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Ronaldo's record-breaking season

On Tuesday night, Lionel Messi set a new record when recording his 48th goal of a wonderful season for Barcelona. The previous holder of the club record was Ronaldo, who in his solitary season at the club in 1996-97 won both the Copa del Rey and the Cup Winners' Cup under Bobby Robson, before his career at Camp Nou was truncated by a bitter contractual dispute.

What strikes you when watching footage of Ronaldo's miracle season in Barcelona is that for a man who was so renowned for dispatching the ball with unrivalled ease and regularity, the striker appears strangely reluctant to let go of it. An inordinate number of those 47 goals see Ronaldo taking superfluous touches to skirt contemptuously round a goalkeeper and roll the ball into the net - demonstrating he is an athlete at the very peak of his powers, a goalscorer utterly confident in his own ability who exercises complete mastery of the ball.

But while the method of his goalscoring varies, the celebration is invariably the same: Ronaldo runs away, arms outstretched like the statue of Christ the Redeemer that watches over his native Rio de Janeiro. It was heavenly football, played by a man whose disposition grew less and less saintly as the season unfolded. Ultimately, Ronaldo would depart Catalonia under a storm, the majesty of his prolonged purple patch overshadowed by the divisive nature of his departure to Inter. But nothing can dull the brilliance of those 47 goals, and that one wonderful season.

Of course, from the very start of his professional career, Ronaldo was something very special indeed. The wiry teenager scored 41 goals in 45 appearances after emerging from the Cruzeiro youth system and his acclimatisation to European football was equally rapid as he claimed 54 in 58 games for PSV Eindhoven between 1994 and 1996. However, it was a 12-month spell at Barcelona that would elevate him to the level of the untouchable.

After a world record $19.5 million deal had been agreed with PSV, Ronaldo arrived at a club that was very different to the all-conquering, much-heralded side of the present. Fifteen years ago, Barcelona were a club grappling with their identity. Johan Cruyff - the man who established the philosophical tenets of possession-based, attacking football that have given Barca such a distinct identity, and led the 'Dream Team' to the European Cup triumph of 1992 - had departed the previous season due to a difference of opinion with president Josep Lluis Nunez. An icon in Catalonia, his were huge shoes to fill.

It was to Porto manager Bobby Robson, and little-known assistant Jose Mourinho, that Barca turned, and they backed their new coach with money. Goalkeeper Vitor Baia arrived, also from Estadio das Antas, while Luis Enrique was coaxed from great rivals Real Madrid and revered Bulgarian forward Hristo Stoichkov returned to the club following a season at Parma. Given Barca already boasted players of the calibre of Miguel Angel Nadal, Ivan de la Pena, Josep Guardiola and Luis Figo, it proved a potent mix.

Though he failed to score in his first two Primera Division games, Ronaldo accelerated to a tally of 12 in 11 following a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Valencia on October 26 and the goals continued to flow with alarming regularity. Barcelona amassed 102 that season, just five short of the record established by John Toshack's Real Madrid in the 1989-90 campaign: Logrones were defeated 8-0; six were put past Rayo Vallecano and Real Valladolid; Real Zaragoza, Compostela and Atletico Madrid were put to the sword with five; and no fewer than five sides would concede four to the Blaugrana as they bulldozed their way through various opposition.

One team in particular, though, immediately leaps out of that list. SD Compostela are a regional club, who have spent only four seasons in the top flight of Spanish football and are currently languishing well down the league ladder. But mention their name to certain football fans and it is likely it will be greeted with a flicker of recognition, and perhaps a smile, because it was in a 5-1 win against Compostela on October 11, 1996, that Ronaldo reached his apogee at Barcelona. His is a goal that demands repeated viewing.

Picking up the ball inside his own half, Ronaldo retains control, despite a sneaky trip and a cynical shirt-pull from one opponent, before dragging the ball back and artfully darting away from another and accelerating towards goal. Exercising his expert ball control, the Brazilian then slips away from two more markers in the box, switching his weight and direction with all the dexterity of a hare in full flight, before spinning on his left standing leg and whipping the ball into the bottom of the corner. When the camera cuts to Robson on the bench, he appears in shock, clasping his head in utter disbelief at what he has just witnessed.

Ronaldo's Compostela masterpiece was the artistic epiphany of his year in Catalonia. His Sagrada Familia. The footage was later used as the backdrop to a Nike advert as a voiceover pondered: "Imagine you asked God to be the best player in the world, and he listened to you". The headline in AS the next day simply read: 'Pele returns'. Even a Real Madrid legend like Jorge Valdano was moved to say of Barcelona's biggest asset that "he's not a man, he's a herd", but there was one team Ronaldo and his team-mates could not trample over: Los Merengues.

Madrid, coached by Fabio Capello in his first season in Spain, had signed Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf, Davor Suker and Predrag Mijatovic in 1996, and boasted a certain Raul reaching maturity. They were the dominant force in La Liga, even after losing the second clasico of the season on May 9 to a goal from, unsurprisingly, Ronaldo. The striker also scored against Deportivo in a 1-0 win on May 23, but with three games remaining of the season, and the title race reaching a climax, the striker was wrenched from Barca's grasp.

The Primera Liga finished as late as June 21 that year, meaning Ronaldo had to be spirited away to represent Brazil at the Copa America, which started on June 11 in Bolivia. Shorn of their attacking inspiration, Barca promptly lost 2-1 to Hercules, with Juan Antonio Pizzi proving a less than acceptable replacement. As the Argentinean himself admitted: "I'm just a football player; he is not from this world".

The defeat to Hercules proved critical, as despite winning their remaining two fixtures, and having won the Copa del Rey and Cup Winners' Cup, with Ronaldo scoring the only goal of the latter final against Paris Saint Germain ni Rotterdam, the Catalans finished the season two points behind their rivals in Madrid. Though not of his own making, the episode only reinforced growing accusations that Ronaldo's heart was not really in Barcelona, irrespective of his torrent of goals. Concerns over his work-rate had been evident from the start, with Mourinho greeting the new man's first league goal with the caveat: "We've told Ronaldo it's no good scoring a wonder goal and spending the other 89 minutes sleeping".

He also memorably spurned a not insignificant amount of money to pose with Cindy Crawford, apparently because "they should have asked her to pose with me". Initially fawned over by the attentive Catalan press, and an icon to a region, it was no surprise that Ronaldo's ego was rampant, and Barca indulged him by permitting him to travel back to his home country at regular intervals, most famously for the Rio Carnaval when he angered Robson after being pictured in a golden outfit, a glittering headband and a crown of blue feathers.

Brazilian team-mate Giovanni was not afforded the same luxury, and lamented: "I love Carnaval too, but as a professional my duty is to be here. A return journey to Brazil for the sake of two days - and with hard partying thrown in - is hard work. Even if I had the time off, I would have stayed here." Tension also existed with Robson, who exploded after Ronaldo questioned his tactical strategy one too many times. "I can't believe it sometimes, everybody's at it: the board, the players," he said. "It's like the papers today with Ronaldo criticising my tactics again. The boy's 20 years old, for Christ's sake ... it's diabolical."

Ronaldo's failure to win friends and influence people was reflected in the fact that, despite his unreal form, Barcelona fans overwhelmingly voted Luis Enrique, scorer of 17 goals, their player of the season, ahead of the man who had just been crowned the FIFA World Player of the Year.

But if Ronaldo's public image was suffering thanks to his behaviour off the pitch, it was his agents who were the real villains of the piece in the eyes of Barcelona. Reinaldo Pitta and Alexandre Martins had taken charge of Ronaldo's career since his early days with Sao Cristovao and were keen to maximise their profit from their association with the player. That manifested itself in almost constant speculation that Ronaldo could be leaving Barcelona, with Inter an oft-cited destination. Such was the disdain in which these two men were held in the city, the press depicted them as the Dalton Brothers, cartoon characters from the Wild West.

Speculation was persistent, and prior to that damaging defeat to Hercules, midfielder Guardiola articulated the belief that Ronaldo's contractual situation had become a sideshow. "Less Ronaldo and more Hercules," he said. "For a long time we've been going on about renovations, contracts ... let's talk about football."

On May 26, Barcelona thought the talking was over having agreed a new contract until 2006 with the player, and Nunez even emerged from a meeting with Pitta and Martins to declare: "He's ours for life". But nothing could be further from the truth. When the parties reconvened to finalise the deal the following day, the agreement collapsed. Nunez admitted: "It's all over, Ronaldo is going". The fate of the greatest player in the world was set.

Inter president Massimo Moratti, who had pondered signing Ronaldo from PSV a year earlier, was unwilling to let the player slip through his grasp again and, on June 20, Ronaldo's lawyers, having received payment from Inter, deposited a cheque for $27 million at the headquarters of the Spanish FA to buy the player out of his contract at Camp Nou.

Ronaldo's brief relationship with Barca had been brought to a clinical end, his currency of goals usurped by the colour of money as he departed to cries of 'traitor'. But what a legacy the boy from Brazil had left in that one glorious season.

What happened next? Barcelona disputed the fee received from Inter and in September FIFA ordered the Italians to pay a further $1.8 million. By this point, Ronaldo had already made his debut in Serie A, but his time at the club would be ravaged by injuries and, when he did return to form at the 2002 World Cup when finishing top scorer, he promptly sought a move to Real Madrid.


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