Ronaldo to the rescue

 

On the register of births in Madureira, Rio De Janeiro, his name is Ronaldo Luiz Nazario Lima. His team mates at Inter Milan call him "Ronie". As a little boy, his parents Sonia and Nelia called him "Dadado" because of his comical inability to pronounce his own name. Fans from rival sides have already dubbed him "Pee-In-The-Bed" for reasons explained later. The Italian media are more charitable, dubbing him "The Phenomenon".

With his fresh, 20-year-old face and buck-teeth grin, he looks almost innocent. As he deals with the media horde following a friendly match in Rome, his manner is patient and courteous, even slightly timid. You would never guess that this is Ronaldo, the Brazilian wunderkind, currently the greatest one-man soccer show on earth.

Tomorrow afternoon Ronaldo clocks in for his first piece of serious action with his new employers, the Italian giant Internazionale, who are at home to newly promoted Brescia on the first day of the 1997-1998 Italian season.

Tomorrow will mark the opening of the first chapter in a colossal gamble by player and club, with the former putting his formidable reputation on the line and with the latter having already put formidable sums of money ($42 million purchase-fee, plus nine-year contract worth an annual $5.8 million) on the table.

That complex multi-million-dollar transaction involving Inter, Spanish side Barcelona (Ronaldo's previous club), the Spanish and Italian Federations and FIFA has not been entirely concluded, since FIFA has still to assess the size of a further payment Barcelona claims to be owed. That complex transaction, too, kept the ink flowing on the pages of Italy's mighty sports media this summer with daily speculation about the on-off nature of the transfer. The media might have spared themselves the effort. On a warm morning two months ago, sitting in Inter's splendid offices in downtown Milan, Sandro Mazzola, an Inter and Italian star of the 1960s and now a key figure in the club's market-activity, told this correspondent there was no doubt but that Ronaldo was coming Inter's way, adding: "Sure, Barcelona are going to cause some problems but, in the end, he's coming to us. We want him, we want him a lot."

Indeed, they do. It has been eight seasons since Inter Milan last won the Italian league championship - eight long seasons in which their loathed city rivals, AC Milan, have generally been lording it not only over them but also over the rest of the world. For a club whose owners, directors and fans fondly remember the great mid-1960s era of two Champions Cup and three league titles, the 1990s so far have been miserable. In case you have missed the point, there's a lot riding on Ronaldo's shoulders.

Even before the Serie A championship has begun, the young Brazilian has had a chance to sample the pressures. The other day, Gianni Agnelli, former Fiat President and No 1 Juventus fan, dropped a mischievous little remark, saying: "I'm not entirely convinced that Ronaldo will turn out to be such a good buy . . . He's a very good player, I think the best around at the moment, certainly the best striker, but having said that there's no certainty that Inter will win everything . . ."

Agnelli's observation had been prompted by the calculations of sports economist Marco Brunelli who recently suggested that such has been the positive effect of "Ronaldomania" in Italy that, over the next nine years, Inter will more than double its $110 million investment by way of increased revenue from season ticket sales, sponsors, TV rights, friendly match fees and merchandising.

That remains to be seen. What we know already is that the Ronaldo effect has boosted season-ticket sales - now up by 40 per cent, and possibly set to reach 50,000 and, even better, in so doing outsell AC Milan.

Inter and Ronaldo may not win the 1997-1998 championship, but they have already won round one of the media battle. Italy's huge, soccer-oriented media industry has lavished hours of airtime and acres of newsprint on the life and times of Ronaldo. We now know he is a good family boy and that with his soccer-gotten wealth he has bought houses in Rio for sister Ione, brother Nelinho and cousin Roger as well as a house and a pizzeria on the famous Copacabanna beach for his father, Nelio. We know too that Nelio and his mother are separated and that Nelio, a one-time Brazilian Telephones employee, dropped his job in order to promote the fledgling Ronaldo career.

Photographs also reveal that those soon-to-be-famously-prominent front teeth were once even more prominent and that some of the lad's initial soccer-gotten wealth was spent on braces, subsequently worn without apparent embarrassment in family-album pics.

We have all now seen the school bench on which the one-time nonprodigy (academically speaking) used to idle, not to mention the Ramos Social Club gym where the boy scored his first important goals. Furthermore, we know all about the romantic sorrows of the young Ronaldo, from his first girlfriend Anna Paula through to Adeli, Raqueli, Nadia and finally, his present companion, Susana Werner, otherwise unkindly known as "Ronaldinha".

Thanks to an interview with Brazilian TV presenter Xuxa, we also know the world's most famous footballer occasionally wets the bed. Get to work on that confession, Vinnie Jones.

Furthermore, all of Italy's 50 million-odd soccer fans now know the wunderkind and his young girlfriend will soon be moving into a 300-squaremetre apartment in the San Siro area of Milan. That is, just as soon as his personal architect has flown in from Brazil for a month to refurbish and redecorate the apartment. (A major priority in the renovation will be creating a computer room for Ronaldo, an Internet buff whose first action when checking into a Milan hotel recently was to call up his email).

Those of us who went to watch him in a friendly against AS Roma last week also now know that the boy can play. We knew it already, of course. On television - be it for Brazil, Barcelona or indeed PSV Eindhoven two seasons ago - he had already looked awesomely good. From the grandstand, however, he looks even better. By the standards of modern soccer, he is an anomaly. He is not your hardworking striker who drops back to help out in midfield or even in defence. On the contrary, he is the classic poacher who walks around disinterestedly only to burst into life with volcanic violence just as soon as he and the ball come near the goalscoring zones.

As a Brazilian, he is also an anomaly, since his game is based more on power, pace and physique than on traditional Brazilian close skills. Those strong points have helped him in three seasons so far in Europe and seem sure to help him in Italy, too. What remains to be seen is just what sort of coherent Inter side will be built around him by Inter's new coach, "Gigi" Simoni, a man unfamiliar with the pressures of coaching at a side that has disposed of six coaches (Englishman Roy Hodgson, being the most recent) in the last seven seasons.

Simoni's task is not easy: his squad contains a wealth of multinational talent who will become multinational whingers just as soon as they are dropped.

So far, the boy Ronaldo has done well. He strikes a modest tone in interviews and seems patient with the madding crowd of fans, photographers and hacks which follows his every move. Playing against his compatriot, the skilful Aldair, the other night, he received a distinctly unfriendly punch in the ribs early in the night. The boy said nothing, climbed to his feet and minutes later set up an Inter goal thanks to a brilliant turn of foot that left Aldair out with the washing. The boy knows how to let his soccer do his talking for him. As his father Nelio once said: "As a footballer I wasn't even his shadow. At the most, he inherited my passion for soccer, his class no - that's a divine gift."