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The undisputed comeback king

Madrid: In fewer games than most professionals manage to cram into a couple of months of the season Brazilian striker Ronaldo has forced his way to the head of the queue for football’s end of year awards.

In fact Ronaldo’s “year” effectively boils down to a sensational month at the World Cup, a sparkling debut for his new club Real Madrid and the opening goal in their victory in the World Club Cup. It would be unjust to his fellow professionals to bestow the European and World honours on the 26-year-old from Rio de Janeiro if they claimed to be a reward for performances over the course of the year.

But if it comes down to global impact then there can only be one choice — the shaven-headed Brazilian known to millions simply as “The Phenomenon”.

In a fairy-tale ending to three years of injury-plagued misery Ronaldo confirmed his rebirth as a player with a stellar performance on the world’s greatest footballing stage in South Korea and Japan.

His eight goals in seven games, including a magical double in the 2-0 victory against Germany in the final, marked the difference between Brazil and their rivals in what was one of the most evenly-balanced World Cups in living memory. His match-winning performance finally allowed him to lay to rest the ghosts of France ’98 when he played just hours after suffering a mystery illness in the team hotel.

Looking dazed and lethargic he made a negligible contribution as Brazil lost 0-3 to a French side inspired by Zinedine Zidane.

Brazil’s record-breaking fifth title will be remembered as Ronaldo’s World Cup in the same way as their 1970 triumph was associated with his predecessor Pele, whose total of 12 World Cup goals the Phenomenon has now equalled.

The twice winner of Fifa’s World Player of the Year award may not quite have recovered the explosive pace of his year in Barcelona, but it is a testament to his skill and natural brilliance that even while not totally fit he was head and shoulders above any other striker in the tournament.

It may also be an indication of the rigours of the footballing calendar that a semi-fit player emerging from three years of career-threatening injury was able to outshine a host of exhausted professionals who arrived at the tournament with up to 60 games under their belts in 12 months.

Ronaldo, however, remains perfectly adapted to lead football’s highly-competitive food chain.

He still has a burst of speed that few can match, a dizzying shimmy that bemuses even the best defenders and a rocket-powered shot that fired him to fame in the mid 1990s.

As if his performance in South Korea and Japan was not enough, Ronaldo then became the leading protagonist in the transfer saga of the summer, a tale with more twists than the best of Brazilian soap operas.

Whether he was anxious to banish the memories of five injury-plagued years at Inter, or was keen to escape the confines of Italian football, or just simply could not hack the egalitarian regime of coach Hector Cuper, Ronaldo instructed his agents to get him away from the Serie A club.

He was, of course, welcomed with open arms by European champions Real Madrid, eager to complete their glittering centenary team with the brightest jewel in world football.

Ronaldo’s move to Real certainly smacked of ingratitude given that the Italian club had supported him throughout his odyssey of injuries and continued to pay him his reported salary of 4.5 million Euros ($4.60 million) without so much as a whisper of complaint.

Even after the convoluted transfer negotiations were completed — minutes before the European transfer deadline expired at midnight on August 31 — Ronaldo continued to hog the headlines as he battled against a series of niggling injuries that delayed his debut for his new club.

Ronaldo was named Man-of-the-Match even though many commentators believed it was his teammate Luis Figo who had turned in the better performance. But the Brazilian is a marketing man’s dream.

Whatever the doubts about the future, one thing is clear — Ronaldo is the undisputed comeback king of 2002.

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