Demystifying a Legend: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima

For many years, especially in the mid-2000s, the term ‘The original Ronaldo’ was commonly used in reference to Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. Fans, commentators, analysts and pretty much anyone who had reason to refer to the legendary Brazilian forward used the term at will.


The term was a tool of adulation and praise for ‘Il Fenomino’ whenever he did something special, which needless to say was reasonably frequent. But on the flip side, it was used more often than not as a way to intimidate the other Ronaldo, Cristiano the Portuguese who was just a promising youngster.


‘The original Ronaldo’ was used with intended prejudice and directed at Cristiano to let him know that he would never be better than De Lima which was a weird level of hate for a talented youngster whose only crime was bearing the same name as a legend.


By the time Cristiano joined Manchester United as a teenager in 2003, De Lima was a 27-year old superstar for Real Madrid who had already won two FIFA World Cups and Ballon d’Ors each and three FIFA World Player of the Year awards, it was obvious who the better Ronaldo was.


Bear in mind that De Lima in his early years had to go by ‘Ronaldinho’ or ‘little Ronaldo’ at times to distinguish him from his older teammates with the same name. No one called the older guys at the time ‘the original Ronaldo’ because everyone respected De Lima’s talent which buttresses my point. With Cristiano, that term went beyond distinguishing two players with the same last name to outrightly disrespecting and undermining him.


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The entire football world really didn’t have to be so petty by repeatedly using that term ‘the original Ronaldo’ at every opportunity, if Cristiano wasn’t such a mental juggernaut, he may well have cracked under that pressure and fail to live up to his namesake as everyone thought.  


18 years on from the summer of 2003, Cristiano has comfortably surpassed De Lima and is still going strong at the highest level as a  35-year old having recently rejoined Manchester United. The question of who was the better player in their respective primes will ultimately divide opinions between age-grades, an average father swears De Lima is far superior while a son would most likely lean towards Cristiano.


However, in terms of greatness and who had the better career, any objective person of any age can easily identify Cristiano as the original Ronaldo in this regard and it’s not even close. Cristiano Ronaldo is still playing active football and is already heralded as one of the greatest in the sport’s history, objectively comparable only to Lionel Messi and Pele.


De Lima Ronaldo on the other hand retired as the biggest ‘what if?’ in football history, despite his stellar career which was divided into two parts; pre and post-knee injury. R9 achieved a lot in his career and is no doubt an all-time great but with the potential and ability he possessed, he could have retired as the greatest.


His pre-injury years were ridiculously good, at 21 years old he was already the best player in the world and had broken the world transfer record twice. He scored 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro, 54 goals in 57 games for PSV and 47 goals in 49 appearances at Barcelona all before turning 21.


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In his first season at Inter Milan, he scored 25 league goals and was crowned the best player in Italy and the world again with 34 goals in 47 total games. The following season saw him return 14 goals in 19 Serie A games before the tragic injury struck and sidelined De Lima for the entire 2000/01 season and for the majority of the two seasons either side of it as well, missing well over two years of football in the process.


Post-injury De Lima wasn’t a slouch either, he no longer had the explosiveness of before but ‘Il Fenomeno’ continued to be phenomenal for the most part. He led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002 and was once again the best player in the world before signing for Real Madrid where he scored 104 goals in 177 appearances.


All of this is to capture De Lima Ronaldo’s greatness and to help you fully grasp that despite all the aforementioned achievements and the ridiculously efficient stats from his pre-injury years, Cristiano surpassed all of that. Ronaldo’s 194 goals in 228 games across seven seasons before the first of those injuries is mighty impressive but it pales in comparison to Cristiano’s best run which was his entire Real Madrid career.


In nine years for Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 450 goals in 438 games, the poorest of those seasons was in 2016/17 when he scored 42 goals in 46 games which is simply incredible. De Lima was considered otherworldly for his unstoppable prime which happened to be earlier in his career while Cristiano’s more impressive achievements have been normalised.


The only part where De Lima Ronaldo outshines his younger namesake is with their respective national teams although Cristiano may well be a multiple World Cup winner as well if he was blessed with the calibre of Brazilian players as teammates.


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So who’s the better Ronaldo? Whichever one won the Ballon d’Or five times, the highest scorer in Champions League history having also won it five times.


The recurring theme of this article is respect for both Ronaldos and their immense contributions to the beautiful game. But even more respect for Cristiano, a kid who was disrespected at every turn and used as a tool for ridicule to prop up his older namesake who was probably his idol at the time.


Until he himself then developed into a man and did the seemingly impossible by blowing De Lima’s legacy out of the water. If indeed there can only be one ‘original Ronaldo’ then it is Cristiano.


By: Tunde Young / @tunde_young

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Ben Radford – Getty Images