World Cup winner Ronaldo fails to score on reforming zeal with Brazilian faithful

Former player identified with contentious effort to modernise Brazilian football

Star turn: Ronaldo raises a trademark finger in celebration after scoring against Germany in the 2002 World Cup final. Photograph: Getty Images/Inpho

Star turn: Ronaldo raises a trademark finger in celebration after scoring against Germany in the 2002 World Cup final. Photograph: Getty Images/Inpho

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 01:00

With the World Cup little more than three months away it was perhaps inevitable that football would be one of the main themes of this year’s carnival in Brazil which kicks off later tonight.

At the country’s most glamorous parade in Rio de Janeiro the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school will honour the career of former Flamengo star Zico, one of the heroes of the country’s much loved 1982 World Cup team whose glorious failure in Spain is still mourned to this day.

Meanwhile, in São Paulo Ronaldo (the Brazilian original) will see his life celebrated by the samba school of the Gaviões da Fiel, or the Hawks of the Faithful, the largest supporters group of Corinthians, the city’s most popular club where he ended his playing career.

Though his time at Corinthians was short Ronaldo is revered at a club which he helped recover its self-esteem, arriving just as it returned to the top flight following an embarrassing stint in the second division, sparking a victorious cycle that culminated a year after he retired with victory over Chelsea in the 2012 World Club Cup.

For 65 minutes tomorrow night more than 4,000 Hawks will dance their way down the city’s sambódromo – a custom-built samba stadium – driven on by a huge drum troupe beating out this year’s song R9 – The Royal Flight of the Phenomenon .


The Phenomenon
Perched atop the last of five giant floats designed to represent different stages of his life, the Phenomenon himself will be there to witness this latest display of affection for a striker whose goals won Brazil its fifth World Cup title in 2002. Not even an argument with three transvestite prostitutes in a Rio motel in 2008 could do much to dent his popularity among Brazilians.

“It is a homage to the Phenomenon, this Brazilian pride. We are going to tell the story of this kid who won the world,” said the Hawks carnival director Zilkson Reis when unveiling the school’s theme for the parade.

But another float of a giant Ronaldo holding up a finger in his traditional goal celebration will also symbolise the increasing role the former player has taken on in Brazilian football politics.

Since hanging up his boots in 2011 he has become a powerful presence in the business end of the sport and is also a key member of the local World Cup organising committee.

But his rise in the murky, often corrupt, world of Brazilian football administration has not been without controversy. His high-profile role with the World Cup has made him the target of critics who have blasted the government’s decision to spend billions on new stadiums when schools and hospitals are a shambles.

During last June’s huge protests against the tournament a 2011 video in which Ronaldo said “you cannot host a World Cup with hospitals” circulated widely online. As protesters carried posters of the former player with tape over his mouth, and one father directly addressed him in an emotional video about his daughter who was left brain-damaged by a mistake in a public hospital, Ronaldo’s claim that his comments were taken out of context went largely unheard.

Along with Bebeto, another former striker on the World Cup organising committee, Ronaldo has become a favourite target for Romário who is now a congressman and leading critic of Fifa’s tournament. Showing no mercy towards his former colleagues from the squad which won the 1994 World Cup Romário said the pair “are not aware of what is happening or they are pretending they are not. Either way, they are ignorant.”

Even among some of his fans Ronaldo has become identified with the controversial effort to modernise Brazilian football, which has so far resulted in higher ticket prices for fans but without improving the quality of football on the field or the financial health of clubs off it.


Working-class Corinthians
The impact of

a national icon’s return in 2009 after years in Europe was central to a huge marketing campaign by the traditionally working-class Corinthians that raised the club’s profile among wealthier Brazilians.

“His image ended up being used to ‘modernise’ the club, which ended up being exclusionary as it took many poor people off the terraces,” says Leonor Macedo, a former spokesman for the Gaviões da Fiel.

Ronaldo has benefitted from the increasing amount of money circulating in Brazilian football. On his retirement he founded a sports marketing agency, 9ine, in which global marketing giant WPP has a 45 per cent stake. His agency already represents several leading Brazilian sports stars, including Barcelona striker and Brazil talisman Neymar.

This has led to accusations of a conflict of interests as Ronaldo is also a commentator on Brazil’s Globo network which holds the broadcast rights to all Brazil’s games. Come June he will be asked to give his opinion of several clients whose value to his company increases the more they appear for the seleção .

Ronaldo and Globo have denied any problem, instead preferring to exalt his independence and 9ine also said that as a key World Cup organiser Ronaldo played no part in helping one of its clients, Marfinite Arenas, secure a contract to supply seats to the new World Cup stadium in the city of Salvador; a claim that raised eyebrows in the local press.

With a fortune from a long and lucrative playing career estimated by Brazil’s financial press at between €150 million and €300 million money alone is unlikely to be Ronaldo’s motivation for continued involvement in football.


Top hats of Brazilian soccer


Earlier this year he indicated he was aiming at the presidency of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF): “Brazilian football needs many changes.” Ronaldo has praised the new players’ union, Common Sense FC, founded last year to protest the often wretched conditions in which local league players must perform.

However, his increasingly close identification with the cartolas, or top hats, that run Brazilian football means many advocating reform are sceptical if Ronaldo is the man to deliver it.

“Ronaldo could have been a catalyst for reform when he returned in 2009. If he had used his prestige and influence he would have been the best placed person to transform Brazilian football,” says Fernando Ferreira, a director at Brazilian sports consultancy Pluri. “But he did not take on this role. Now he is associated with status quo. Today no one sees him as a potential reformer.”