Rio. It’s a familiar way to talk about Rio. If you’re a soccer fan, or if you’ve been exposed to the marketing of Brazilian soccer over the years, you’re very familiar with this stuff. Sun-dappled beauty, white sand, samba, carnival … footnote one, see colonialism.

And what we need to do, before we start this story, is get past all that. Put it to one side. Because this is a story about Rio, but it’s not that story, and it’s not that Rio.

This is a story about a boy trying to get across Rio on a bus.

Imagine a shy kid. Painfully shy, actually. He’s 13 years old. It’s 1990. He’s got an earnest face, and his front teeth stick out a little, so that when he smiles, he looks like a cartoon bunny. His friends have nicknamed him “Monica,” because in Brazil there’s this super-popular cartoon character called Monica, not a bunny but a little girl, and she has similarly large front teeth.

He has a big smile, this kid, and he smiles a lot, but there’s something hesitant about the way he smiles. He looks at the world as if he likes it, but as if he’s never quite sure that it will like him back.

Today, he has a tryout with his favorite soccer club. He wants to join their youth program. This is the biggest day of his life.

He lives in a working-class neighborhood, not a favela, not a slum, but a rundown suburb west of the city. And like many little kids in Rio, he dreams of becoming a soccer star. He skips school all the time to play soccer in the streets with his friends. Sometimes they jump the turnstiles at a subway station and take the train to the rich part of town, the sun-dappled tourist part of town, Copacabana or Ipanema, and play soccer on the beach.

His favorite club is called Flamengo. Huge team in Brazil. He plays in this indoor soccer league—a version of the game called futsal, really popular in Rio. Futsal is a five-on-five game played on hard courts with a smaller ball. It emphasizes technique, agility, footwork, and general tricksiness. Many Brazilian stars have come up through youth futsal leagues. And this kid, for all his shyness, is pretty good at it. There was one game when his team scored 12 goals. He scored 11 of them. So he’s been turning some heads. Flamengo says, come show us what you’ve got.

The problem is, Flamengo is located in a middle-class neighborhood way to the southeast of where he lives. Just to get out there is a journey. A long bus ride of over an hour. The kid’s parents are split up and his mom’s at work, so he has to traverse the city alone.

He’s nervous. This is his dream. But he gets through the bus ride, laces up his boots, and does his best. Does dribbling drills, shooting drills, whatever they tell him.

Afterward, the Flamengo coaches say, “Hey, you did well, we can see you have talent, but eh, we’re not sure. Come back tomorrow for the second round of trials and we’ll let you know then.”

Well, he hadn’t realized there would be a second round of trials. So he has to look at these adults, this shy kid, and tell them that he only has enough bus fare for today. Doesn’t have enough money to come back. So he has to ask the coaches to loan him enough for a bus ticket.

And they say no. Can’t help you. A bus ticket in Rio in 1990 costs about 30 centavos. That is less than a dollar. But to these guys, Rio is crawling with talented young soccer players, any of whom would kill to play for Flamengo. The only thing Rio is more full of than talented young soccer players is American travelogue narrators droning on about the magic of Carnival.

Sorry, kid. Tough luck.

And that’s that. He fails the trial. Imagine being 13 and having adults you look up to tell you that your gift, the thing that makes you special, is less valuable than exact change for a pack of Juicy Fruit.

It gets worse. Later that day, he gets mugged. A couple of thieves take his watch and beat him up.

As days go, you have to agree, this one counts as pretty rotten. Fortunately, it gets better. The kid’s name, if you haven’t guessed, is Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. The world knows him as Ronaldo.

Flamengo could have signed him for the cost of a bus ticket. In less than a decade, he’s going to be the most famous athlete in the world and the most expensive player in the history of soccer. He’s going to command transfer fees worth tens of millions of dollars.

He’s gonna get a new watch, too.

2. True Ronaldoness

Today we are here for Ronaldo. No, not that Ronaldo. Not Cristiano Ronaldo. We’re talking about the original Ronaldo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, the first, and in my view still the rightful, possessor of true Ronaldoness. Not just my opinion. Ask anyone who knows. Ask Thierry Henry, who said earlier this year that R9—Ronaldo wore the number 9 throughout his career—is quote, “the real Ronaldo.”

I have a confession to make before we go on. My confession is that I am so excited about this one. I’ve been looking forward to this episode since the day we launched this series.

OK, we launched this series one week ago. It felt like a long week!

I love this player. I love this goal. I love this story so much. I’m so excited that I may spontaneously break out into a 1950s travelogue. Poke me right now and I’ll go ...

Across the majestic harbor lies the splendid panorama of this city that loves to dance the night away ...

Every time Ronaldo scores a goal in this episode, picture me in central Pennsylvania going:

The samba, played by a variety of bands, is the principal dance of the carnival, and millions of men and women pursue its pulsating rhythms with ecstatic gyrations.

I’m going to try to control myself. Did I mention, incidentally, that that day at Flamengo was a bad day for Ronaldo? You know who it was really a bad day for? Can you imagine being the guy who didn’t sign the greatest player of his generation because he chose to put his pocket change above helping a 13-year-old kid? Hi, I’m a bad person. Also I suck at my job!

Michael Jordan’s high-school basketball coach—you know, the one who semi-apocryphally cut him from the team—he feels sorry for that guy.

Our thesis here is extremely simple. Our thesis is that however good you think Ronaldo was, however fun you think he was as a player, however mesmerizing you think he was to watch, he was better, and funner, and mesmerizing-er than that.

Our thesis is that before the devastating injuries that derailed his career, Ronaldo was quite possibly the most gifted soccer player ever to kick a ball.

We’re going to talk about the mysterious seizure he suffered before the 1998 men’s World Cup final. We’re going to talk about the horrific on-field collapse that made one seasoned physiotherapist utter the sentence “his kneecap actually exploded.” And we’re going to talk about his near-miraculous comeback from those catastrophes, culminating in the goal we are here to celebrate, his second from the 2002 World Cup final, which Brazil won 2-0 over Germany.

He scored both goals, by the way.

We’re going to talk about the haircut he wore in that game. We’re going to talk about a lot of stuff.

This is not a soccer essay; this is one token for a bus ride to the moon.

Let’s get on board.

3. A Confusion of Ronaldos

He was born in September 1976. Some confusion about the actual day. Paperwork mishap. He’s got two semiofficial birthdays every year. Just go with it. I was born on Leap Day; I have zero official birthdays most years. It evens out!

His parents couldn’t afford to pay the doctor who delivered him. The story goes that his dad went to the beach and collected some shrimp. Gave the shrimp to the doctor. So depending on which version you read, the doctor either delivered him for free or delivered him for shrimp.

Pretty cool thing to deliver someone for, in my opinion. The doctor’s name was Ronaldo. In gratitude, our Ronaldo’s mom named the baby after him.

Life lesson: If someone offers you shrimp in exchange for performing a service, always say yes. The key to becoming the namesake of a legendary star is shrimp-based bartering.

And OK. Right away, we’ve got to talk about this name. Ronaldo. Specifically, we have to talk about why the name Ronaldo is so absurdly overrepresented among all-time soccer greats.

You’ve got Ronaldo, obviously. Our Ronaldo. But even he wasn’t called Ronaldo at the beginning of his career. He was called Ronaldinho, which is Portuguese for “little Ronaldo,” because there was already a Ronaldo playing for the Brazilian national team. Actually two Ronaldos, I think, if you want to get technical? One Ronaldo after the other. Brazilian players, for those that don’t know, tend to use single names. So when those first Ronaldos retired, our Ronaldo took over the name. It’s like becoming the Dread Pirate Roberts.

A few years later, you’ve got another brilliant young Ronaldo who comes along and takes the soccer world by storm. Still not talking about Cristiano! I’m referring to another Brazilian Ronaldo, who now became—wait for it—Ronaldinho, because our Ronaldo had graduated up to full Ronaldohood. This Ronaldinho, of course, played his whole career under that name, won two FIFA Men’s World Player of the Year Awards, and became an international superstar for Barcelona. Went to prison in 2020 for trying to sneak into Paraguay using a forged passport. That’s a long story. Let’s avoid it.

Then, a few years later, you’ve got another brilliant young footballer named Ronaldo who came along … and this one? Oh, man.

There is a question hanging over this episode like a sun-dappled cloud over a spun-sugar beach.

The question is, Why has our Ronaldo faded a little bit in the public memory of great soccer players? Not that he’s forgotten. Nothing like that. He’s still on every list of the top players of all time. But my sense is that compared to the other great players of his generation—compared to, say, Zinedine Zidane—he’s slipped a little bit into the background. He’s not at the very top of soccer fans’ collective consciousness.


I will make no secret of the fact that I think the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo as an all-time great player in the late 2000s has contributed directly to our Ronaldo becoming … almost a little underrated? A little overlooked?

I mean, think about what you have to go through just to Google our Ronaldo successfully in the CR7 era. Just to get basic information about him. It’s like trying to do an internet search for a retired pop star named Keith Taylorswift. Just a flood of extraneous data about, like, how Manchester United’s English players feel about the club chef adding octopus to the menu because Cristiano likes it.

Not great, according to multiple British tabloids!

We’ll come back to this. I mean to the proliferation of Ronaldos, not to English cuisine’s reluctance to embrace the tentacle.

Our Ronaldo: born in 1976. Grows up in Rio. After the disaster of his tryout at Flamengo, he’s forced to start smaller. He ends up in the youth program of a club he can get to on the train. Handy. He gets better fast.

He already has astonishing creativity and technique, qualities he honed playing futsal. His whole career, he’s kind of a player’s player—the more accomplished other players are, the more skilled they are, the more they tend to appreciate his game. And one of the things other players always talk about is the flow of his ideas. The speed of his brain.

Mikaël Silvestre, the longtime Manchester United defender, said: “[With] Cristiano, maybe you can guess that he has three or four tricks he would use most of the time, but Ronnie, it was always something different. He was inventing things on the spot.”

He had that mental dimension from the beginning. But once he hit puberty—oh, wow. He got big and he got strong and he got fast. He was like Giannis Antetokounmpo crossed with Mozart. You cannot defend someone who can invent new tricks in the flow of the moment while also moving twice as fast as anyone else on the pitch while also being able to steamroll you if you do somehow catch him.

When he’s still a teenager, he gets picked up by Cruzeiro, his first legit professional club. The first time he plays for the Cruzeiro youth team, he scores a hat trick. He gets bumped up to the senior team. Makes his professional debut at 16. The Copa Libertadores is the club championship for the entire continent of South America. All the best teams in one tournament. Ronaldo scores a hat trick in his first game in this competition.

A couple of games later, he scores five against Bahia. Bahia is a Uruguayan club whose goalkeeper, Rodolfo Rodríguez, was the longtime starter for the Uruguayan national team.

There’s a compilation video from this game that’s a ton of fun to watch— we’ll put a link in the notes for this episode.

So Ronaldo scores one goal—a penalty. And then another goal when he dribbles around the goalkeeper. And then he scores a header, because why not? And then he scores another penalty. And then he scores a pure comedy goal when he steals the ball from the goalkeeper and just taps it in.

It’s such a dominant performance that afterward, Rodriguez gives an interview in which he seems kind of happy to have witnessed what he just witnessed, even though it came at his own expense. He goes, “Jesus, this boy is good!”

If the force you’re going up against is superhuman enough, it’s not humiliating to lose to it, it’s just cool that you got to see it. You don’t take it personally when an F-16 beats you to the finish line.

All told, at Cruzeiro, he nets 44 goals in 47 games. That’s pretty good! And those remarks by Rodriguez start what will become a long and fun trend through the years of the world’s best players and coaches just basically gawking at Ronaldo, just marveling at what he’s capable of.

4. Rubbernecking Sheer Beauty

Let’s go to the tape. And in this case, the tape is me pasting in lines from the internet.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic says: “As a soccer player, he was complete. There will never, in my opinion, be a better player than him.”

Mo Salah says: “The ability, the speed, the intelligence, he had everything, the way he played, his football was totally different.”

Kaká says: “For me, the best players are those who are able to think of a play and execute it quickest and in the best way possible, and Ronaldo has been the best at that. The speed of thought that he had – and the speed he had to carry out his actions – were perfect. It was something amazing.”

Fabio Cannavaro, when asked who was the strongest player he had ever played against, said: “I have no doubt, Ronaldo, the phenomenon, not CR7. He was unmarkable. At the first check he overcame you, the second he burned you, the third he humiliated you. He was like an extraterrestrial.”

José Mourinho: “Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi have had longer careers. They have remained at the top every day for 15 years. However, if we are talking strictly about talent and skill, nobody surpasses Ronaldo.”

FUSSBALL : WM 2002 in JAPAN und KOREA , BRA - BEL 2:0 Getty Images

5. O Fenomeneo

He makes the move to Europe in 1994, the year he turns 18. The Dutch club PSV Eindhoven buys him from Cruzeiro for $6 million. That’s enough to take approximately 15 million bus rides between his childhood home and Flamengo.

He scores his first goal for PSV 10 minutes into his first game. Fifty-four goals in 58 games overall.

It’s during the PSV years that he really develops into the player who will eventually transform the striker position.

Strikers conventionally played in the box. They hung around close to the goal and waited for the ball to come to them. Ronaldo, by contrast, routinely drops back to the halfway line, gets the ball, and hypnotizes an entire defense.

There’s this one move he does, called the elastico—famously a trick Pele could never learn properly. The way Ronaldo did it, he’d routinely knock defenders down without touching them at all.

So say you’re right-footed. You’re one-on-one against an opposition defender. You roll the ball with the outside of your right foot, just a little way to the right, like you’re setting up to break in that direction. Then suddenly, like an elastic band snapping, you whip your right foot around the ball and knock it hard across your body with the inside of the foot, while exploding as fast as you can to your left. Your defender is now off balance because he was expecting you to go right. He tries to correct himself but now the planet Earth feels like it’s spinning in the wrong direction. He trips over himself while you blow past him at warp speed.

The best thing about watching Ronaldo during this era is that he’s such a joyful presence on the pitch. He just radiates sunlight. You can still see traces of the shy boy he used to be. But his energy now—it’s more in keeping with the fun-loving kid who used to jump subway turnstiles to play on the beach. You’re watching someone doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, something that comes so naturally to them that it doesn’t look like work. It looks like what it’s supposed to be. Play.

There’s a story about Ronaldo’s later years, when he was playing for AC Milan, that always seemed to capture something about his personality to me.

Kaká, another great Brazilian player, was also starring for Milan at this point—this is around 2007. And Kaká is famously very religious. Brazil is a largely Catholic country, but Kaká is a very enthusiastic evangelical Christian. He used to kneel on the pitch after he scored a goal and pull up his shirt to reveal a second shirt reading “I Belong to Jesus.”

So there’s this young Brazilian player called Alexandre Pato who signs with Milan. And right after he arrives, he’s sitting in the locker room with Ronaldo and Paolo Maldini, the great defender. And Ronaldo goes, “OK, you have to decide whether you’re in my group or Kaká’s group.” And he points to Kaká’s locker, which has a bunch of Christian paraphernalia hanging up around it. That’s what Kaká’s group is like. And then he opens his own locker, and gets out, like, a copy of Playboy and a chocolate bar? I might be making up the chocolate bar.

And that’s what Ronaldo’s group is like.

You can go through life on the hard road, the high-minded, high-stakes road, or you can go through life like it’s a game. Like it’s fun. Ronaldo embodies the latter approach. But he plays in a way that makes a copy of Playboy and a Snickers look like a whirlwind of divine inspiration.

But back in 1996, it’s also at PSV that he suffers his first knee injury. Misses most of his second season. Not great. He still averages almost a goal a game.

In 1996, he moves to Barcelona for more than $16 million. I won’t even try to convert that into public transportation terms. That’s postwar American tourist money!

In the heart of the city, Mombo, God of Pleasure, is king, and all his willing subjects will endlessly dance and sing for 72 fun frenzied hours …

FUSSBALL: WM 2002 in JAPAN und KOREA, BRA - TUR 2:1 Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

6. Love and Mario Kart

OK. Tourism.

I remember the first time I ever traveled abroad. It was my first year after college. I was working for this magazine in Washington, D.C., and my girlfriend at the time was doing a study abroad program in Prague. So I flew out to Prague to see her and visit the cathedral and, um … send postcards home to my mom, who is almost certainly reading this article.

Anyway. What I mostly remember about that trip was that we ended up deciding on the spur of the moment to go to Austria. My girlfriend was—I had not realized this, because why would you?—allergic to feathers. I don’t know if you’ve ever stayed in an Austrian hotel. They’re not the most feather-free environments. I’m pretty sure the ceilings in Austrian hotels are held up by lode-bearing support feathers.

So we go to Salzburg. Birthplace of Mozart. Not the birthplace of Giannis Antetokounmpo, obviously. My girlfriend has this idea that as the man, and also as the person who doesn’t go into anaphylactic shock within 50 yards of an eiderdown quilt, I should be the one to go into the hotel and try to convey to the people at the desk that we would like a room without feathers.

Kein fiedern, is the phrase, I believe, if you’re ever in this situation. No one informed me. I go into the hotel and mime, like, flapping my wings and honking like a goose. And then make a throat-cutting gesture with my hand? The NFL fined me 15 yards and $25,000 for that vacation.

The desk clerk looks at me like I’m someone who’s, well, flapping my arms and then threatening to murder them.

Finally, they seem to understand what I’m asking. Don’t worry, mein herr, we’re gonna get your room ready. We go up. We’ve been traveling all day. We’re so ready to put our luggage down and relax. We open the door.

If you imagine a haze—a storm—of loose duck dander drifting through the air, over a waist-high pile of feather blankets and down pillows. If you imagine the most feather-choked atmosphere you believe reality can support. I am still not sure you’ll be picturing the quantity of feathers inside this hotel room. Somehow my slitting the throat of my pretend goose alter ego has communicated to the Austrian desk clerk that I wanted a room with more feathers. I wanted feathers times a million. I wanted them to get a rifle and a spaniel and take the wheelbarrow out to the marsh.

My girlfriend, I have to say, did not immediately see the humor in this situation. I was a failure as a feather-repulser, and that’s something you can never un-know about a person. Not a great relationship, if I’m honest. I think the only thing keeping us together at that point was Mario Kart.

We didn’t break up for two more years. You have to stay together for Yoshi.

Anyway, my point. My point is that the single season Ronaldo spent at Barcelona … that was the extra-feathers version of arguably the greatest player any of us has ever seen. Talent-wise, he was already an Austrian hotel room. Now he was an Austrian hotel room where I had requested hypoallergenic bedding.

He was shocking.

Forty-seven goals in 49 games. Yeesh. Doesn’t even tell the story. He scored a goal that made Sir Bobby Robson, who was then the manager of Barcelona, stand up and hold his head like he’d just seen a UFO.

He scored multiple goals after dribbling around goalkeepers or faking them out so hard they fell down. He was 20 years old. Everyone who played with him, everyone who played against him, everyone who watched him—they all seemed to agree that they’d never seen anything like this kid before.

7. Bus Fare, Part 2


OK. I’m gonna just dive into this next bit, because otherwise I’ll start stalling.

He moved to Inter Milan in 1997. Almost $30 million. Record fee. Destroyed Serie A for a couple of years. Won some more awards.

In 1998, he played in his first World Cup. He’d been part of the Brazil squad during USA ‘94, but he was only 17 and didn’t play in any games. Now it’s ‘98 and he’s the biggest star on the planet. Iconic images of Ronaldo in the yellow Brazil shirt. Four goals and three assists. Wound up winning the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament.

But before the final against France, something went wrong. No one really understands what happened. But he suffered some kind of convulsive fit. A seizure. This is hours before the game. Terrifying medical emergency. Brazil released a team sheet without him on it, which made the whole world, basically, freak out. No one had a clue what was going on.

Right before the match, Ronaldo is feeling better. He pleads with the manager to put him back in the team.

Brazil … lets him play. Wow. In fairness to the people making that obviously terrible decision, the team doctor later said, “Imagine if I’d stopped him from playing and Brazil lost. At that moment, I’d have to go and live on the North Pole.”

The word people use to describe his performance in the final is “sleepwalk,” as in, he sleepwalks through the match. Brazil loses to France 3-0 behind two goals from his future teammate Zinédine Zidane.

Ronaldo doesn’t look like himself. He doesn’t talk a lot about what happened, just tends to say stuff like “it wasn’t my best match” and “I had a duty to my country and I didn’t want to miss it.” He may not know what happened that day. In any case, at that moment, it’s the first sign that maybe he’s not invulnerable. Maybe he’s human after all.

The next sign: November 1999. He’s playing for Inter against Lecce. He blows out his knee. Ruptures a tendon. Limps off the field. He misses four and a half months of the season.

In April, in his comeback match, in the Coppa Italia final against Lazio, he plays six minutes and then suffers one of the worst injuries a soccer player can experience. He’s attacking the Lazio goal. He’s dribbling, doing a little slalom-y, quasi-stepover-y thing.

And his right knee buckles. And he falls to the ground screaming.

If you watch enough sports, eventually you see one of these moments. One of the moments when everyone on the field understands that something hideous has just happened, and the game just ceases to matter, and a kind of sick feeling comes over everything. The Lazio players and the Inter players surround him. Everyone’s terrified. He’s in agony. There’s video footage of this. I don’t recommend watching it. What’s gonna happen, if you dial up the clip on YouTube, is that there’s will be a moment when the video pauses, and a little yellow circle appears on Ronaldo’s leg to show you where his kneecap is, and it is not where a human kneecap should be.

His physiotherapist says his kneecap, quote, exploded. And says it was the worst soccer injury he’s ever seen.

This could easily have been the end of his career. He’d always been an injury risk because he played with a pace and force beyond what the human body is really capable of withstanding. But now … it was as if the universe had loaned him bus money and was demanding to be paid back. He missed most of two seasons. He was in his mid-20s. Still so young.

8. Bad Hair Like a Fox

Cut to years of questions. Will he ever be the same player again? Will he ever play again at all? He starts training. And in fact he’s not the same player. He’s lost speed. He’s lost power. Still has the same brain, though, and that is a very good thing. You can take the feathers out of Austria but you can’t take the Austria out of the feathers. That makes no sense; I’m just looking for a recurring joke that doesn’t involve playing Brazilian tourism reels.

The last hours of this fantastic festival are near. But once you’ve seen it...been a part of its music and rhythm, happiness and laughter … you will forever be haunted by the merry Carnival in Rio!

And that is why. Cut to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

The last time he played in a World Cup, in France, he sleepwalked through the final. Now, he scores Brazil’s first goal of the tournament, against Turkey.

He keeps scoring. A ridiculous eight goals in the 2002 men’s World Cup, tying Pele’s Brazilian record for career World Cup goals. He scores in every round except the quarterfinals and against every team Brazil faces except England.

He unveils a new haircut for the later rounds of the tournament. Maybe you can picture it? It’s the one where his whole head is shaved except for one little dice-pip at the very front. It’s more of a semicircle than a dice-pip, really. At the time, everyone was like, Hm, why is Ronaldo wearing a deliberately stupid-looking haircut?

It played into a vague feeling that he was a weirdo. A lot of people thought he was a weirdo.

Well, judge for yourself. Here’s what Ronaldo said about it later. He said, “The day I showed up with that haircut, people stopped asking me about the injury.”

Yeah. You know who else was a weirdo? Every genius ever.

Cut to the final.

9. Rainbow Road

Yokohama, Japan. June 30, 2002. Brazil versus Germany. One of these teams is the most precise, reliable, and well-engineered unit in World Cup history. The other of these teams is Germany. First time the two countries have met in a World Cup.

Here we go.

This is a really good German team, by the way. Not the best ever, probably, but really good. Oliver Kahn, the German goalkeeper, is having a tournament for the ages. Do you remember Oliver Kahn? Big, blond, elegant hulk of a goalkeeper. He has just extremely pale eyebrows. Looks like he sleeps on a lot of feathers, frankly.

He’s only conceded one goal—one goal!—in the entire World Cup up to this point.

The Brazil squad is pretty odd as Brazil squads go. Brazil, of course, is renowned for their free-flowing, attacking soccer. Soccer which, once you’ve seen it, once you’ve been part of its music and rhythm, happiness and laughter, will leave you forever haunted by the merry carnival of … Nike commercials.

Brazil has an all-time front line in this tournament, made up of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo. Wow.

But their manager is Luiz Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari, whose whole deal is that he basically hates happiness and laughter and really loves, like, punching people in the face?

I say this because he later made headlines, in 2007, when he tried to punch a Serbian player in the face.

Anyway, under Scolari, Brazil is more of a scrappy, spit-on-your-hands kind of knockabout unit than the samba football image would imply. Which actually suits Ronaldo, in a weird way. His body is fragile, he’s lost a step; he’s succeeding through intelligence and guile. He doesn’t need a ballet company. He needs a Praetorian Guard.

Tight first half. Chances on both sides. No one converts. Scoreless at the break.

In the 67th minute, Ronaldo steals the ball from the German midfielder Didi Hamann and passes it to Rivaldo. Rivaldo shoots, Kahn flubs the save, and Ronaldo gets to the rebound.

Pow. 1-0 Brazil. Our guy just scored in a World Cup final two years after receiving a sternly worded resignation letter from his own knee.

We’re not done.

Twelve minutes later. Brazil is still leading 1-0. Oliver Kahn is still blond. Ronaldo is still bald, except for that one little geodesic hair-dome right above his forehead.

Seventy-ninth minute. Brazil’s midfielder Kleberson passes the ball to Rivaldo in the middle of the pitch, just outside the Germans’ area. Rivaldo. My goodness, what a great player. Really deserves a whole podcast to himself. Rivaldo grew up extremely poor, like malnourishment-level poor, which left him with bowed legs and some missing teeth. Just a magician with the ball.

Now he takes the ball just outside the area. Or actually, he doesn’t take it. It looks like he’s going to take it, only at the last possible second, Rivaldo lets the pass roll between his feet. He senses—because he’s a magician—that there’s another Brazilian player behind him, in the area, unmarked.

He’s right. It’s Ronaldo! Ronaldo gets to the ball. Two German defenders collapse toward him. Too late. He pulls back his leg to shoot.

Do you remember the question we raised earlier? The sun-dappled clouds question? The question is, why has this phenomenal player—a player literally nicknamed the Phenomenon—why has he become a bit of an afterthought among soccer fans?

Easy answer: Cristiano Ronaldo stole his name.

Longer answer: Because we don’t quite know what to do with a player this talented who gets hurt and comes back as a lesser version of themselves.

I mean, the joy of watching Ronaldo in his prime was that he was simply so much better than everyone else. He made the game look so intoxicatingly easy. He normalized astonishment. And when you have a player like that, a Mozart-level talent like that, and then their body gives out, and they never reach those heights again—it’s unsettling. What to make of a diminished thing?

We can handle it when a genius flames out young, rock star–style; we can even handle it when a genius ages naturally and slowly declines. But when a player who pushed the limits of possibility for an entire sport is suddenly, I don’t know, capped at 80 percent of what they used to be? 75 percent? When they’re supposed to be in their prime? That’s hard to reconcile with the fantasy we’re trying to indulge by following sports.

The default reaction for a lot of people during Ronaldo’s later career was to joke about him. To make fun of his weight, or to treat him as a sort of lazy goofball. But what if all that teasing was a way to cover up our own discomfort, our own embarrassment in confronting the limits of the ideal of athletic perfection?

Well. In 2002, Ronaldo might be physically diminished, but ask Germany how embarrassing he is. Ask Oliver Kahn how he feels about your Fat Ronaldo jokes. And ask yourself what’s more impressive—a player whose natural talent means he’s permanently playing on God Mode, or a player who loses that advantage and still finds a way to score eight goals in the World Cup. Including two in the final against the best goalkeeper in the world.

Ronaldo takes the shot. The ball scuds along the ground toward the far post. Kahn leaps to his left but doesn’t get to it. The ball slams into the back of the net. Goal. 2-0 Brazil, game over.

By Ronaldo’s standards, it’s one of the least jaw-dropping goals he’s ever scored. It’s a regular old goal! All it did was cement his return to the very top of the game and win the World Cup for Brazil—the last time, as of right now, that Brazil has won the tournament, and the only time any South American team has won it in the 21st century.

10. Better Than Perfect

I don’t know. You can make fun of him if you want. Or you can call his story a tragedy because of the injury.

To me, when I see the look on his face after he scores that second goal, as he trots toward the touchline waving his finger and grinning. When I see that big smile, which is still a little shy. When I relive this moment of pure joy—to me, this story, as a story, could not get any better.

We talk about legacy a lot in sports. Too much, probably. In 2002, Ronaldo is not yet done adding to his. He moves to Real Madrid and stars for four and a half seasons on the team of Galacticos with Zidane, David Beckham, and Luís Figo. In 2003, he knocks Manchester United out of the Champions League by scoring a hat trick at Old Trafford that’s so good the Man United fans give him a standing ovation.

He wins another Ballon d’Or.

He struggles with more injuries. He gains some weight. He moves to AC Milan in 2007, and therefore becomes the rare player to have played for Barcelona and Real Madrid and Inter Milan and AC Milan. He retires in 2011 after a brief spell playing in Brazil. He buys a controlling interest in not one but two soccer clubs—Real Valladolid, in Spain, and Cruzeiro, in Brazil, the club where he started his career.

He has a son who also played soccer, but thank God, he and his then-wife broke the endless cycle of Ronaldos by naming their little boy … Ronald.

Let’s leave the legacy conversation alone for now. Not because he can’t compete with the best players of all time—I can think of numerous other Ronaldos who have never scored twice in one World Cup final—but because frankly, it’s more fun to appreciate him for the marvelously unique player that he is.

If a computer designed the perfect soccer player, I don’t know what it would come up with. But if an artist designed the perfect soccer player? They might come up with him. A player who lost a piece of what made him special, and became more special as a result.

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