Has a sporting stereotype ever been successfully shattered in so few seconds? There have often been slurs that footballers from South America, the poor dears, are too delicate to handle playing in cold weather; it has frequently been alleged that they could not handle “cold Wednesday nights in Stoke”. It’s not still clear whether Brazil’s Ronaldo knows where Stoke is, but he once excelled in conditions which made that Midlands town look like Cancun. On the 14th of April 1998, playing for Inter Milan in a UEFA Cup semi-final, Ronaldo went ice-dancing.
The game was away to Spartak Moscow, whose pitch had endured such heavy snowfall in previous days that there was some doubt whether the match might even go ahead. The surface, thin grass punctuated by vast patches of sand, seemed to have the consistency of broken biscuit. Needless to say, it was not a particularly warm night. A website which keeps records of global climate, Wunderground.com, notes that on this day Moscow was -1 °C at its hottest, falling to -3 °C at worst. Since Ronaldo was playing that evening, we can assume that he had good reason for sporting the thick gloves in which he took the field.
Despite these unwelcoming elements, Ronaldo netted in the first half, the type of goal for which he was not famous but which was a crucial part of his arsenal. Just as he would do four years later in the World Cup Final against Germany, he reacted first to a loose ball in the area to open the scoring. It was a vital moment for Inter, putting them 3-2 ahead on aggregate, and his team-mates descended upon him in a flurry of euphoria and relief. As it transpired, though, he was merely clearing his throat. That’s because with just under fifteen minutes to go, and Spartak pushing for the goal that would have taken the tie into extra-time, Ronaldo applied the decisive and utterly beautiful blow.
Forty yards from goal, about fifteen yards from the right touchline, he receives a throw-in on his thigh – and then instantly spins infield and away from his marker, who is standing tight to him as a pair of thermals. Just like that, with his high-shouldered stride, he is gone – this man so exquisitely balanced that he could sprint nimbly over cobblestones – and as he approaches the area, he sees Ivan Zamorano, an eager accomplice, to his left. He lays off the ball, and surges on. By the time Zamorano gathers and returns the pass, Ronaldo is on the very edge of the area, where he produces a piece of devastating skill – a first touch with his supposedly weaker foot, taken at extreme speed, which nudges the ball between and beyond two Spartak defenders. He is now faced only by the goalkeeper, and there’s only one result when the Brazilian is in this sort of mood. Instead of attempting to steer it past him, Ronaldo shapes right and then speed-skates left, veering around the goalkeeper’s desperate dive and rolling the ball into the vacant net.
It was a goal that, for its timing and the brilliance of its execution, is possibly one of the best Ronaldo has ever scored. Such was his magnificence, though, that it might not initially stand out on the highlight reel of his career. In those ten seconds or so, though, that strike displayed the essence of everything Ronaldo was – a terrifying blend of touch, speed, vision and ruthlessness, unstoppable even when faced by slush, sand and the ravages of the Moscow cold. It’s also why you’ll hear very little talk of Brazilians being unable to hack it on chilly nights in Stoke – because apparently, as the temperature drops, they truly come into their own.