There was no better player in the world between 1996 and 1998 than Ronaldo.
The Brazilian had made a name for himself back home with Cruzeiro at the age of 16. He was a member of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup squad at 17, albeit not getting on the pitch, and began tearing it up in Europe for PSV Eindhoven from the age of 18.
By the end of 1997, shortly after celebrating his 21st birthday, Ronaldo was already a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year and had twice been the most expensive player in history as a result of transfers to join Barcelona in 1996 and then Inter the following summer.
Ronaldo was truly electrifying in those years. His lethal eye for goal was complemented by an incredible array of skills and tricks, searing pace, making him unplayable. 47 goals in his sole season for Barcelona as a 20-year-old was an incredible feat, capping it off with the Cup Winners’ Cup.
He scored another 34 across all competitions for Inter in his debut season in Italy at a time when Serie A was known for its strengths as a defensive league.
Had it not been for the injuries that cut him down in his prime and cost him the best part of four years of his career thereafter, there is every chance that Ronaldo would have been firmly in the raging ‘G.O.A.T’ debate. Nobody can realistically say how far he could or couldn’t have gone.
Ronaldo’s crowning achievement in his debut season at Inter was the 1997/98 UEFA Cup, a competition the Nerazzurri won three times in the 1990s and are now seeking to win for the first time since as they head into this season’s Europa League final against Sevilla.
Today’s Champions League elitism and snobbery didn’t exist in those days. Fewer teams competed in the top competition, ensuring a higher calibre of teams in the secondary tournament.
The 1997/98 campaign was the first in European Cup history in which it was more than the literal ‘Champions League’ when a handful (seven) of domestic runners-up were allowed in. It meant that top teams like Inter with world class players were fairly commonplace in the UEFA Cup.
Ronaldo scored Inter’s first goal of the UEFA Cup that season, getting the ball rolling against Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax in the first round first leg at San Siro. Despite not scoring, he helped turn the second round against Lyon around after Inter were beaten at home in the first leg, while further goals against Strasbourg and Schalke were crucial as the team continued to progressed.
In the semi-final second leg, two away goals against Spartak Moscow put Inter in the final. Before Ronaldo’s intervention, it was the Russians who were heading through on away goals.
Then came an all-Italian final against Lazio in Paris. Wearing Inter’s iconic grey-hooped kit and the number 10 shirt – his favoured number nine was occupied that season by Ivan Zamorano, who vacated it for the Brazilian soon after – Ronaldo shone in the French capital.
Inter went into an early lead through Zamorano, before Ronaldo crashed an effort onto the frame of the goal. A thunderbolt from Javier Zanetti doubled the advantage, with Ronaldo going on to cap a handsome win by racing through on goal, flooring Lazio goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani with a drop of the shoulder and stroking the ball home.
It captured his game superbly in that one moment – the speed, the poise, the calmness, the trickery. Ronaldo was named Man of the Match for his performance and Inter lifted a European trophy for the fifth time in their history, equalling Juventus’ then UEFA Cup record with three.
For Ronaldo, the sky appeared to be the limit. Still 21, he went to the World Cup a few weeks later as the star of Brazil’s heavily fancied squad. It was ‘Ronaldo’s World Cup’ and he won the Golden Ball as best player for his role in the Selecao reaching the final, only to see his tournament finish on an anti-climax when a mystery seizure hours before the game left him a shadow of himself.
Ronaldo managed an incredible and unexpected comeback four years later, putting his injury misery behind him to drive Brazil to the trophy in 2002. He then enjoyed several good years for Real Madrid, but he was never the same as those early golden years in the 1990s.