“He is excellent. However, I want to see him in a game where the level of tension is a lot higher than he was used to in Spain and against a really top team.”
(Fabio Capello, 1997)
It was time. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima had scored fifty-five goals in fifty-six games for PSV Eindhoven, and forty-seven goals in forty-nine games for Barcelona. The World Cup in France was just twelve months away. The time had arrived in the summer of 1997 for the phenomenon they just called Ronaldo to come and play in Serie A.
The peninsula was already a land replete with attacking talent. The homeland of Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero. It was the host country of Gabriel Batistuta, Oliver Bierhoff and George Weah. Yet, when the twenty-year-old from Rio de Janeiro landed in Italy, he was greeted by much frenzy and fanfare.
At around £50 million, Inter’s patron Massimo Moratti had bet the house that this Brazilian forward was the real deal. But this was not the Netherlands, nor was it Spain. In the coming weeks, the world’s most expensive signing would face adversaries such as Maldini, Montero, Ferrara, Thuram, Cannavaro, Buffon and Nesta.
Reputations were on the line. Inter’s new arrival would have to prove himself in Serie A. And if Italy’s domestic league was as tough as it proclaimed to be, then its constellation of stars would have to be seen to contend with Ronaldo.
So how many of these encounters do you remember?
1. Week 2 – Bologna vs Inter – 13th September 1997 – Ronaldo gets his first goal.
Thwarted by Brescia on an anti-climactic home debut in Week One, the following match day saw Ronaldo getting off the mark in Reggio Emilia. Nine days before his twenty-first birthday.
Inter visited Roberto Baggio’s Bologna and the two teams played out a classic. Baggio scored twice on his home debut, but a rampant Inter replied with four goals of their own. “I was really looking for this goal,” Ronaldo would confess later. “The idea of having to score was starting to distress me a bit.”
He would open the scoring the following week in a 3-2 home win over Batistuta’s Fiorentina.
By the time the ex-Barcelona man blew out his twenty-one candles, Ronaldomania was in full swing.
2. Week 7 – Inter vs Parma – 1st November 1997 – Ronaldo settles top of the table clash in his first real test.
By November, league leaders Inter were unbeaten, but Carlo Ancelotti’s second-placed Parma arrived at the San Siro and fancied their chances. In nineteen-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, the visitors had their own prodigious talent.
At the age of seventeen, Buffon had kept out the Milan of Baggio, Weah and Savicevic on a memorable Serie A debut.
Buffon would later cement his place as Parma’s number one. Along with the elegant defensive pairing of Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro, the young custodian would help his team qualify for the Champions League in 1996-97.
Going well this campaign, a victory at Inter would see Parma leapfrog the home side and move into first place.
The away team would not do much wrong across the ninety minutes, but it was after a quarter of an hour when Ronaldo’s “Ballistic Masterpiece”—as described in La Gazzetta dello Sport —decided the game.
The curled free-kick from just outside the penalty area had left the young Buffon stranded. It was Ronaldo’s sixth goal in seven games and moved Inter clear at the top, two points ahead of the chasing Juventus.
3. Week 14 – Inter vs Juventus – 4th January 1998 – Ronaldo vs Del Piero (Part I)
1998 began with Ronaldo being presented with the World Player of the Year Award on the San Siro pitch ahead of European football’s most anticipated game of the season.
Going into the Derby d’Italia, Inter held the lead in the standings by a single point. Without Ronaldo, Inter had suffered their first defeat of the season away at Udinese before Christmas.
Reigning champions Juventus were still enjoying an unbeaten league run that stretched into the backend of the previous season.
The match was also billed as the first head-to-head between Ronaldo and Juve’s Alessandro Del Piero. Like Ronaldo, Del Piero was in the form of his life and had already scored one more than the Brazilian going into this encounter.
Ronaldo would not equal Del Piero’s tally of ten goals that evening, but he effectively decided the game two minutes after half-time.
Receiving the ball on the right, he evaded two crude challenges from Juventus defenders Montero and Iuliano, before looking up and laying on a perfect pass for team-mate Youri Djorkaeff to tap in and give Inter the lead.
1-0 it finished and the attack-minded Juventus could not believe they lost the game. That assist for Djorkaeff was the only meaningful contribution that Ronaldo made throughout the evening. But the boy from Brazil had given Inter first blood in the race for the Scudetto.
4. Week 24 – Parma vs Inter – 8th March 1998 – O Fenômeno Meets Superman.
After their new year win over Juventus, Inter then suffered a mid-season slump and surrendered their lead to Juve at the top of Serie A.
During a January goal drought, Ronaldo had managed just one goal in seven games.
He would rally soon enough and score probably the goal of the Serie A season at home to Lecce in February with a spectacular slalom run and finish.
By the time it came to visit Parma in March, Ronaldo had fourteen goals in total, just three goals shy of Udinese’s German standout, Oliver Bierhoff.
With Juventus expected to drop points to Bierhoff’s team in Udine, Inter knew they had to win in Parma if they were to close the gap. Standing in their way again was that defensive triumvirate of Buffon, Thuram and Cannavaro.
By now Buffon was having an exceptional season. His inspired performance away in Russia had practically booked Italy’s qualification to the 1998 World Cup in France.
In the media, he had been occasionally referred to as a Superman and early into the season, a woman in Naples had sent him a Superman t-shirt. Buffon liked it so much, that he began to wear it under his jersey in games.
In another tight affair between the two sides and with the score at 0-0, Ronaldo was brought down in the area with twenty-two minutes remaining and Inter were awarded a penalty.
The Brazilian forward stepped up to take it and struck the ball well, but Buffon guessed correctly, dived to his left and blocked the shot. The Parma goal survived the ensuing scramble and as the home side brought the ball downfield, Buffon celebrated wildly with the Parma fans behind his goal.
Ronaldo had been debuting his now-iconic Nike Mercurial boots in the game, but they did not serve him that day.
Argentine striker Hernan Crespo -wearing a not-so flashy pair of Nike boots – scored for Parma with twelve minutes remaining.
The home side ran out 1-0 winners and the legend of Superman was born.
The title hopes of Inter and Ronaldo were dealt a crushing blow on an infamous afternoon in Turin.
With four games to play, Juventus held a one-point lead going into the second Derby d’Italia of the season. Inter had won all their games since the defeat at Parma, with Ronaldo and his new boots scoring eight goals in six games.
The Brazilian led the scoring charts with twenty-two goals, with Bierhoff just one goal behind. But it was Del Piero, scoring his twenty-first of the season which broke the deadlock in a pulsating first half.
As Inter pushed forward in the second period, it was on sixty-nine minutes when all hell broke loose.
As the ball dropped to Ronaldo in the opposition penalty area, the Brazilian nudged the ball past Iuliano, only to be body-checked by the Juventus defender. The referee Piero Ceccarini waved play on, much to the incomprehension and rage of the Inter players.
As the visitors protested, Juventus counter-attacked and within seconds, Del Piero was brought down in the Inter penalty area. Ceccarini awarded the home side a penalty kick. Inter’s players and match day officials were apoplectic, and their coach Luigi Simoni was sent off for his protests.
Del Piero would miss the penalty, but Inter players failed to regain their composure. Inter’s owner Moratti left the stadium early, “I don’t like being made fun of,” he would snort. The match ended 1-0. Ronaldo was furious after the game, “I feel like I’ve been robbed.”
Inter’s title bid collapsed after that. With Juventus going on to wrap up their twenty-fifth Italian title in the following weeks.
Ten days after the bitter disappointment in Turin, Inter had a chance to redeem their season in a European final. An all-Italian affair saw Ronaldo and his men take on Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio in Paris.
Lazio had pushed Inter and Juventus for much of the second half of the season in the league and had just won the Italian cup seven days prior, beating Fabio Capello’s wayward Milan.
Inter had failed to beat Lazio in Serie A and had lost to them comprehensively in Rome as recently as March.
Lazio captain Alessandro Nesta had kept Ronaldo quiet that day in the 3-0 win and the anticipated tussle between the star defender and stellar forward on neutral turf was one of the most intriguing prospects of the final.
Ronaldo would go and on have his best game wearing an Inter shirt – giving the French public a glimpse of what they might expect at the World Cup Finals that June.
Inter swept Lazio aside that evening, with the Brazilian match-winner capping his performance with Inter’s third goal in the 3-0 triumph.
In his first season in Italy, Ronaldo had run the gauntlet. He had brought Inter a major European trophy, and their first title in the Moratti era. In Serie A, he had scored twenty-five goals in thirty-one games. No foreign player playing in his first Italian championship had ever managed such a tally.