BY NKOSANA PHIRI
“Do you now think he’s worth 2,500,000,000 pesetas?” asks our Spanish commentator to his journalist colleague. The question was posed in a rhetorical manner as the human-form investment of this transfer value ($19.5 million) exhibited his potential worth on a Saturday evening in October in the northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.
Already 2-0 down early in the first half, Compostela’s right back and central midfield players collide in their haste to retrieve the ball in the Barcelona half, leaving the full back, Mauro, on the ground clutching his right thigh, only succeeding in letting the ball trickle between the team-mates into the vicinity of ‘El Fenomeno’ – Ronaldo Nazario de Lima. With his gaze fixed on the match ball rolling to his right whilst facing his own goal, Ronaldo hunts down the ball anticipating a collision with Compostela’s Moroccan international Saiid Chiba who was tracking back to regain possession. Chiba gets to the ball first but Ronaldo anticipates this by positioning himself between Chiba and the ball thus using Chiba’s touch against him to win possession. Ronaldo’s first touch of the ball with the outside of his right foot is just inside his own half.
In the field social sciences, deductive reasoning is deployed more often to help provide evidence for a confirmed fact or a discovery that’s universally confirmed, like gravity. Whilst on the other hand, inductive reasoning is more open-ended and exploratory and is the reasoning needed whilst in the early stages of unravelling a discovery or witnessing a phenomenon; it’s like joining the dots one at a time to draw a picture and each dot acts as a piece of evidence used to develop the picture of a conclusion. Some dots are bigger and more significant than others in the story of witnessing an amazing discovery and for nine seconds during the first half of the seventh league match of the 1996-97 season between S.D Compostela and Barcelona, to score his 6th league goal of the season, one huge ‘dot’ was stamped into the annals of televised sporting history that evening for Ronaldo’s campaign to rightfully claim the ‘Fifth Crown’.
Under pressure from Chiba, Ronaldo turns to his right to face the opponent’s goal. He overcomes the first foul committed by Chiba as he clumsily attempts to regain possession of the ball which was within inches of his grasp, but only proceeds to clip Ronaldo’s left ankle. Ronaldo shows his instinct to ‘play-on’ as he hops on his right leg, when his left ankle was clipped, to avoid falling to the ground whilst in the same movement shields the ball from Chiba who was by now directly behind him. Chiba again attempts a challenge with a lunge of his right leg but Ronaldo uses his strength to retain his striding motion. A physical tussle ensues between Chiba and Ronaldo with Ronaldo legally holding off Chiba with his left arm whilst Chiba was trying to counteract with a subtle pull at Ronaldo’s shirt as the verdict on the victor was still in the balance. Once he’d lost out though, Chiba then commits a blatant and whole-handed pull on Ronaldo’s shirt, technically committing a second foul within this grappling sub-plot. It was the kind of foul that emphasised Chiba had conceded the battle which normally would result in a caution, and in this act acknowledges that he was out muscled by this feisty 20-year-old, five years his junior.
At that moment in time as a live spectator you verbally or mentally say to yourself “foul!”, then momentarily switch-off as you expect the referee to intervene and stop the action in the face of such obvious unfair play. In fact, it was a blessing the match official hesitated and was seemingly reluctant to award Barcelona a free-kick. The offended player in Spanish-Latino football culture is half expected to stop, voluntarily (but not compulsory) throw up his hands whilst turning towards the referee for justice. Then proceed with exaggerated gesticulations to whinge, moan and postulate all the body language displaying another moment of skill and creativity, ruthlessly shunted by the opposition’s destructive force. After all, what goal threat was Ronaldo challenging for a loose ball with four opposition players within his 10-yard radius, 50 yards from goal? It would have been easier to stop the play and automatically be awarded a free-kick. The crowd would have applauded the display of consummate skill and given him respect for ‘earning’ that free kick. But not Ronaldo, not the 20-year-old, raw, unblemished and unwilling to confirm to atavism Ronaldo. This was his début season in La Liga and in pivotal moments during matches (moments which he regularly dominated) blew away the inherent culture of whingeing and moaning which promoted a self-defeatist attitude.
On his arrival, he obliterated that mind-set which was parasitic and cancerous to the Spanish culture which prevented them from the proverbial ‘killer instinct’. Watching from England it appears they whinged and moaned whenever they were hard done by and they whinged and moaned communally, cooperatively and nationally. Throughout the 80s and 90s the whines reverberated louder and louder as the time lapse from their only international triumph, the European Championships in 1964, got longer and longer. And this attitude, whether consciously or not, filtered down through generations of footballers. Granted, not everyone falls under that banner, there were talismanic characters like Barcelona’s current manager Luis Enrique who was a leader on the pitch and galvanised perseverance from a losing position. Enrique was an established dressing room character of the senior team when this young man, with no inhibitions from a self-deprecating character bolted in via the stepping stone of PSV Eindhoven and continued on his catapult to footballing royalty by showing such fearlessness at one of the world’s biggest clubs.
‘El Fenomeno‘ used the forceful shirt pull to shift his body weight from an over-balanced forward position backwards to a steady upright standing position. The shirt pull, in fact, helped him to ‘reset’ himself and with a quick exchange between his feet, rolling the ball under his right foot then tapping it gently with the instep of his left to then push forward with his right again, Ronaldo began his acceleration away from Chiba. As he began to accelerate Compostela’s right-midfielder, Ramon, had tracked back marking the run of Ronaldo’s strike partner Hristo ‘el pistolero’ Stoichkov and was goal-side of Ronaldo. At this point the Compostela defensive line of four was well ordered with Stoichkov to the left of Ronaldo positioned next to the touchline. Again, the customary act, the expected manoeuvre would be for Ronaldo to pass the ball left to Stoichkov or involve a move with the other Brazilian striker, Giovanni, who was making a forward run through the traditional inside-right channel. None of the defenders seemed to anticipate what would happen next. Ronaldo completely forsakes the option of using Stoichkov and trusts his acceleration and pace to run on the outside of Ramon which he does with comparative ease. The covering central defender, William, who’d earlier converted a Ronaldo cross into his own-goal, catches up with Ronaldo on approaching the edge of his penalty area. Realising he cannot outpace William so close to goal, he slows down and veers inwards. Ronaldo then displays the final act of his prowess: he realises guile and precision, not pace and power, is required to efficiently execute ‘the kill’. Controlling the ball with light touches he feints onto his right foot towards on-coming challenges and evades them with one double-touch on his right foot to draw-in and escape the challenge from Ramon, then by switching the ball between his insteps: from right to left, then back to his right foot again, unbalances William and causes him to unwittingly pirouette in front of his goalkeeper. With his final touch Ronaldo’s run culminates five yards to the left of the penalty spot and at full stretch swings his right leg striking the ball under the onrushing goalkeeper.
In his only season in Catalonia as Barcelona’s ‘No. 9’ Ronaldo showed such astonishing ‘killer instinct’ and willingness to take on and on and on opposition players. Sometimes to the frustration of his own team mates, but mostly, to the delights of pretty much everyone else. Included are a significant proportion of the oppositions’ supporters too. His performances on the pitch must have changed the perception of what you can do as an individual on the playing field for adolescents throughout Catalonia, Basque and other regions nationwide. Obviously Ronaldo had great and consummate skill and ability to achieve this, he could “acelera con el balon pegado a su pie” but it’s the astonishing prowess with which he achieved this, with a sublime mixture of aesthetic power and athleticism with guile, composure and maturity.
The on lookers all rose to their feet and a spontaneous stadium-wide ovation was given for this goal. Alongside this are two pitch-side reactions which tell the beauty and wonder of this display.
The first and more unrestrained reaction is the celebration of entrenador, Bobby Robson. The unforgettable “OH, MY GOSH!” response as he sprung out of the visitor’s perspex dug-out accompanied with the classic combination of wide-eyed disbelief and both hands slapping the top of his head (note – one of the back room staff leaping for joy at witnessing this was the little known ‘translator’, Jose Mourinho). This reaction can indulge a thousand tales yet its significance, as highlighted by the commentator at the time, is that Bobby Robson played and managed at the highest club level and international football since the 1950s and yet even after all the thousands of goals Robson had seen live in training, competitively, scouting videos or on network television in his career, he still reacts to this goal like this. Its parallel comparison is with Rinus Michels’ reaction to Van Basten’s wonder-volley in the 1988 European Championship final for the Netherlands. Two veteran managers pleasantly surprised by the euphoria football can still bring even in the latter stages of their respective football relationships.
The other reaction which acknowledges as much praise but is expressed more passively comes from Ronaldo’s team-mate Stoichkov. Earlier on the move, he overlapped Ronaldo on the left flank whilst Ronaldo was still grappling for possession either side of the half-way line. He stood expecting a pass from Ronaldo, if not immediately to time his run, but at least eventually. When Ronaldo chose to outpace an entire defence instead of passing to him, Stoichkov proceeded to do something very uncharacteristic. Stoichkov just stood and watched. Not at any point did he try to run and follow Ronaldo and continue to provide support nearer the penalty area. Nor did he show any expression of disapproval or disappointment, which for any Stoichkov fans out there know this was second nature for him. For a world class player like Stoichkov, the only Bulgarian to represent los cules, to intentionally stop and purely spectate in awe and sheer wonder gives an insight to someone who secretly anticipated Ronaldo’s ability to ‘walk on water’ with a football.
“This goal shows a mixture of all the important qualities a footballer should have”, concludes the commentator, “power, speed, [footballing] skill, determination and honesty.” Twenty years on, with our deductive reasoning we can put together all the evidence and answer the unfinished question posed by our Spanish commentator in the immediate aftermath of this ground shaking goal, “For some time there’s been four crowns in football: Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Di Stefano . . .”
This sentence remained unfinished and unanswered by either commentator possibly not wishing to cast any superstition on the protégé’s potential of becoming legendary – but now we know who wears the ‘Fifth Crown’.
Follow Nkosana on Twitter @nkosanaphiri2 or contact by email email@example.com