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Farewell to a Phenomenon

'The farewell of a great,' the headline read. Above it, a photograph of Ronaldo - the original, Brazilian one - shedding a tear. It's a reaction one would expect of the press in Brazil, given all that O Fenômeno has done for the country's national team and the joy he's given to fans there and across Europe. It's a sign of the magnitude of greatness under consideration, though, that this headline isn't taken from a Brazilian website. Nor from a site in one of the three European countries whose leagues he graced - the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. It was the main headline on the website of Argentina's Olé on Monday morning.

Ronaldo confirms retirement
Rewind to 1998: the Ronaldo riddle
World Cup Legend: O Fenomeno

When even a nation's biggest international rivals treat a player's retirement as a sad event, you know he must have been something. Romario and Rivaldo in particular might have things to say about the exact order - in fact, Romario has done, very vocally, in the past - but for sheer importance and reliability, Ronaldo surely heads any shortlist of Brazil's greatest strikers since Pele.

The stats have no doubt been repeated as often across the globe as they have here in South America following the announcement but, what the hell, I'll summarise them with the salient point, for any striker: well over one goal every other game, in a career spanning 17 years, most of which was spent at the very top of the game. His weight has been mocked (more of that later), and it's true to say that his goalscoring ratio dropped in the second half of his career. Quite considerably, in fact - from one goal per game to one every two, more or less - but, still, hardly unimpressive.

Another thing that was derided at the time was the haircut he got for the 2002 World Cup final, but while probably the majority of us who found it daft were free to laugh, the more salient point was of course that he lit up that match, as he did so many others in the biggest tournament of all. It's a strange coincidence that the man whose all-time World Cup finals goalscoring record he eventually overtook, Gerd Muller, was also a bit on the portly side, and was known as 'fatty' in his homeland. For all the taunts, both were better at scoring goals than anyone watching could ever be at whatever we do.

The World Cup also saw the darkest point of Ronaldo's story, of course. The intrigue surrounding just what happened prior to the 1998 World Cup final may never be known with any certainty; it's reached such mythical levels that even if the real explanation ever does come out it seems unlikely it'll be universally accepted as such. The two goals Ronaldo scored in Yokohama four years later may have gone some way to atone for that episode and vindicated him personally, but the pre-match episode in Paris will remain in the history books alongside them.

That, perhaps, is another reason Ronaldo will be remembered as one of the true greats not just of his generation, but of the game's history. His career wasn't an easy ride, and his low points couldn't have been more public. Yet for Cruzeiro, PSV, Inter, Real Madrid, Milan and Corinthians - and not forgetting that extraordinary season with Barcelona - he scored goal after goal. The critics who said he needed to lose weight, or rein in his partying, were all proven wrong.

Well, nearly all of them. Because while the world's media can be harsh, it's ultimately forgiving when the player answers back with goals in abundance. But the harshest critics of the lot - those who according to some played their part in the end of this great career - weren't the press of Brazil or any other country, but rather the supporters of what turned out to be Ronaldo's last club, Corinthians.

South America's biggest club competition, the Copa Libertadores, begins in earnest this week (though the actual first match of the group stage, between Fluminense and Argentinos Juniors, took place last week). It's the one competition Corinthians have never won - and they won't win it this year either, because they were knocked out to huge surprise in the qualifying round by Deportes Tolima of Colombia, who won 2-0 in the second leg.

The divide between supporters and players in South America can, in comparison with Western Europe, be frequently crossed with potentially dangerous consequences for footballers, and in the wake of this latest continental frustration, Corinthians' fan group Os Gaviões da Fiel ('The Hawks Of the Faithful' - the 'Faithful' being the wider Corinthians fanbase) were unstinting in their criticism of Ronaldo and his fellow veteran Roberto Carlos, who promptly negotiated a transfer to Russia's Anzhi Makhachkala for one last payday.

After telling the press that those who continued to complain about his waistline should "shut up", Ronaldo was expected to do the same, until Corinthians announced on Sunday that a press conference would be held the following morning, and whispers rapidly became confirmation that he was set to retire.

In that press conference, Ronaldo insisted the fans' attitude had nothing to do with his decision. It's an explanation that's unlikely to wash with everyone, but it's the one he gracefully stuck to while giving a retirement speech in which he said he felt the decision was his "first death". At the end, he was unable to stop himself bursting into tears.

Graceful to the last, he also finally answered critics of his weight, explaining that the problem lay with his metabolism, and the fact that the drugs required to regulate his condition would have been in contravention of FIFA's doping laws. "I wanted to make sure this was known, on the final day of my career," he said. He needn't have worried. At the end of a career that's spanned half his lifetime, the eulogies were universal. Even in Argentina.


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