Editor’s note: This article has been translated from an original piece on ESPN Deportes.
MILAN — Memories of Ronaldo Nazario, the Brazilian legend, were evident at San Siro on Tuesday when Inter Milan faced Barcelona in the Champions League. Indeed, many minds rewound to June 5, 1997 — the date that Inter paid his release clause and snatched up Barca’s phenom.
ESPN took a step back to remember the 1996-97 season through the recollection of five of Ronaldo’s former teammates at the Camp Nou. Each of them had the same line of thought: He was an impressive player, an excellent guy and a very dear character. For all of them, his departure was a disappointment.
Ronaldo, who signed from PSV Eindhoven a week before the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, made an immediate impact at the Camp Nou. Despite his having signed a five-season deal, the club presented him with a contract extension and bumped up his salary just two months after the fact.
He had scored a historic goal in Santiago de Compostela at the beginning of October, and on Nov. 6 of that year his representatives (Giovanni Branchini, Reinaldo Pitta and Alexandre Martins) closed a deal in principle with Barca’s then-president Josep Lluis Nunez, which was to become official before the end of February 1997. But February came … and went. Both parties were given a May deadline, but Ronaldo’s play hardened his agent’s demands to the point that in two terrifying days they went from an agreement to nothing.
“I will not play any more at Barca,” the Brazilian player said on May 29. And on June 5, his departure to Inter was revealed as the Italian club paid his $31 million release clause. It was the difficult end to an unforgettable year.
His colleagues in the locker room have vivid memories of a “special and different” player, particularly Oscar Garcia, today a coach, but back then a young homegrown player who acknowledged feeling “trapped” by Ronaldo’s quality game.
“I remember that his first training, let’s say, was quite poor. … But on the third day he showed that he was a different, amazing guy,” recalled Oscar, who defined him as a “fast player with exceptional individual skills.”
“Physically, he was gifted and had tremendous skills,” added Guillermo Amor, today Barca’s director of institutional relations.
“It was an extraordinary year in which he showed some superb skills,” he said, reaffirming that Il Fenomeno (as he was later known during his spell in Italy) “made a difference in everything.”
“He’s the best soccer player I’ve ever played with,” said Ivan de la Pena, also a young homegrown player back in the day, part of a wonderful generation ignited by Johan Cruyff. “He knew how get space and we worked very well together, yes. I keep that season in my memory as one of the best of my career.”
“That was the best season of his career, he had an incredible year,” said Gica Popescu, who lives in Bucharest. The former Romania national team player, who became Barca’s captain that year, points out that even to him, Ronaldo’s emergence was “a surprise,” despite having spent a few months with him at PSV. “He exploded in an incredible way.”
Like Popescu, Miguel Angel Nadal — who before he was known as tennis superstar Rafael Nadal’s uncle was a superb player for Barca and the Spanish national team between 1991 and 1999 — insists that season “was the best he had. I don’t remember that power, neither at Inter nor in Real Madrid, during a full year. It was amazing.”
The Mallorca native smiles while he admits that at the time of Ronaldo’s signing “it seemed absurd to pay so much money” but that then “suddenly, in just a few weeks, we discovered that he was even worth more.”
“The goal he scored in Santiago was an explosion for everyone, but we already knew that we were facing a different player,” adds Nadal, an assessment shared by Oscar.
“He knew how to play by himself … He started and didn’t need anyone else. That goal against Compostela was impressive, but then there were others against Valencia or Deportivo of the same quality,” Oscar said.
“He had a voracity in the field, an out-of-the-ordinary power,” said De la Pena, to which Amor added: “A special football character. I haven’t seen anything like it because it seemed to have no limit.”
Popescu agreed, saying, “Without them being the same, he could be compared to [Leo] Messi. When you think you’ve seen everything, they surprise you.”
“He adapted quickly because as a person he is also a 10,” De la Pena said of Ronaldo. And he won over the dressing room, Oscar said: “From a human point of view he was loved by everyone from day one. He was a very affectionate and attentive guy who learned Spanish quickly and integrated very well to the dressing room, especially with the younger ones.”
“Personally I keep a fond memory,” said Amor, who described the Brazilian as a “nice and close kid” and added that “I have not heard anyone speak poorly of him. Wherever he’s been he has shown a very nice personality.”
“It was impossible not to adapt because he blended from day one,” Popescu said, and Nadal agreed: “He blended very well because he was a simple guy who tried hard to get along with everyone.”
“His performance was exceptional and that he left after just one year surprised everyone, of course,” Nadal said of how the team reacted to Ronaldo’s departure to Inter Milan.
“He never talked about it in the dressing room and until the end we thought he would stay,” said Oscar.
In fact, the Catalan then-rookie said that the feeling the dressing room had was that Ronaldo “wanted to continue in Barca. He was happy in Barcelona and with the team. It was noticeable … There are things that didn’t need to be said to know.”
“Losing a fellow player is never pleasant and one of that quality even less,” Amor agreed, adding that “we obviously knew we would miss him” but he made it clear that in the controversy surrounding his departure “we couldn’t intervene. Everyone has their reasons and they must be respected.”
“It was very sad that he left. For everybody. For what he offered in the playing field and because he adapted very well to the team,” said De la Pena, while Popescu pointed out that something must have gone wrong “because when you have a player of that quality you must do the impossible not to lose him.”
“I don’t know what happened … We don’t know, but of course we understood that the club let a once-in a-lifetime player leave and it was surprising,” said Oscar, and it was similar to Nadal’s recollection. Although the Spaniard remembered that Ronaldo’s “was neither the first nor the last case,” he added that “all players come and go and the team lives on. It was a special circumstance and it hurt, yes, but time heals those feelings.”
Ronaldo Nazario played 49 games with Barca in the 1996-97 campaign and scored 47 goals. It was an insane stat for that time.
In a “difficult” season at the Camp Nou, as Oscar remembered the first one after Cruyff’s dismissal, filled with fan protests against the presidential box, Ronaldo’s impact was huge.
“He left a very big impression in a very short time,” Amor said. Popescu held that with the Brazilian’s departure “there was a feeling that that team was halfway to what could have been.”
Forever marked in history are Ronaldo’s goal in Santiago de Compostela (which earned a special ad from Nike and which Ronaldo himself, now retired, describes as “the best of my career”), four hat tricks and his performances against Atletico Madrid (against whom he scored eight goals in three games). His was a brief but intense stint at Barca, one that even after two decades is still unforgettable.
“Of all the players I led, and there were many, he was the best. He always wanted to train and on the pitch … No one impacted me as much as he did,” said the late Bobby Robson.
“I trained the real Ronaldo, the Brazilian. One of the greatest soccer talents I’ve ever seen,” Jose Mourinho, assistant coach for the Englishman at the Camp Nou, has said.