The Enduring Appeal of Ronaldo, Soccer’s Original Phenomenon

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There is, instead, something deeper at play. Klosterman characterizes our view of the 1990s as a “good time that happened long ago, though not as long ago as it seems.” Many of its cultural touchstones — “The Simpsons,” “Friends,” the German pop sensation Haddaway — remain so familiar as to feel almost (but not quite) current, while much of its reality seems impossibly distant. People did not have the internet in the 1990s. They bought CDs.

That same effect applies to soccer. Ronaldo and his peers are current in a way that Maradona, say, is not; they featured in video games and had their own special boot deals and struggled to escape the paparazzi.

But we were not nearly so exposed to those stars as we are their successors. The 1990s, Klosterman writes, “were a decade in which it was possible to watch absolutely everything, and then never see it again.”

Watching Ronaldo play even on television was a relatively rare occurrence, certainly before the waning days of his career. His every appearance was not broadcast around the world. His iconic goals were not played on a loop, endlessly, from the moment they hit the net. There is a fuzziness, a mystery, to him — and to the age in which he played — that subsequent generations do not possess. There are, still, unanswered questions.

They are important ones, too, because it is in soccer’s long 1990s that we see the roots of the game as we experience it today. It was not just the era in which soccer fully fused with celebrity for the first time, when the final vestiges of isolationism and national identity were abandoned, when transfer fees and salaries spiraled out of control, when what had been sport became entertainment.

It was also, in a sporting context, when the ideas that would shape the game’s future took hold. Some of that was administrative — the change in the backpass law, for example, had to happen for pressing to come into being — and some of it was philosophical, as the thinking of Johan Cruyff leached down to Pep Guardiola, among others.

But at least part of it was embodied by Ronaldo. As his former teammate Christian Vieri puts it in “The Phenomenon,” soccer had “never seen a player like” Ronaldo when he first emerged: a player of the finest, most refined technique, but one who also possessed a startling burst of speed, a ferocious shot, and a rippling, brutish power. Ronaldo was a forward line all by himself.


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