Gabriele Marcotti
Thursday February 14th, 2008

And then, just like that, he went down again. A sprint into space, his left foot seemingly crazy-glued to the San Siro pitch, his left knee buckling and his body collapsing in a heap.

Ronaldo's latest injury, three minutes after coming on as a substitute in a Milan-Livorno fixture Wednesday, had plenty of déjà vu about it. This was the same man who, of course, famously broke down six minutes into his comeback game in 2000.

Back then, the shock was universal. I remember going to interview Michael Schumacher the following day. Here was a guy whose own life is on the line at every Grand Prix and yet, when he spoke to Ronaldo, his eyes told the whole story: they nearly welled up at the cruelty of fate snuffing out talent. It was as if the whole world was a party to the damage done to the Brazilian's career.

This time it's a bit different. For a start, Ronaldo is 31. If eight years ago there was still a belief that he could come back and elevate himself to the status of a Pelé or a Diego Maradona, this time we know better. We know this is a player who has enjoyed just seven injury-free seasons out of 15. The illusion that he would take his place among the all-time greats was shattered a long time ago.

And yet, we grieve. We mourn the misfortune that seems to follow this man at every turn. Or, rather, some of us grieve. Others think they know better. Others have turned into doctors overnight, blaming his injury on his weight, on his lack of serious training, on his propensity to party rather than lead the kind of ascetic life we expect from our professionals.

Just why we feel the need to become self-appointed sports medicine experts, judgmental of Ronaldo and his behaviour off the pitch, remains an enduring mystery. But it's clear that, in recent seasons, he hasn't caught a break: He was by turns a scapegoat at Real Madrid, the souce of all ills for Brazil's underperformance at Germany '06 and a problem child at Milan. Or so we're led to believe.

I've met the guy a few times but I certainly can't pretend to know what makes him tick or where the truth lies. Does he have so little regard for his professional career that he's happy to jeopardize it for a few extra plates of pasta or a few more late nights clubbing? Is the man himself the source of all his problems? I don't know. And I don't think we should focus on the criticism or where precisely the blame should fall.

There is a good chance we will never again see him play at the highest level. His contract at Milan expires in June and he won't be back training until October at the earliest, which would suggest it won't be renewed. What happens next is anyone's guess. He may return to Brazil, try to get fit again and then head off to Major League Soccer in '09. Or he may stick around in Milan, signing one of those contracts where he gets paid per match. Or, perhaps, he may call it a day.

If he does, I don't want to remember the last 10 years or so. I don't want to picture him crying in a Milan shirt or tumbling over in pain in an Inter jersey. Nor do I want to be reminded of his somewhat more successful time as one of Florentino Pérez's Galácticos (when, lest we forget, he scored 69 league goals in his first three seasons) or the three World Cups he starred in for Brazil (winning it all in '02). Those times offered glimpses of the great Ronaldo, but nothing more.

I want to be able to close my eyes and think of the Ronaldo at Barcelona or the one in his first season at Inter. The man-child, grinning fiendishly as he overwhelmed defenders and thumped in goals, week in, week out, without pause. The Phenom, unplayable, undefendable, unexplainable. That's the Ronaldo I will remember.

I'll leave the rest to those who need to find an explanation -- or a scapegoat -- for everything else. As far as I'm concerned, my Ronaldo retired in 1997 and the only thing that prevents him from ascending to the company of Pelé and Maradona is a lack of longevity. As for the "other Ronaldo," he was just a pale imitation -- and a very, very unlucky footballer.

Good luck, Ronnie. Whatever you choose to do, may you find the serenity which eluded you in the last 10 years.

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