Is Ronaldo finished? Croatia defender Robert Kovac told the press in Berlin after Brazil's 1-0 win over Croatia that "marking him was easy. He just stood in front of us and hardly moved." Even Kaka admitted that "our movement improved a lot after Robinho came on [in Ronaldo's place]". Only the faith of coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is keeping him in the team. The sad thing is that "El Gordo" (the fat one), who is still only 29, was once one of the greatest athletes in the game's history.
Ronaldo peaked early in his career. His best season was at Barcelona in 1996/97 when he was 20 years old. At this time Ronaldo was as close to a one-man team as you could get. There have been a few players who can dribble like Ronaldo but very few who also had his size and strength – he was simultaneously the quickest, the most skilful and the most powerful forward in the league. His legendary goal against Compostela showcased his abilities as he raced from midfield past several challenges, dragging along two shirt-pulling defenders like waterskiers.
All of Europe was in awe of Ronaldo and Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti decided the player had to be his. Ronaldo was made for Barcelona but if he had stayed his agents would have had to forgo their cut of a potential transfer fee. So in the summer of 1997 Ronaldo joined Inter for £18m and set in motion a process that would nearly destroy him.
Ronaldo's brilliance was undimmed during his first season in Italy, when he scored 31 goals in 43 games. But gradually Italian football began to reshape him in its own image. At the time, Juventus were dominating the league with a team of beefed-up super-athletes. Ignoring the fact that Ronaldo already had the perfect physique for football the Inter medical staff set him on a special programme of weights and nutritional supplements. Ronaldo bulked up, gaining more than a stone during his first season in Italy. Meanwhile his agents worked tirelessly on his behalf, ensuring every second away from football was spent promoting everything from Nike to Montega Geneve. The first sign that Ronaldo was close to breaking point came at the 1998 World Cup, when his preparations for the final against France were disturbed by a mysterious fit. Coach Mario Zagallo decided that he would play regardless; many Brazilians are convinced his decision was forced by commercial interests. He had the worst game of his career as Brazil lost 3-0.
It wasn't long before there were more problems. Ronaldo's new super-physique caused his knee ligaments to rupture in the autumn of 1998, then again on his comeback when the damage was compounded by a broken kneecap. Between 1998 and 2001 Ronaldo played barely any football. When he came back he was a profoundly different footballer. He had filled out around the torso and was no longer as flexible. He was still quick, but his devastating acceleration had gone. He was still skilful but rarely dribbled past opponents as he used to. He was a pure goalscorer now, a penalty-box predator who struck most of his goals from crosses. He was still dangerous, but he was no longer truly phenomenal.
Eight goals at the World Cup in Japan restored his reputation as a great player and earned him a transfer to Real Madrid, where he has since scored more than 100 goals. But over the last year he has started to sink. His metabolism can not keep up with his busy social life.
A friendly and outgoing character, Ronaldo never likes to be alone. The mother of one embittered former wife declared he was "only good for whores". Where most players settle down and start going to bed early in the latter part of their careers, Ronaldo's appetite for good times has increased as he has got older. Last year he had the Real Madrid side flown to a chateaux outside Paris for a Valentine's Day party to celebrate his engagement to a model with whom he broke up a month later.
Ricardo Setyon, former press officer to the Brazil national side, says, "It is a Venezuelan soap opera. It is a Mexican movie of afternoon delight for the wives of husbands who are at work all day." The Madrid fans have lost patience with his lack of effort. A prodigy all his life, Ronaldo cannot deal with criticism and a childish outburst in spring, where he complained that the Madrid fans did not love him enough, means he will probably be playing elsewhere next season.
His status remains higher in Brazil, where the president had to apologise after suggesting he, too, believed Ronaldo was overweight. But his stock is now in freefall. Brazilians take the World Cup very seriously and Ronaldo's recent behaviour suggests he can take it or leave it. It was reported from Brazil's training camp in Switzerland that Ronaldo was out drinking with Roberto Carlos and Emerson when he should have been trying to burn off his spare tyre. He is now widely regarded in Europe as the Elvis of footballers, a doomed icon reduced by excess to flabby irrelevance. Barring a dramatic improvement in his form over the next couple of games, that may soon be his fate in Brazil also.