The last goodbye: How Ronaldo went to Corinthians & stole Pele’s crown

Nostalgia
Ronaldo Fenomeno celebrates scoring for Corinthians. Pacaembu, Sao Paulo, June 2009.

Signing Ronaldo Fenomeno was once an opportunity the world’s best clubs climbed over each other to grab. As the third millennium approached, the boy who left Brazil to take on the world and won was the shiniest item in football’s treasure chest of attacking jewels.

But in December 2008, contracting the services of the buck-toothed former golden boy was about as safe a bet as purchasing stocks in an Icelandic investment bank – especially for a Brazilian club that was emerging from one of the most chastening episodes in its wildly eventful history.

Somehow, though, this is the story of the Brazilian club that took that risk – Corinthians – and this is a story of glorious success.

Ronaldo was just 32 when Corinthians moved for him. But his age was told nothing of his past. Once the greatest footballer on earth, o Fenomeno had been brought to his knees by… well, his knees, which, in the late noughties, were held together with blu tack, masking tape and prayers.

At his previous club, AC Milan, Ronaldo had played just 20 games across 18 months. His last came in February 2008. He’d left the pitch clutching his left patella and crying in pain.

While at Milan, he had also been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, which explained his significant weight gain, and had become involved in an off-pitch scandal back in Brazil.

Yet he was a free agent and he was still Ronaldo. In fact, let us try that again. He was still Ronaldo.

And as he was still Ronaldo, the temptation was there, because of the hope that he might rekindle that old fire, but equally, because of the deafening noise his arrival would generate. If we were recreating this scene in cartoon form, Brazilian clubs’ marketing chiefs would have dollar signs rolling in their eyes.

So, there was potential reward, but there was plenty of risk. On one hand, Ronaldo the name, which guaranteed to bring the noise. On the other, Ronaldo the glass-brittle, overweight footballer, who guaranteed nothing.

Of all the clubs to take an outrageous gamble in late 2008, Brazilian giants Corinthians should have been at the bottom of the list, too. They’d had their fingers badly burnt.

In 2005, then-president Alberto Dualib had decided to let Media Sports Investment – a shady enterprise backed by Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and fronted by budding superagent Kia Joorabchian – take over the club’s transfer business.

MSI had brought the promise of riches and carried with them budding talents like Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. At first, it was blissful, the club winning 2005 Brazilian title.

But, inevitably, MSI had jumped ship at the first sign of a storm and the SS Corinthians sunk like stone. In 2007, Corinthians – one of the biggest clubs in the land with a reported 30million fans – were relegated to Serie B.

In 2008, they regrouped, winning the second tier and reaching the final of the Copa do Brasil. But a newly-promoted side would be risk-averse, wouldn’t they?

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READ: The making of O Fenomeno in Brazil: ‘It was as if he had come from the moon’

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The answer was a resounding no. After all, this is Brazilian football, where the assessment of financial risk is about as far from the minds of most club presidents as Taipei is from Timbuktu.

Corinthians’ new man in charge was Andres Sanchez. He’d done well to steady the club and get them back up so smoothly. But at heart, Sanchez is a fan of the brash and the bold, a man who adores the spotlight. Here was the perfect opportunity.

Ronaldo was training at Flamengo, the Rio club he supported as a boy. He’d been there for four months, keeping fit and hoping. “I was certain I’d play [for Flamengo],” he told Flow Podcast in 2021. “[But] they did nothing.”

Ronaldo continued: “One day I went to an award ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, and I bumped into Andres [Sanchez]… Andres had already started moving the pieces into place, recruiting [former Brazilian national team doctor] Joaquim Grava.

“People were getting ready and at the end of the afternoon, I met them at my house. Joaquim looked at my knee and said: ‘Let’s go.’ The next day I met Andres in the same place and he had a napkin: ‘Let’s sign this contract.'”

Ronaldo was to receive a salary of 400,000 Brazilian Reals a month – about £120,000 at the time – which was not a lot compared to the wages he’d commanded elsewhere. But in addition to that salary, Ronaldo would receive 80% of any sponsorship deals Corinthians agreed on the back of his arrival.

It was a thoroughly unusual arrangement, but both parties were willing to take the risk. So on December 12 2008, Ronaldo was greeted by 8,000 delirious fans at Parque Sao Jorge, Corinthians’ headquarters.

He was far from match fit. His weight was an issue and the knee still needed rehab. Work began. Two months of sweaty toil to get Ronaldo to where he needed to be.

There was controversy to deal with along the way. In late January, Ronaldo was spotted emerging from a Sao Paulo nightclub at 6 a.m.. The gossip press were delighted. Corinthians fans less so. Dr Grava was forced to issue a public defence of Ronaldo.

“He was with me in the morning,” Grava said, “I didn’t see any change in his behaviour… Going out or not is a social matter. There is no problem nor any influence on his treatment.”

January rolled into February and February rolled into March. The season began with the Sao Paulo state championship. Ronaldo was finally nearing fitness. Then it came. An inauspicious start but a start nonetheless: 27 minutes from the bench against minnows Itumbiara in the Copa do Brasil.

The next week, the same. Ronaldo on the bench from the start. This time, though, it was bigger – the opposition were Corinthians’ hated rivals Palmeiras.

A Derby Paulista, Sunday afternoon, four o’clock. A packed stadium bathed in the warm, late-summer sun. Palmeiras 1-0 up, 28 minutes to go. Corinthians manager Mano Menezes looked to the bench, Ronaldo stepped forward.

The time passed, dragging for Palmeiras, flying for Corinthians. Then a corner, the second minute of injury time. Floated to the back stick. The rest, well the rest is obvious. Ronaldo, 1-1. Corinthians saved at the last, their unbeaten record intact.

Ronaldo ran to celebrate at the fence separating field from fans. He jumped and held onto it, as did all his team-mates and half a terrace full of shirtless, pot-bellied men. The fence collapsed under the weight. The weight and the joy.

“Modesty aside,” Ronaldo grinned down the TV camera minutes later, “this is a moment I’ve mastered. If I didn’t know how to do this [score], I wouldn’t have got to where I did.”

Modesty aside, he was right. And it was the start of something special.

Three days later he started and scored again. And then again and again. Ronaldo led, Corinthians marched to the semi-finals of the state championship. There, they met their other city rival Sao Paulo FC, who had won the last three Brazilian league titles.

Corinthians won the first leg at the Pacaembu in front of their own fans. But a 2-1 lead guaranteed nothing. The temperature rose before the return at Sao Paulo’s cavernous Morumbi.

On the way to the game, the Corinthians bus came under siege. “They threw everything,” Ronaldo told Flow Podcast, “rocks, bottles, bricks, everything.

“They destroyed the bus, were getting closer to us, we were cowering down, I looked at the lads and they were really scared. I had a speaker and I blasted out that song [Negro Drama by Racionais MC’s].

“Elias and I started to lead… I started shouting, Elias too, then everyone joined in, the bus broken, it was a transformation. It was already 2-0 to Sao Paulo, so scared were we, but I had that idea and we won 2-0 on the pitch, we gave our lives [to the cause].”

Two-nil. The first set up by Ronaldo, the second scored by Ronaldo, all in two mad second-half minutes.

The goal was a thing of subtle beauty. If we’re honest, by this point Ronaldo ran with all the grace of a duck. But he chased a through ball, his anticipation giving him the march on his man. The ‘keeper came but Ronaldo lifted it perfectly over him and into the net.

Corinthians were through to face Santos, who had a star of their own. A 17-year-old Neymar had only just come into the team but his talent was already abundantly clear. The narrative was perfect: the old master against the emerging talent.

The first game was at Santos charming, ramshackle Vila Belmiro stadium. A draw would have been a good result for Corinthians.

An early lead came from a deflected free-kick. It was good, but it would get better. The curtains were raised on the Ronaldo show. Two more goals, one either side of the interval. The first, brilliant; the second, pure genius, a Cruyff turn inside his man, then a mind-bending 25-yard lob.

Ronaldo scored a lot of stunning goals in his younger days, when his body was full of explosive power and his feet were a blur of lightning stepovers. But this was different. This was a goal of refined beauty. Not devastating like he once had been, Ronaldo had changed, adding an icy air of nobility to his game.

Pele watched from the stands. After the game, he spoke to reporters. “Ronaldo made the difference,” he said. “The second goal was worthy of a World Cup.”

Ronaldo said: “It’s a dream to score where Pele scored so many, and to be King, if only for a day.”

Santos had pulled one back in between Ronaldo’s brace, but a 3-1 lead was a hand and four fingers on the trophy. The next week, a 1-1 draw secured the championship for Corinthians.

Ronaldo, as the player of the tournament, won a car. He sold it immediately, took the money, and distributed it among the non-playing staff at the training ground. “Everyone got a good amount,” one of the recipients told Globo in 2021.

Concurrently with their state championship success, Corinthians had been chugging along in the Copa do Brasil. Minnows Itumbiara and Misto were dispatched in the first two rounds, easy pickings even for heavily-rotated Corinthians teams.

Then they had advanced past 5-2 on aggregate Atletico Paranaense. Ronaldo scored twice in the second leg, the second after winning a penalty with an inspired double-backheel nutmeg.

Suddenly, they were in the quarter-finals. The chance to secure the trophy they’d so narrowly missed out in 2008 was now visible on the horizon. It was still only May.

Fluminense were next. It was tight, but Corinthians progressed, scrapping for a 2-2 draw in Rio after winning 1-0 at home. Then came Flu’s neighbours Vasco Da Gama and it was even tougher, 1-1 after two legs, the first of which Ronaldo missed. But, on away goals, Corinthians were through.

The final was against another giant of the Brazilian game, Internacional. They were strong as well, in the middle of a spell that saw Inter win two Copas Libertadores and a Copa Sudamericana in the space of five years.

But Ronaldo was Ronaldo. And when he was Ronaldo, resistance was futile. The first leg was at home and Corinthians took advantage of the advantage, opening the scoring through Jorge Henrique. Then, in the second half, Ronaldo made his mark.

Again, he showed brilliant anticipation, latching onto a quick free-kick. Again, he finished with aplomb, cutting inside his marker and firing left-footed under the goalkeeper. Again, Ronaldo had given Corinthians a commanding lead in the first leg of a final.

In the return leg in Porto Alegre, two quick-fire first-half goals, another from Jorge Henrique and one from Andre Santos, put the tie beyond Inter. The Colorado pulled two back in the second 45, but it was too little too late.

July 1, 2009. It was just under four months since Ronaldo had made his Corinthians debut and just under seven since he had signed. But here he was as Copa do Brasil and Sao Paulo state champion. He had put Corinthians firmly back among the elite.

Ronaldo stayed at Corinthians for another 16 months after that. In 2010, the club’s centenary year, the dream was to win a first Copa Libertadores with Ronaldo leading the line.

It was not to be. Injuries returned. Corinthians crashed out of the Libertadores to Flamengo, revenge for the Carioca club after Corinthians had nicked Ronaldo from under their noses. In February 2011, Ronaldo announced his retirement.

But the impact had been made, those magnificent first six months more than enough to justify the efforts made to bring him in.

In 2018, Andres Sanchez told UOL: “Corinthians grew. Especially outside Brazil. It became better known. From that moment, Ronaldo put Corinthians on a level never seen before. Ronaldo is a phenomenon.”

What should, by all logic and reason, have been a disaster, had turned into a triumph, one of those inexplicable victories of bravado and risk over reason.

It was a victory for Corinthians and their fans and directors. But it was a victory for football too. One of its greats, who had fallen so far, got a last hurrah that was as roaring as his talent was resplendent.

By Joshua Law


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