i amJune 8, 1997 in Lyon, where Italy and Brazil prepare to meet in Le Tournoi for their first meeting since the World Cup final three years ago. Italy coach Cesare Maldini goes to Fabio Cannavaro and says: “Fabio, we will see if this Ronaldo is really a phenomenon.” At the end of the 3-3 tie, Ronaldo scored and hurt both Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini. Cannavaro goes back to his manager and tells him that the young Brazilian is indeed the real deal, to which Maldini replies: “Yes Fabio, you’re right.”
Ronaldo joined Inter six weeks later. According to former Inter boss Massimo Moratti, the idea to sign Ronaldo came after a goalless retreat at Fiorentina three months ago. Moratti allegedly hatched the plan in the back of a Florentine taxi. And true to his word, he delivered, using the growing tension between Ronaldo and Barcelona to activate the Brazilian’s point of purchase. The transfer sent a wave of excitement through Italian football not seen since the summer Diego Maradona joined Napoli 13 years ago.
The revisionist narrative surrounding Ronaldo’s career is that the year at Barcelona was the pinnacle of his career. According to statistics, this is true. The fact that he scored 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, including a wonder goal against Compostela in October 1996 where he brushed aside defenders with such ferocious ease, reinforces the narrative.
However his true peak came in his first season at Inter, where this perfectly assembled force of nature destroyed everything in his path. Topping La Liga was one thing, but to do so in Serie A – by far the biggest league in the world (and with 1997-98 perhaps the single strongest the sport has ever seen) – was quite another.
Serie A has been home to the best players in the world and the most feared players in the game for years. Italy’s scrappy defenders are used to locking horns with big foreign players, but they weren’t ready for Ronaldo. If Maradona had dribbling skills, Zinedine Zidane ethereal technique and Marco Van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta and George Weah physicality and raw pace infused with elegance, Ronaldo was an intoxicating cocktail of them all. A PlayStation footballer comes to life.
Ronaldo’s much-anticipated brace was boosted by Álvaro Recoba, who scored twice in the space of five minutes to give Brescia the win. The second game of the season saw Inter take on Bologna in a game billed as “Ronaldo v Baggio”, a battle between the game’s two leading players for a decade. The game at the rain-soaked Stadio Dall’ara was an instant classic, with Baggio scoring twice and Inter scoring four. Ronaldo left the spot, right-footed Bologna defender Massimo Paganin on the edge of the box before slotting the ball into the bottom corner with his left.
“Ronaldo? Mamma mia! What a player,” Baggio reflected in 2021. “He came from the future. He played football ahead of his time with his technique and speed. I saw that he did unthinkable things, which no one had done or thought of until then. It was incredible.”
Ronaldo scored six goals in his next seven games, including a mediocre performance against Parma in October. He danced and waved his way past the players with gusto, even smashing a 25-yard free-kick towards Gianlugi Buffon who clipped the underside of the crossbar. By Christmas, he had nine goals in 13 games.
“He was a stranger among men,” said Buffon. “It seemed that he was created in a laboratory. He was a perfect player, because he had strength, speed, passion, technical ability and speed. He was the first beauty Ronaldo. He could do everything: in his first season of at Inter he took penalties, free kicks and even corners, he would pick up the ball near halfway and dribble as many players dared to get in his way.
Ronaldo and Inter suffered a slight slump after a 1-0 win over Juventus at the start of 1998, dropping 10 points in January and February. His one and only hat-trick came in the 5-0 demolition of Lecce in the middle of this stretch.
If you want a snapshot of just how good Ronaldo was during his Inter golden era, his performance against Spartak Moscow in the second leg of the Uefa Cup semi-final is the perfect breakdown of a player operating in a different orbit. Describing the pitch at the old Dynamo Stadium as a potato field would be a disservice to potato farmers around the world. Even though the surface was covered in ice and snow, the game was allowed to continue indefinitely. It made little difference to Ronaldo.
He scored two goals and the second one was spectacular. Just like his goals against Sampdoria, Lecce and Schalke, Ronaldo collected the ball from deep. He turned on a dime, cut deep into the heart of the defense and passed to Iván Zamorano, who flicked the ball past Ronaldo, who danced with one hand between two defenders, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted the ball home while playing impressively. . on ice. “Extraordinario” shouted Rai’s legendary commentator Bruno Pizzul.
The season was building to a titanic clash between Inter and Juventus at the end of April. The most important Derby d’Italia in years, with only one point separating them, was essentially a battle between Ronaldo and Alessandro Del Piero, two of the best players in the world. They had pushed each other all season, forcing the other to step up even more. In 2020 Del Piero told Ronaldo: “When you arrived at Inter you were already in my head, and you inspired me to be better.” Del Piero had 20 goals in 30 games and dominated the Champions League. Whoever wins the game will win the title.
The game now lives in infamy, a tale of two penalties: one denied to Inter and one awarded to Juventus just 15 seconds later. The controversy came right to the surface, with Italian politicians also discussing the decision – and fighting over it in parliament. But the truth is that Ronaldo had missed several chances before Mark Iuliano sent him into the box. The story of the game was more about the missed chances than the missed penalty. The 1-0 defeat took the wind out of Inter and, with the league mathematically over following a surprise defeat to Bari at the start of May, the focus is now on the Uefa Cup final against Lazio in Paris.
Ronaldo stole the show. Alessandro Nesta recalled: “I have since watched that game many times on video, trying to figure out what I did wrong.” “We lost 3-0, but I don’t think it was my fault. Ronaldo was simply unstoppable. He is so fast that he makes everyone else look like they are standing still. Nesta, one of the most beautiful defenders Italy has ever produced and a player who eclipsed Lionel Messi at 36 could do little to stop Ronaldo at 22.
The Brazilian produced the most complete performance of his career, playing 90 minutes against Lazio. Javier Zanetti and Zamorano had already scored before Ronaldo was caught offside for Lazio in the 69th minute, completely tripping the hapless Luca Marchegiani, putting the goalkeeper on the ground without even touching the ball before firing into the empty net. .
“It was unbelievable, but he did tricks like that in every training session,” recalled Youri Djorkaeff. “We used it. Ronaldo was phenomenal. He proved that he was more than the rest that season. It became one of the defining goals of the 1990s, confirming that Ronaldo was a 21st century footballer playing in the 20th century.
Ronaldo would finish the 1997-98 season with 34 goals in all competitions, 25 in Serie A. “My toughest rivals would be Maradona, Ronaldo, who was phenomenal in his two years at Inter, and Zidane,” Maldini said. La Gazzetta dello Sport names the players who have given him the hardest time in his 24-year career. “Ronaldo was the only player who really scared me. Just walking on the same field that he did was terrifying for me,” Cannavaro wrote in 2018.
Inter didn’t win the Scudetto, but going into France 98, there was no doubt that Ronaldo was the best footballer on planet Earth. Everything seemed to be on hold and most assumed it would only get better. However, just two months after his Uefa Cup triumph in Paris, the same city witnessed the beginning of the end of Ronaldo’s peak, and it was never to be. The human knee simply wasn’t built for that level of strain, pull and push – not on a frame as muscular as Ronaldo’s and with such devastating speed.
But, if you were lucky enough to witness it, Ronaldo was special in 1997-98. The ultimate code cheat player. Il Fenomeno.