Inter Milan fans will never know how good Ronaldo could have been for the Nerazzurri.
A series of career-threatening knee injuries not only curtailed his impact at the San Siro but forced the Brazilian to adapt his game.
Yet for one brilliant debut season, ‘Il Fenomeno’ dazzled Serie A with his searing mix of speed, strength and once-in-a-generation skill.
That campaign culminated in what was undoubtedly Ronaldo’s finest 90 minutes in the black and blue of Inter – the 1998 UEFA Cup final against Lazio.
Inter travelled to the Parc de Princes in Paris in early May contemplating the unthinkable.
A year earlier the world record £19.5million signing of Ronaldo from Barcelona had heralded the dawn of an exciting new era at the club.
But it hadn’t quite gone to plan.
Dumped out of the Coppa Italia following a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of bitter rivals AC Milan, Inter’s title challenge had also faltered in the final stretch after a narrow 1-0 defeat to Juventus and a home draw with lowly Piacenza.
Lose the UEFA Cup final and manager Luigi Simoni would be facing the reality of a season without a trophy to show for his team’s efforts.
The Nerazzurri’s prospects going into the final weren’t good either.
Out of form domestically, Inter had lost the previous year’s UEFA Cup final on penalties to Schalke with Aron Winter and Ivan Zamorano missing from the spot.
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) May 21, 2020
In Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio they faced the newly-crowned Coppa Italia winners and a team boasting the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved and Roberto Mancini.
The Rome club had also romped to victory when the two teams last met in Serie A with a comfortable 3-0 win at the Olimpico.
Inter needed someone to step up, take the game by the scruff of the neck and calm a few nerves. Fortunately, they had just the man for such an occasion.
A score to settle
While Inter’s fortunes hung in the balance, Ronaldo came into the game off the back of a brilliant debut campaign in what was then considered the best league in the world.
The Brazil international had scored 25 goals in Serie A and 34 in all competitions. That tally included a crucial match-winning brace in Inter’s semi-final second leg clash against Spartak Moscow, who were heading through on away goals until his intervention.
Ronaldo had form when it came to getting Inter out of a sticky situation – but he also had a score or two to settle himself.
Just a month earlier, ‘Il Fenomeno’ found himself at the centre of a national football scandal following Inter’s top-of-the-table clash with Juventus.
While the Nerazzurri went down 1-0, the win was marred by controversy after the referee failed to award a penalty to Inter at 0-0 for Mark Iuliano’s blatant body check on Ronaldo.
— Il CarlOnana (stavo scherzando) (@East_10) April 26, 2020
The decision set shockwaves through Italian society with pundits and politicians weighing in on the debate. Regardless of the decision, the upshot was a Juve win with Ronaldo falling victim to the dark arts of Italian defending.
It something he didn’t intend on doing again – starting with the UEFA Cup final.
Lining up in Simoni’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, Ronaldo led the line alongside Zamorano, with Youri Djorkaeff in the trequartista just behind the front two.
It meant the Brazilian would be facing off against a young Alessandro Nesta, then at the peak of his powers with Lazio.
Nesta had kept the forward quiet during their previous league encounter, where his positioning and tackling were second only to his wiles as a defender.
There would be no repeat at the Parc de Princes though.
Within seconds of the game starting, the referee was blowing up for a foul on Ronaldo, following a cynical tug of the shirt from Nesta. But if the Italian thought he was about the get the better of the Brazilian again, he was wrong.
Minutes later, a pass down the left flank found the two players battling it out again only this time Ronaldo came off the better, poking the ball past Nesta before sending the Lazio defender sprawling to the ground. Let the games begin.
Lazio clearly had a game plan where Ronaldo was concerned. Every time the forward got the ball, he quickly found himself surrounded by two or three sky blue shirts.
That might have been a problem for other players, but what Lazio failed to account for was Ronaldo’s unique box of tricks; he’d carved out a career evading defenders in situations like this with a drop of a shoulder here or a trademark “elastico” there.
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Under Simoni, he had also begun to use this unique magnetic pull to his advantage, often dropping deep to draw players in, creating space for teammates, before dancing his way out of trouble or laying the ball off.
Lazio’s undue focus on Ronaldo in those opening exchanges was not only flawed, it also left Zamorano free. Within five minutes, Inter had taken full advantage with the Chilean firing home from Diego Simeone’s lofted through ball.
The game was not even 10 minutes old and Lazio were already reeling, with Inter unleashing wave after wave of attack, orchestrated by Ronaldo who switched between midfield provider and out-and-out striker with alarming ease.
He came close to scoring what would have been the game’s standout goal just a few minutes later too. Picking the ball up on the edge of the Lazio area following good work on the left from Javier Zanetti, Ronaldo unleashed a first-time thunderbolt of a strike that rattled the crossbar and the helpless Luca Marchegiani in goal.
Il Fenomeno was in full swing now.
Though Lazio went into the break only a goal down, there would be no let up once the second-half began, with the Biancocelesti struggling to find an answer to the question of how you stop a striker like Ronaldo.
While the Brazilian had spent much of the first-half drawing players in to create space for teammates to launch counter-attacks, the start of the second period saw Il Fenomeno illustrate his sensational pace and power.
In one spellbinding passage of play, Ronaldo picked up the ball, 20 yards from his own goal and ran. He just ran. But this was no George Weah run against Verona or the uncoordinated dash of a wannabe Forest Gump. Ronaldo ran at blistering speed but demonstrated almost superhuman close control of the ball.
Like something out of a football simulation in a computer game, he dodged tackles, left and right, never stopping or slowing the play down.
In a matter of seconds his power and pace turned defence into attack, only coming to a halt following a last-ditch foul from Nesta, kicking, pulling and trying everything in his power to bring him to a standstill.
Desperate times were calling for desperate measures from Lazio – but it would come at a cost.
While Vladimir Jugovic succeeded in stopping Ronaldo in his tracks with a cynical elbow, another foul a few minutes later gifted Inter the free-kick from which Javier Zanetti doubled their lead via a brilliantly smashed finish into the top right-hand corner of the goal.
Javier Zanetti's unstoppable goal vs Lazio in the 1998 UEFA Cup final. pic.twitter.com/7frPzG3IHh
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) May 16, 2018
Lazio continued to try, in vain, to find a way back into the game but instead found Ronaldo, back defending on the edge of his own penalty area, breaking up play and finding pass after pass.
Such an all-round display was one that warranted a goal, no, needed a goal, to ensure its place in football folklore.
It duly arrived on 70 minutes in the most Ronaldo way possible.
Latching on to a brilliant through ball from substitute Francesco Moriero, Ronaldo beat Lazio’s offside trap to find himself one-on-one with Marchegiani. It almost wasn’t fair.
The kind of goal Ronaldo scores in his sleep, a swivel of the hips and a few of his trademark step-overs were enough to send the goalkeeper sprawling, with the Samba star dancing around him before coolly slotting the ball home.
Ronaldo vs Lazio, 1998.pic.twitter.com/pKcARreuBm
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) May 9, 2019
Marchegiani wasn’t the first and he definitely wouldn’t be the last to fall for this particular trick, but there was something special about this goal.
One final encore
With the win all but secured, Ronaldo went into full-on party mode, as is the want of any good Brazilian when romping to victory.
Another dazzling bit of footwork followed by an elastico let Lazio captain Diego Fuser on his backside, before Matias Almeyda desperately tried to put a foot in on him, but Ronaldo slips by unscathed.
Even with the game won, Ronaldo continued to torment Nesta, pulling the Italian this way and that in search of another goal on a night that the Azzurri ace later reflected as being one of his worst.
Ever the consummate teammate, the final few minutes saw Ronaldo winding down the clock, with Inter at that point reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of Taribo West.
But even then, Il Fenomeno found a way to make time wasting look good. Rolling the ball under his foot before evading a hefty challenge and laying the ball off to Javier Zanetti.
Ronaldo vs Lazio in 1998. One of my favourite ever clips of him. 🐐🔥pic.twitter.com/2RcTA96VtW
— Classic Football (@ClassicFootbaIl) April 5, 2020
It all proved too much for Almeyda, who ended up joining West for an early bath after one strong challenge too many on the Brazilian.
While no love was lost between Nesta and Ronaldo come the final whistle, Inter celebrated wildly after what remains one of the most complete team performances ever witnessed in a European final and one of the best individual displays the competition had ever seen.
The perfect game for the new-look Inter, Ronaldo summed up the mood in his post-match interview.
“We played very well and deserved the victory: we didn’t make a mistake from first minute to last. I’m happy because this is my first trophy with Inter.
“It was great to win in Paris; I will return here with my national team and give my all to win the World Cup too.”
In time, Nesta too, would reflect on the game and the Brazilian’s performance with a sense of grudging respect: “Ronaldo is the hardest attacker I’ve ever had to face,” he later said. “He was impossible to stop.”
But for all the happy memories created that night, looking back on Inter’s impressive win in the Parc de Princes is an experience tinged with regret.
There would be no Scudetto for Inter with Ronaldo in their ranks – the UEFA Cup ended up being his first and only trophy in the black and blue.
Paris, too, would take on a different meaning for Ronaldo. The site of his greatest ever game for Inter but also his worst night for Brazil in the ill-fated World Cup final that would take place in the French capital within a couple of months.
Though Ronaldo would enjoy redemption for club and country, this was as good as it got for Il Fenomeno at Inter. Even so, it was a lot of fun while it lasted.
By Jack Beresford