The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Killing ’em softly with his smile

It is not the beautiful women who have spiced his life that most bring a smile to the face of Ronaldo, nor the choice of the world’s finest automobile products (although Monday he was driving a modest Alfa after someone pinched his race-machine of a BMW). Real Madrid’s lively striker admits to even greater thrills than when one of his outlandish golfing gambles pays off.

Ronaldo’s features flicker most with delight when he runs at a friend in training, drops a shoulder to feint movement in one direction, so forcing his opponent to stretch his legs and present an enticing gateway. After guiding the ball through, Ronaldo darts around, chuckling at a successful nutmeg.

The Brazilian is always playing games in training, always attempting to lure highly-competitive defenders like Real’s accomplished right-back, Michel Salgado, into a trap so he can whisk the ball past him with a flourish.

“If he nutmegged Salgado in training that would be it for ‘Ronny’,” said his close friend and clubmate, Steve McManaman, on Monday.

“Ronny would walk off, happy in the knowledge that he has got something over on somebody and done some trick that worked.”

The pleasure principle was learned early as a child raised revelling in the ball’s potential for making fun of an opponent, the code of the beach or playground. The doctrine was strengthened by brutal acquaintance with adversity, notably the panic attack before the final of France ’98 and then the years lost to a knee injury that many thought would remove this wonderful panther of a centre-forward from the game forever.

Ronaldo’s return to form at Korea-Japan 2002 was the stuff of fairytales, earning him global adoration and a move from Inter Milan to Real.

Charged with casting the English vote for European Footballer of the Year, this observer chose Roberto Carlos for an unstinting succession of high-octane displays for Real and Brazil. But Ronaldo waltzed away with the award and, in truth, it was hard to begrudge him the honour.

In a sporting world where self-aggrandisement can run rife, Ronaldo assumes few airs. Observed in Brazil’s hotel on the eve of the Yokohama final, Ronaldo was all smiles, signing autographs and spreading a little happiness to those who had waited patiently for a glimpse of the man shredding defences for fun.

“Ronaldo is mad in a happy-go-lucky way, always loud, always messing about, always trying to do jokes on people,” McManaman said.

“Spend an hour in his company and you come away thinking what a lovely bloke he is without understanding a word he’s said. He makes gestures and is laughing all the time.”

The Carnival has come to Castille.

“Ronny is the most famous player on the planet yet he’s not got an ego. I don’t know how he stays sane with all the attention; when we went to Tokyo for the Inter-Continental Cup everybody recognised him from children to old ladies.”

He enjoys it. Just as Ronaldo enjoys fame’s booty: the island off Brazil bought with a signing-on fee, the Porsches given to try out, the lessons with his golfing coach as he attempts to lower his handicap from 16.

McManaman occasionally picks up sticks with Ronaldo, slicing and laughing their way around Madrid’s premier fairways.

Ronaldo, typically, does not hold back. “He just likes to smash the ball,” McManaman added. “And he wants to bet on everything. He’s a worse gambler than me. ‘I bet you I can do the longest drive. I bet I can put it on the green. How much'’!”

Esteemed in the dressingroom, Ronaldo’s popularity with the Bernabeu public would be greater if he had not taken the place of the much-loved Fernando Morientes.

Ronaldo also spends games doing little, then bursting into prolific life, a contrast to the selfless, ceaseless involvement of a true Real legend, Raul.

Raul helps Ronaldo look good with the slide-rule passes cutting through back-lines for the Brazilian to run on to.

Where Ronaldo truly excels is his instinctive knowledge of where best to target his runs; he is blessed with the close control and acceleration over a short distance to make his selection of run even more devastating.

He is a smiling assassin lying in wait.

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