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All is wrong with Ronaldo

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - He's fat, he's round, he's worth....well, not very many million pounds on current form. Yes, Ronaldo is struggling.

He's overweight, at odds with fans, he lacks confidence and most worrying of all for his managers at Real Madrid and Brazil, looks to have lost his hunger for the game. The man who was the greatest striker in the world for the best part of a decade is now a lumbering shadow of his former self.

He has scored just 10 league goals for Real Madrid this season and only one in the Champions League. For Brazil his record is equally poor, two goals in a year.

Right now, Ronaldo is just not very good. And with the World Cup just three months away, that is causing no end of concern in Brazil. In fact, the debate over how to get Ronaldo back in shape and form for the World Cup has reached unprecedented proportions.

Over the last few weeks manager Carlos Alberto Parreira has been forced to make almost daily pronouncements about his waning star and names like Pele, Michel Platini and Zico have all weighed in with their take on his gain in pounds and loss of form.

Even Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a keen football fan, sent Ronaldo a letter of support and declared him 'an extraordinary boy....responsible for part of Brazil's favourable image around the world.'

The public displays of affection, however, have not done much good. Ronaldo was largely anonymous in Real Madrid's draw with Arsenal on Wednesday and he showed little sign he was capable of scoring the goal that could have prevented Real's elimination. The youngster who electrified Barcelona with his pace and dribbles in 1996 and 1997 and who bounced back from a career-threatening injury to record almost a goal a game with Real in the two years following the 2002 World Cup was gone. His confidence was shot.

The problem for Ronaldo is that instead of buckling down and getting on with it, he took the hump. He came to blows with Guti in training, exchanged words in the press with Raul and even told Pele his comments about his active social life affecting his game were 'stupid.' Worst of all, he complained about the Real Madrid fans and hinted he would leave the Bernabeu at the end of the season because he didn't feel appreciated there.

'The fans have never accepted me,' he complained. 'I've always said that I don't want to be where I'm not loved. I've never felt at home at the Bernabeu and I will look at my situation after the World Cup.'

That childish reaction suggests he knows the fault is his own and is looking to shift the blame. Ronaldo knows that unlike in the past, when his loss of form was related to injury, this time there is no excuse. He hasn't been adult enough to take the flak, work hard and prove the doubters wrong.

His supporters in Brazil have not helped. In Europe, most people can see that Ronaldo is struggling. The fans' boos and catcalls are illustrative of the widepread disappointment with the 29-year old three time World Player of the Year. But in Brazil, it is another story.

Ronaldo is still something of a myth in his homeland. Ronaldinho Gaucho is the man of the moment but Ronaldo remains hugely popular not only for what he has done on the pitch but also for what he has done off it. The charity work for the United Nations and a host of local organisations, the regular dates with gorgeous models, the general cheeky chappy demeanour have made him a much loved - and much indulged - figure.

Lula spoke for many when he said, 'I sent Ronaldo a letter telling him we have confidence in him and that it is up to him to make 2006 his year. He needs to be at ease with himself because what he doesn't lack is people here in Brazil cheering him on.'

'I saw Ronaldo being booed and it made me uncomfortable,' the president added later in a phone call to Parreira. 'It's during the bad times that we have to help people especially as this could be his World Cup. Give him a hug for me, mate.'

Hugs - and kisses and what often follows - are part of what has caused Ronaldo's problems. The striker has not been the same since his marriage to model and television presenter Daniela Cicarelli broke up in May last year.

The pair met after in June 2004 after he scored a hat-trick for Brazil against Argentina in the World Cup qualifiers and he fell so head over heels in love he had their initials tattooed on his wrist. When he scored he raised his arm to his forehead to show the world the heart and the letters R and D inscribed either side of it.

But after publicly declaring their love at an extravagant ceremony in France on Valentine's Day 2005, the marriage quickly fell apart. Less than three months later - shortly after Ronaldo chose to play golf instead of comforting his wife following her miscarriage - they went their separate ways. Cicarelli later accused him of adultery and Ronaldo moved on to yet another model, this time the beautiful dark-skinned Raica.

It is clear that Ronaldo's personal life has a marked affect on his performance. The more settled he is in his private life, the easier it seems to be for him to concentrate on his game. After his early years in Holland and Spain, he has been at this best in the period leading up to his first marriage to Milene Domingues, scoring 39 league goals in 51 games for Internazionale, and then again briefly after meeting and settling down with Cicarelli.

But now, with his personal situation unsettled he has performed poorly. He has scored just twice for the national side since his relationship with Cicarelli failed, and one of those was when the ball ricocheted off him into the net against Russia earlier this month. He was even dropped for the Confederations Cup last summer because he was not in the correct mental state.

The problem for Brazil is getting Ronaldo back into shape, both physically and mentally, before the World Cup. Because although Brazil are hot favourites to lift the trophy in Berlin on July 9, many of their top players are going through bad patches and they can't afford to be firing at less than full strength.

In addition to Ronaldo's loss of form, Adriano has failed to find the net consistently at Internazionale, Roberto Carlos has come under fire at Real, and keeper Dida has made a number of costly mistakes for AC Milan. Cafu is out injured, Kaka is not turning it on with the same regularity as last year and Robinho is spending much of his time on the bench.

This could be a big World Cup for Ronaldo. He already has 12 World Cup goals and is tied with Pele as Brazil's top marksman. And he needs just three more to surpass Gerd Muller as the highest goalscorer in the tournament's history.

Parreira knows he needs to shed a few pounds but he believes the key to getting him ready for Germany is more about his rhythm than his weight.

'Ronaldo needs to get match fit,' the manager told Rio's O Globo newspaper. 'He was out injured for a month...He needs to play in order to recover his fitness and his form...There is still time for him to get back into the shape that he and we want. As long as the manager picks him to play.'

That caveat is what worries Parreira. He knows Ronaldo is hardly worth his place, even in this poor Madrid side. But he needs him to be on the field and playing through his poor phase. The problem is Ronaldo doesn't have the appetite for it.

If he is to bounce back like he did in 2002 after years ruined by injury - and there is no reason he cannot - he needs to focus. He needs to want to prove his critics wrong. He needs a hunger.

If he has that hunger the pounds will fall off and the glory days will return.

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