The Ronaldo Years at Inter Milan

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17 March 1999: Ronaldo of Inter Milan is watched by Roy Keane of Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg match at the San Siro in Milan, Italy. (Credit: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport)

Widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all-time and an absolute force of nature in front of goal, Ronaldo achieved great success in a storied career. Having represented both Milan clubs as well as both halves of the El Clásico divide, Ronaldo did it all but has a trophy cabinet that does not reflect his immense talent.

That can be down to the fact that injuries undermined large parts of his stints at all of his clubs. One in particular was at Inter Milan, where in five years, he dazzled the passionate Interistas, but was let down by his own body while he was doing what he did best.

The Phenomenon

Technically gifted and ferociously fast, Ronaldo was destined for greatness from a very young age. He seemed unstoppable with the ball, faster while on it than without it, and his talent was evident to the European side of the world. PSV Eindhoven were very pleased after the Brazilian left them in 1996 with a sensational 54 goals in 57 matches.

It was a similar tale at Spanish giants Barcelona, where in his solitary season, he found the net 47 times in 49 appearances. He was also the youngest-ever recipient of FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996. Greatness was looming from the off.

He was also in fine form for his country before his move to the San Siro, having already bagged nine goals in 14 caps – a fine record for a man who was still only 20. He had also broken two world transfer records. The first was his move from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona and the second when he moved to the Blue and Blacks in Italy from the Blaugrana.

Ronaldo had everything a team craved. Widely touted as the next Pelé, his impressive goal record was proving them right and it was at the San Siro where this dynamic forward would next unleash his talent.

The Debut Campaign

He arrived at Inter Milan for a world record £21.2 million in 1997, a fee reflecting both his talent and the football markets. At a time when Serie A was the most exquisite division in football, the signing was more of a statement of intent by owner Massimo Moratti, as he bid to take Inter back to the very top of domestic and international football.

His first goal was a sign of things to come. Away at Bologna, he excellently received and controlled a pass, with two defenders in front of him and no clear sight of goal. But with his magic, he cut inside and used his famous pace to beat the men marking him before precisely striking past the stranded man in goal. It was what Inter had been missing for years and Ronaldo was here to give the fans exactly what they wanted.

More goals followed in the coming months and with a supporting cast featuring names like Nwankwo Kanu, Iván Zamorano and Youri Djorkaeff, Inter’s forward line was impeccable. “Il Fenomeno”as he was dubbed, kept on racking up the statistics, but a rocky mid-season patch kept Inter behind Juventus in the title race that season.

His fine individual form helped him pick up his second successive FIFA World Player of the Year honour, beating out some star names along the way. Inter’s form picked up around the spring of 1998 as well. The Nerazzurri went on a magnificent six-game winning streak with Ronaldo scoring in each match, including a deft lob to bag a 3-0 success over local rivals AC Milan.

It all came down to a game at Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi with the Turin side just a point ahead of their rivals in the title race and only four games to spare. The Bianconeri ended up sealing a controversial 1-0 success after Ronaldo was denied a clear penalty towards the end, adding insult to injury after Alessandro del Piero’s goal.

The league was wrapped up there, and Ronaldo’s 25 goals that season would bring no reward on the domestic stage in his debut campaign.

The Only Trophy

Ronaldo’s first campaign with the Nerazzurri may have ended with a feeling of injustice in the league, but the European stage bought a bit more joy in the form of the UEFA Cup. Regarded as the favourites to win the competition because of their supremely talented squad, they opened their account with a tie against Swiss side Neuchâtel Xamax. It was Ronaldo that scored the opener in the first leg, just two days after getting his first goal for the club as Inter ran out comfortable 2-0 winners at home.

The second leg was an equally simple task that ended with the same scoreline, but this time the Brazilian failed to get on the scoresheet. Inter overcame a tough Lyon challenge in the next round, winning 4-3 on aggregate after losing the home tie 2-1. Ronaldo once again failed to score in both legs, but it wouldn’t be for long as the third round brought out his true monster.

French side Strasbourg were next to face the Milan giants and they felt they had a good shot at pulling off a shock by winning the first leg 2-0. But Inter were at their very best in the return leg and over-ruled their lead as the South American trident of Ronaldo, Javier Zanetti and Diego Simeone put Strasbourg to the sword.

The matches did not get easier for Inter in the quarter-finals. Germany’s Schalke 04, who beat Inter to win the competition in the previous season, awaited them. However, this time it was Inter’s attacking fire-power that took them through. Ronaldo’s first leg winner was the decisive moment, as Taribo West‘s late equaliser in the second leg put Inter just one tie away from the final.

Russian outfit Spartak Moscow stood in the way of a trip to Paris. After winning the first leg 2-1, Ronaldo’s brace in the second leg to overturn a Spartak Moscow lead sent Luigi Simoni’s men through to the final where they awaited a familiar rival in the form of Lazio. Lazio had the likes of Alessandro Nesta and Pavel Nedvěd amongst their ranks to send them this far and they were no pushovers.

But they were made to look like one.

Ronaldo and company brushed them aside in a comfortable 3-0 success that showed the world what Inter were made of. Il Fenomeno himself bagged the third goal after Zamorano and Zanetti with a trademark strike. After a well-timed run and pass, Ronaldo rounded goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani and easily slotted into an empty net before trotting off for his signature celebration.

The trophy would be his only one in Italy, as injuries forced Inter to miss him dearly. One such occurrence was against Lazio just two years after his UEFA Cup heroics, which put his long-term future as a footballer into doubt.

The Heartbreak

Similar to two years prior, this one was in a final against Lazio except that it was the Coppa Italia. Ronaldo was named on the bench after his return from a ruptured tendon he suffered in his right knee against Lecce in November of 1999. The world awaited the return of the phenomenon and he was on playing grass in the 59th minute, while Inter were 2-1 down in the first leg.

Seven minutes later Ronaldo was on the move after receiving the ball in the middle of Lazio’s half, looking to set off on one of his fear-inducing runs. As time stood still, Ronaldo kept on going, until his right knee let him down once again. Seconds later Ronaldo was floored by one of his own feints and the world was stunned. The man who lost seven months out on the sidelines was now set to lose even more.

Now, his injury was worse than ever and he would miss the entirety of the 2000-01 campaign and make just 16 appearances in the 2001-02 season. He was, however, in top form in Brazil’s successful World Cup campaign in 2002, where he scored eight goals. It was at this point he cut his Inter stint short, moving to Real Madrid to form the Galácticos alongside Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham.

The Legacy

Ronaldo’s five years at Inter Milan largely raised the question of what might have been. Five years saw him net 59 times in 99 matches, but there was a felling he could have provided more in terms of trophies and goals.

Ronaldo’s body let him down, denying the world from seeing his subtle albeit powerful movement and sensational goals that would make him one of the greatest of all time.

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