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Ronaldo fighting another fitness battle

A two-yard header against Palmeiras was not the best, or the most important, goal he's ever scored; but for Ronaldo it will certainly be one of the most memorable.

The Brazilian, back in his home country with Corinthians after an injury ravaged spell at AC Milan, returned to the footballing consciousness with a goal at the weekend, but has yet to win over the critics who claim that he will never reclaim his fitness.

Having already defied predictions from the media that his career would be finished - after another knee ligament injury sidelined him for 13 months - and endured countless jibes about his ballooning weight, the 32-year-old celebrated his first goal for Corinthians with a passion that suggests he has more desire than ever to prove everyone wrong.

However, by leaping onto a fence (which promptly collapsed), getting booked and showing obvious signs of fatigue after such an exuberant show of happiness; Ronaldo also proved that the road to recovery is a long one and it would take a very brave pundit to suggest that he is close to rediscovering his best form.

Ronaldo has divided opinion during his playing career. Many have seen the striker as one of the most talented forwards of his generation and his haul of awards does a lot to justify his place amongst the game's greats.

However, there are those who see his attitude, off-pitch antics, and general lack of fitness as a waste of potential. The Brazilian hasn't played for his national side since 2006 and many would argue, despite his poor luck with injuries, that the striker has contributed too much to his own downfall.

Indeed, Ronaldo's homecoming has been met with a mixed reaction in Brazil. There are those who remember him as the young "Fenomeno" (phenomenon) playing for Cruziero and are pleased to see him trying to rebuild his career back in his homeland; but there are others who believe his return is nothing but a glorified PR stunt, designed to make money for the club.

An icon in South America, initially his move was met with the same disapproving voices that saw David Beckham's move to the L.A. Galaxy as financially motivated to spread the word about the MLS.

Brazilian football needs a figurehead and there is no doubt that the former World Player of the Year has the ability to make an absurd amount of money for the club via shirt sales and advertising revenue streams. The cynical view is that Corinthians were more enamoured by his financial power than by his ailing footballing skills.

And few could blame them. Fans are worried, too, because the striker has not started a professional game since February 2008, when he was stretchered off against Livorno.

The fact that he failed a recent fitness test, coming last out of 28 squad members in resistance and speed exercises, was not helped by a match report in the Globo newspaper after his first brief appearance as a substitute in Corinthians' 2-0 Cup win over Itumbiara, which labelled him: "heavy, static, bloated [and] breathless."

Off the pitch, too, he has suffered. Recently he has been suspended and fined for breaching a curfew after a late night out and it should come as no surprise that his personal life has been dragged through every media outlet around; while he has also had to suffer the indignity of having his waistline analysed by fashionista magazines at almost every opportunity.

Ronaldo has not helped himself in this respect though. Choosing to conduct his life in the public eye, he was caught up in a scandal in April 2008 when he ended up in a police station after an incident with three transvestites in Rio de Janeiro. He denied having any 'relations' with the trio, but of course was the subject of jokes and spoofs in Brazil, while at the same time being bombarded by a swarm of paparazzi eager to get the exclusive on his next faux pas.

A constant visitor to nightclubs and bars, Ronaldo has always been an open target to those who would question his professionalism and his choice of lifestyle has almost certainly hindered his career, particularly of late. In his prime, managers around the world were cagey about signing a prolific, but wayward, striker and the small number of clubs interested in him after his release from Milan says as much about his social baggage as it does about his fitness.

Perhaps a career under the guidance of an Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger would have seen him unlock his full potential, but that is something we will never know. What is certain is that, despite his misdemeanours, his arrival back onto the footballing stage has captivated South America's largest nation.

Brazil is blessed with exceptionally talented individuals, but few return to play out their final days in their homeland. A youthful, somewhat goofy-looking, Ronaldo had left the country in 1994 to pursue his dream of playing in Europe and, using the springboard of PSV Eindhoven, found fame and fortune with Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan before injury cut short his time with the world's elite.

Winner of FIFA's World Player of the Year award three times, the striker has notched up awards, trophies and personal praise wherever he has gone and the only gap on his illustrious CV remains the elusive Champions League trophy - which he was cup-tied for when AC Milan won in 2006/07.

Such a successful career has made him an icon in Brazil and he has been mobbed by admirers ever since his feet touched home soil. While his Portuguese namesake may be racking up the praise currently, 'Fat Ronaldo' is seen as the only Ronaldo in South America and he is still held in massively high regard by his fellow countrymen.

Although perhaps not in parts of Rio de Janeiro, as Flamengo fans burned Ronaldo shirts outside their stadium after he trained with the club for four months, openly claimed he was a fan of the side and then chose to join Corinthians when they made him an offer.

Blessed with speed, skill with both feet and an exquisite finishing touch, Ronaldo has also shown a propensity to battle back from adversity. A well-documented ''convulsion'' before the final of the 1998 World Cup in France saw him suffer the first major setback to his career, before he was the victim of two serious knee injuries while at Inter, first in 1999 and later again the following season.

He gained praise after battling through 36 months of rehabilitation to lift the World Cup again with Brazil in 2002, picking up the Golden Shoe and equalling Pelé's Brazilian record of 12 World Cup goals in the process, and, as such, has shown the determination to overcome fitness issues before.

At 32, his latest rebuilding could be his last, but his ambition appears to burning brighter than ever. After scoring his first goal for Corinthians, he said: "This is just the beginning. There's still some way to go. I need to lose a bit of weight and gain some speed and mobility." A fearsome prospect for mediocre league defences.

Just like in 2002, Ronaldo has to prove to the world that he can bounce back. Many have questioned his desire before, but if he were to confound his critics by rediscovering his form and forcing his way back into international contention, it would be his greatest achievement yet. Despite all his issues, it is hard not to wish him well.


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