Brazil is famous for large steaks and small bikinis and the
national motto, Never put off until tomorrow what can be put off
until next week. Call the Brazilian soccer federation in May,
and you are put on hold to jaunty Christmas carols before being
disconnected. If it seems that Brazilians are having more fun
than the rest of us, there's a simple explanation: They are.
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
So it is only natural that the word alegria would be ubiquitous
in Brazilians' vocabulary. "It is," says an interpreter for
Ronaldo, the 21-year-old Brazilian who is the finest soccer
player on earth, "a kind of 'exuberant joy.'"
"When I'm on the field, training or playing, it is alegria, pure
alegria," says Ronaldo, resplendent in a blazer and tie in his
agent's office in Milan, where he plays professionally for the
Italian club Inter. Alegria exhibits itself on the practice
pitch when Ronaldo declines to head the ball during header
drills, preferring instead to stop it with his chest, then
juggle it with his feet. "Brazilians don't like to head the
ball," explains an observer at the Inter training ground,
"because you can't hog the ball with your head."
But then Inter didn't commit as much as $110 million to Ronaldo
over 10 years, through 2007, so that he might pass the ball.
"The only thing the coach expects of me is to score," says
Ronaldo. "The way I score doesn't matter. As long as I keep my
scoring numbers high, they let me do what I like to do."
So he scores, serially and spectacularly, for his club and for
his country. In Italy teammates fall to their knees when Ronaldo
gets a goal and buff his right boot with imaginary shoeshine
rags. It's an act that he notices only later, while basking in
the glow of televised highlights. "That particular moment is
difficult to describe," Ronaldo says of the instant following a
goal. "Because you are...you are out of this world. You can't
hear anyone. You don't see anyone. You are blind, you are deaf,
you just want to run and scream."
You have achieved, in a word, alegria. Arjen Tamsma, a Dutch
employee of Nike who has moved to Milan to be Ronaldo's minder
in Italy, sums up his charge in a single sentence. "He is
happy," says Tamsma, "like a kid with a ball."
Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima is, in every sense, the biggest
name in his sport. Twice in the last two years a panel of more
than 100 national-team managers, polled by FIFA, soccer's world
governing body, has named him World Player of the Year. It's a
title with few rivals in the international arena: pope, for
sure; president of the U.S., perhaps.
Ronaldo replica shirts are sold on Las Ramblas in Barcelona and
on Copacabana Beach in Rio. He grins bucktoothed from the covers
of three Chinese magazines on newsstands in Beijing. When former
England star Sir Bobby Charlton recently said of Ronaldo, "He's
the best player in the world without question, and I think he'll
prove it in the World Cup," he did so on a talk show in Tokyo.
Before an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia last December, every
member of the Brazilian team shaved his head, hoping to throw
Middle Eastern media and fans off Ronaldo's scent.
No man can aspire to live a normal life under such
circumstances. "And in Italy this is more difficult because of
the pressure, the way the entire country feels soccer, lives
soccer--much more than anywhere else," says Ronaldo, whose
navy-blue blazer bears the Inter crest, as does his club tie,
which is now unknotted. Seated at a burnished conference table
in the offices of Branchini Associati, he looks like a prep
schooler at the end of a long day.
When Ronaldo appeared in cyberspace in January to promote a
Rome-based United Nations food bank, the server took six million
hits in 30 minutes, then crashed. Ronaldo does something
similar, taking six million hits in 90 minutes of play, whenever
he takes the field in Italy's Serie A, the most diabolically
defensive-minded league in soccer. The difference: He seldom
On the night of Oct. 12, 1996, Ronaldo, who had recently turned
20, was playing for Spanish giant Barcelona in a match at
Santiago de Compostela. He had just retrieved the ball in his
own half, 55 yards from the opposition goal, when he was tripped
from behind by a Compostela defender, who then grabbed the back
of Ronaldo's jersey and hung on for several yards, as if
water-skiing on grass. Shaking himself free with the vigor of a
wet dog, Ronaldo slalomed through four other defenders before
finally losing the ball behind him in the penalty area.
Whereupon he wheeled around and blasted the ball past the keeper
in one unfathomable motion. By the time the ball was in the net
Ronaldo was on his can, the shot having forced him backward like
the recoil on a rifle.
In those 12 seconds all his goods were on display: Ronaldo is
faster with a ball at his feet than most defenders are sprinting
after him. At 6 feet and 175 pounds, he's large by soccer
standards, well-muscled and nearly impossible to knock off the
ball. Most strikingly, he throws out electricity like a downed
Of the manifold double takes captured that evening on Spanish
television, the best belonged to Ronaldo's coach at the time,
white-haired Bobby Robson. When Ronaldo scored, Robson, the
two-time World Cup manager of alegria-impaired England, shot off
his own bench as if an ejection seat had been detonated beneath
him. He first turned to the Compostela crowd, enlisting them as
witnesses. (The opposing fans were giving Ronaldo a raucous
standing ovation.) He then turned back to the field. "Oh, my
god!" the cameras caught him muttering to nobody. He looked
shocked in the clinical sense, a victim of trauma.
"Un-believable." His mouth was a circle, a rictus of disbelief.
Further analysis of such skills is superfluous. "A divine gift,"
Ronaldo's father, Nelio, has called his son's rare abilities,
and Ronaldo is content to leave it at that. Asked the source of
his outrageous talents, he says, "Mainly, it is God."
The Son of God, his arms extended from his sides, stands rigid
watch over Rio from His place atop Corcovado, the statue's pose
mimicked by Ronaldo in Rio-wide billboards for Pirelli tires.
The youngest of three siblings, he was raised in Bento Ribeiro,
a Rio suburb that is very poor by U.S. standards, modestly so by
Brazilian. His house was without windows or doors. Which is not
to say it was without an exit.
Nelio receives poor reviews, having been variously described as
"a Rio drug addict" (The Times of London), "an alcoholic" (the
Washington Times) and "a cartographer with the state telephone
company" who separated from his family (Ronaldo's official bio
in press kits put out by Nike, which he represents). Ronaldo
still sees his father and doesn't care to pile on. The son
wishes to stress that his childhood was a happy one. "I was
never a child of the streets," he says, "but my family was very
At 13, around the time of his mother Sonia's divorce from Nelio,
he wanted to play for Rio's most popular club, Flamengo, but the
team refused to pay the fare for his 45-minute crosstown bus
ride to practices. Whoops! By 15, Ronaldo was playing for
Cruzeiro, a first-division professional team in the city of Belo
Horizonte, for which he scored 58 goals in 60 games.
Before his 17th birthday he moved to Europe and the Dutch club
PSV Eindhoven. In the Netherlands, Ronaldo would score 55 goals
in 56 games over two seasons, learn Dutch in twice-weekly
lessons from a minister and, in 1996, be sold to F.C. Barcelona
for a then world-record transfer fee of $20 million. He led the
Spanish league with 34 goals in his single spectacular season in
Catalonia, and last summer he was sold to Inter for a
world-record $30 million. He finished the 1997-98 season as the
second-leading scorer in Serie A, with 25 goals in 32 matches,
even though he was sometimes sextuple-teamed.
The rewards of all this are handsome. In addition to having
received a reported $14 million signing bonus from Inter,
Ronaldo gets $5 million a year from the club and has a contract
with Nike worth another $15 million over 10 years. When he
became engaged to Brazilian model Susana Werner--the marriage
was rumored to be on for this August and is now rumored to be
off--he could reasonably speculate that the pope might say his
Ronaldo drives a silver Ferrari. In Barcelona he had a house
overlooking the Bay of Casteldefells, which reminded him of
Rio's Guanabara Bay. In Milan only one thing reminds him of Rio.
"The traffic," he says. Italy has no traffic laws, or none that
are observed, which is just as well, because Ronaldo has no
place he can reasonably go in Milan. He spends a lot of time at
home, playing on the computer and reading his notices each week
in the Dutch, Spanish and Brazilian press.
A cell phone bleats, and Ronaldo is summoned from the room. His
agent, Giovanni Branchini, is asked if his client is always so
relaxed. "If you don't do like that, you get overwhelmed by
everything," says Branchini. "It is sad sometimes. You have a
bad day--yesterday was a bad day, nothing went right with his
club, with himself, with the other results--but if you are a
sportsman, you know that this is your life. You have to go on
and think of the next game, the next possibility to forget such
a day. I think football stars learn this quite early, and by
themselves. Otherwise, they could not survive such pressure."
The previous day's match--second-place Inter at sixth-place
Parma--had been among the worst of Ronaldo's professional
career. Late in the second half Ronaldo took a penalty shot. The
goalkeeper, Gian Luigi Buffon, deflected the ball and, though it
was still in play, left the goal and leaped onto the cyclone
fence separating Parma's rabid supporters from the field. He
hung there like Spiderman, shaking the fence and stirring the
crowd as the ball moved to the other end of the pitch, where
Parma scored. Minutes later, the final whistle sounded on
Inter's 1-0 loss, and Buffon ripped off his jersey, revealing a
red Superman S on his T-shirt.
Parma's Argentine forward, Hernan Crespo, was invited afterward
to disparage Ronaldo, but he responded by enunciating very
clearly while eyeing reporters' notebooks: "He is still the best
player in the world." Nevertheless, Ronaldo was lampooned on
national television that evening. A Milan cabbie passed a
cemetery, pointed to the gravestones and said, "Ronaldo!"
So it goes. When Ronaldo was enduring a six-match goal drought
with Inter in December and January, team owner Massimo Moratti
said, "Do I think Ronaldo is in crisis? It definitely seems so
to me, and perhaps it would be a good idea if he understood this
and got it into his head."
A few weeks later Ronaldo scored all four Inter goals in key
back-to-back victories, and Inter manager Gigi Simoni said
unequivocally, "Ronaldo has proved he's the best player in the
"I Love America," says Ronaldo, and for one simple reason:
America doesn't love him. Little more than a year ago he walked
the streets of New York City unrecognized, shedding fame as if
it were a feckless defender. "Then," he sighs and says, "I made
Ronaldo turned at random down a midtown Manhattan street. "The
one street," he says, "with all Brazilians." All alegria broke
loose on that block of West 46th Street known as Little Brazil.
"The Brazilians, they were all going crazy," he says, a smile
curling at the corner flags of his mouth. "The Americans, they
didn't understand what was going on."
It's ever thus with Americans and soccer. Last October, when the
Chicago Bulls played exhibition games in Paris, a Spanish
journalist asked Michael Jordan if he knew who Ronaldo was. "I
don't know," Jordan said dismissively.
"He's the best soccer player in the world," the man replied, his
face falling like a flesh souffle.
"Sorry," sniffed Jordan. "I do know Pele."
The exchange drew horse laughter from some 500 members of the
European press and amused Ronaldo in Italy, where he told
interviewers that he was a fan of Jordan's and even owned a
Jordan highlights video. "Sometimes when I watch and I see what
he does," said Ronaldo, "I cry."
Brazilians don't do nuance. They have the ugliest slums,
loveliest beaches, slowest switchboards and fastest Formula I
drivers in the world. Carnaval is the wildest party of all time,
caipirinha the strongest drink in Christendom, tanga the
skimpiest swimwear that the law--of nations, of gravity--allows.
Brazilians are exhibitionists with their emotions as well. So
Jordan makes them sob, and soccer is "the beautiful game," and
national squad manager, Mario Zagallo, simply could not help
himself when he said last December, "The team will realize my
dreams and win the World Cup in France."
You can't stop alegria, nor even hope to contain it. This makes
Brazilians the worst diplomats in international sport. When
asked to handicap the World Cup, the president of Brazil,
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said, "Obviously, we're going to win."
Obviously? "We have the best players," Ronaldo says flatly. "But
to have the best players and to win is not the same thing. We
have to prove. It's like when the Dream Team played in the
Olympics. Everybody knew that they were a lot better than
everybody else. But they had to prove."
This sense of mission makes an omni-talented team, even one
diminished by star striker Romario's injury, all the more
formidable. Ronaldo has never won a major league title in the
top leagues he's played in--not in five first-division club
seasons nor, really, at the 1994 World Cup, where, at 17, he
didn't play a minute--so he really does have something to prove
this summer. Another man who performs part-time in Milan knows
the doom that this forecasts for the rest of the world. "I would
like to see Italy in the final," says tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
"It's a hubristic dream, of course. Brazil is around."
Indeed, Brazil's tallest challenge at the World Cup may be this:
loosing alegria on the jaded host nation, which gave the world
the words ennui and malaise and blase. It is a hubristic
dream--foreign tourists winning over the French. But Brazil is
around. And the Brazilians are bringing with them Ronaldo, a
confetti cannon of a young man, belching out a kind of exuberant