For all of the incredible things he achieved in his career – and there were so many – Ronaldo was never better than the single season he spent at Barcelona in 1996/97. At that time, still just 19 when he arrived in Catalonia as the most expensive player in the world, the Brazilian was unplayable.
He was already a World Cup winner, albeit as a non-playing member of Brazil’s 1994 squad, and had set Dutch football alight with PSV Eindhoven, but Barcelona was where Ronaldo went stratospheric.
He became a global superstar and a hero to a whole generation in a rapidly changing modern era.
Ronaldo had been prolific when he burst onto the scene at 16 with Cruzeiro at home in Brazil. He took that to the Eredivisie with PSV and got 35 goals in his first season. He might have surpassed that in his second but for a knee injury, the type of which would ultimately come to define and sadly limit his career, ruling him out of just over half of the 1995/96 campaign.
When it came to his season with Barcelona, Ronaldo didn’t have the shackles of injury and that time was pure, electrifying magic from one of the most talented players of all time.
Ronaldo combined searing pace with mystifying skill, impressive footballing intelligence and lethal finishing. Despite his age, he was efficient and mature beyond his years in terms of raw effectiveness. Even with one significant knee problem already on his record by then, he was in stunning physical shape.
In 2014, at the height of the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo rivalry, Jose Mourinho, who had been assistant coach at Barcelona in the late 1990s, labelled the original Ronaldo as the ‘best of the last 20 years’, effectively since Diego Maradona retired.
An iconic goal against Compostela in October 1996, less than a month after his 20th birthday, summed up everything that was so special about Ronaldo.
He had the strength to win the ball in midfield, as well as hold off an opponent who was grabbing a chunk of his shirt. Meanwhile, he also dragged the ball back to evade the challenge of another defender, before seamlessly accelerating away from both of them.
Ronaldo cut inside a third defender, keeping the ball glued to his feet as he moved towards the centre of the goal, and then fired low into the bottom corner to beat a helpless goalkeeper.
Barcelona coach Bobby Robson, a man with over 45 years in the game by that stage as a player and coach in five different countries on two continents, could hardly comprehend what he had witnessed, clasping his hands to his head in disbelief.
Another goal, part of a hat-trick he netted against Valencia a few weeks later showcased his ability in its purest and most raw form. Spying a narrow gap between two defenders, he knocked the ball beyond them and exploded through it to score.
Ronaldo finished that season with 47 goals in 49 appearances in all competitions. As many as 34 of them were in La Liga, nine more than the division’s next top scorer. In addition to the Pichichi Trophy on the domestic front, that tally was enough to win him the European Golden Shoe as the leading marksman on the whole continent…at 20 years of age.
As injuries later blighted his career and restricted his true impact, never again was he so prolific.
Although Barcelona fell marginally short of Real Madrid in the final standings, Ronaldo’s impact saw them score 102 goals, the first time in their history they reached a century of league goals. The club also enjoyed continental success in the shape of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, with Ronaldo fittingly scoring the only goal of the final – his 47th and last for the club.
Inter made Ronaldo the most expensive player in history for the second time in 12 months in the summer of 1997. Having been named FIFA World Player of the Year for 1996 midway through his sole season with Barcelona, he won the award again a few months after arriving in Italy – largely more recognition for his truly stunning campaign in Spain.