It's somehow fitting that he retired on St. Valentine's day. He loved the game, and, well, the game loved him. In some sense, he's left a piece of his soul with the game- his retirement is about the most anguishing sports related thing I've seen in some time. What is Ronaldo without the game, honestly? Faceless, nameless, unlucky, another kid on the rough streets of Brasil, maybe things work out, but in those neighborhoods, his chances are slim. One of millions. The game gave him a name, and he gave it all he had. I remember the first time i saw him play, it had to have been for Inter, I think it was against Juventus, and he was playing like he was on a street or court, making great players look like a junior league. Ronaldo is a player's player- the more you play, and the better the other side gets, you get less and less space, your potential moves get less and less effective, and you learn that getting rid of the ball as fast and as accurately as possible is the best way to gain space. Eventually, if they fear your speed or your technique, they back off you enough to where you can turn and run at them. Stepovers only work on their back foot.
Ronaldo didn't need it, they were going to give him space or he was going to score, it was that simple. He might score anyway. He was quicker than you were, could hit it with either foot, would put it in impossible corners of the goal from impossible places, with exceptional power and movement. He didn't need to establish himself or fool the defense into disadvantage, because every time he touched the ball there was a significant chance he would score. He was just better, and I think they all knew it. Every feint had to be honored because, when it got down to it, there were no weaknesses, no chinks in his game, and the shot fake you didn't lay out for was the one that turned out to be an actual shot. Until it wasn't. You appreciate a game like that when you've knocked your head against some tougher pro teams, realizing that you yourself can't get around the first man, if you do there's always another, but for Ronaldo, that man was already beaten, by pace if not by guile.
Ronaldo is the greatest Brazilian to play in Europe, and certainly the most effective. What's frightening about that is that, before him, there's not that much competition. Before Ronaldo, Brazilians had a bit of a reputation for flaming out in Europe, particularly strikers. Pele's greatest knock is that he didn't play against the best competition in Europe, but Ronaldo, he did. He owns the World Cup record for goals. He played in three, but only saw meaningful action in two, scoring a brace to win it. He won the Balon D'or twice, FIFA POY three times, the first to win it consecutively. He helped bring the title to Madrid, one of the brightest of the Galacticos.
For me, what makes Ronaldo special is that I don't remember his achievements particularly well (I had to look them up!), I remember moments. For me, he was a colossus, more than a man, the only sports figure I was gullible enough to think more than human. And the thing is, I only see him in white. His hat trick against Manchester United highlighted two of the greatest matches between two of the greatest club teams ever assembled. I think it's the single most impressive individual performance from a player I've ever seen in a match. Three goals, requiring different technique and different feet, in a series of matches where Zidane did that move, Figo scored that goal, and Beckham hit that shot, where he had the finest move- an unbelievable shot from the top of the box, where he had a short windup, but it still went in with vicious force. It was a magnificent series of matches, and he was the brightest light there.
It's that Ronaldo that I'll remember- not the fat Ronaldo, but the real Ronaldo, not the petulant series of abdominal muscles and hair wax but the grinning kid who could score from anywhere at any time, who was always just happy to be there. There's a reason there are no pictures up there- the man he is now has no effect for me on the man he was then, the greatest number 9, in the argument for greatest of the modern era, of all eras really. Adriano and Robinho should cut him a check, because the money thrown at them is just out of hope that they show a sliver of the talent he did. It has little to do with Liverpool, but Ronaldo is the greatest striker I have ever seen, and Real haven't been the same since he left. I wish him the best, and look forward to explaining the why of his greatness to the next generation.