Ronaldo deserves more credit as one of the game's greatest players
Romelu Lukaku was just starting to tire when the subject came up. The Belgian striker had been sitting in a little ante-room at Everton's training ground for a little more than half an hour being peppered with questions. Where does his future lie? Has this been a frustrating season? How much better can he get?
He is a good talker, Lukaku, bright and eloquent, honest and open without ever being blunt. But half an hour is a long time for anyone to talk about themselves; and besides, footballers tend to feel they have better things to do with their afternoons than talk to members of the media. His answers were just starting to get shorter, his pauses longer, when talk turned to the players he had most admired as a kid.
He mentioned Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, the two players who made him want to play for Chelsea, but it was with the mention of the third that he lit up, his excitement such that he could barely finish a thought before another one came along. Even now, when his manager Roberto Martinez regards him as one of the best strikers in the world, Lukaku sounds a little star-struck by the very thought of Ronaldo, the Brazilian one, the one they called O Fenomeno.
"He changed football," he said, of his ultimate idol. "He was the one you would look at. You would see him doing step-overs and you were thinking: 'Who does this?' You would see defenders falling over and you were like: 'Wow.' He was 10 out of 10. Maybe even 11. The goals that he scored, and at crucial times. He scored goals where you were like: 'Oh man, this is not serious.'"
Lukaku's devotion to his hero has not dwindled with age (though it should be remembered that Lukaku is not yet 23). He still finds the time to search YouTube for videos of Ronaldo. He grows almost defensive when it is put to him that he shares certain characteristics with the Brazilian. "Be like Ronaldo? Ooph. There is only one Ronaldo," he said.
A few days later, in a dressing room at West Bromwich Albion's training ground, one of Lukaku's peers was talking about the same subject. Salomon Rondon is a couple of years older than the Belgian, but he, too, is a worshipper at the altar of Ronaldo. He followed his career intently, from Barcelona to Inter Milan and on to Real Madrid; he ranks him alongside Michael Jordan as his sporting inspiration.
Lukaku and Rondon are not alone. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, no less, describes Ronaldo as "the greatest, as good as Pele." The Swede had photos of Ronaldo on the walls of his room as a child; he used to go outside on the streets to try to practice the tricks he had seen him do on television. Karim Benzema and Sergio Aguero have both acknowledged his influence on their careers; Lionel Messi, in fact, calls him his "hero."
It is hard to avoid the feeling there is something of a disconnect here. There is an entire generation of strikers -- Ibrahimovic in his mid-30s right down to Lukaku -- from all over the world who credit Ronaldo as the outstanding influence on their development, as their idol and their inspiration.
And yet, in those endless, cyclical discussions about the best players of recent years, his name is almost never mentioned. The late 1990s and early 2000s, it is widely accepted, were the Zinedine Zidane eras; they were followed by a brief lacuna (the Ronaldinho and Kaka period) before 2007, say, when the dominion between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo began. Ronaldo Fenomeno is conspicuous by his absence.
Perhaps that is because of the injuries which plagued him after his first explosive year at Inter, denying him the chance to put his stamp on three, four seasons in succession. Perhaps it is because his career had that strange staccato rhythm for so long, his brilliance only ever evident in snatches: a season here, a World Cup there, never quite the consistent excellence that Messi, for example, has produced.
But perhaps, too, it is because first impressions increasingly do not last in football; last impressions come first. Ronaldo, in his later years, seemed like a relic of a time long past. There was a part of Ronaldo, particularly as he grew older and his body started to betray him, who seemed more interested in the life football enabled him to lead than the football itself.
Brazilian football has a long and proud tradition of players, from Garrincha through Romario and Edmundo, who like a party as much as a pitch, but Ronaldo, together with Adriano and Ronaldinho, was one of the last of them. There is no room in football now for anything other than total dedication, an almost ascetic professionalism.
As that became the norm, we looked at Ronaldo and we did not see one of the great players of his, and possibly any, generation. We saw the way things were, and deep down, we sneered at a man who had not moved with the times. In the process, we forgot what he had been and remembered only what he became; we think of Ronaldo now as overweight, not quite professional by our standards. We do not think of Ronaldo the phenomenon, the player who had it all. That is a genuine shame, because Ronaldo's legacy probably outweighs Zidane's. It is not just the players he inspired, but the changes he wrought.
As Lukaku said, "He changed the dimension of a striker. He was fast, he can dribble like a winger, run like a sprinter, he was as strong as an ox." In that, he chimes with Ibrahimovic, who has said that "nobody influenced football and the players who emerged as much as Ronaldo."
Indeed, every time you see a team playing with just one striker -- a striker who is expected to hold the ball up, beat players, win headers, shoot from range, drop deep, do everything a striker can possibly do -- it might be worth remembering him. Ronaldo, as so many of those who looked up to him acknowledge, changed what it is to be a centre-forward.
He shifted boundaries, challenged convention, just as much as Messi and Ronaldo have altered our perceptions of what a winger might be. Ronaldo, the original Ronaldo, inspired a phalanx of imitators, players we see on our screens every weekend. But he also turned the game so that it will always look just a little bit like him. More than most, he made that No. 9 his own.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.