Ronaldo at Milan – The last stand of a legend

The 2006/2007 season was never going to be an easy for Milan. Handed an eight-point deduction for their part in the Calciopoli scandal, they were playing catch up to Inter before a ball had been kicked. Come January, they had admirably clawed their way up the table but were still languishing in the mid to lower positions of the top half of Serie A, with their preseason goal of making the top four under serious threat.

Having failed to replace Andriy Shevchenko, who had left for Chelsea in the summer, Carlo Ancelotti’s side were struggling for goals. Pippo Inzaghi seemingly only wanted to score in the Champions League. Meanwhile, Alberto Gilardino and Ricardo Oliveira had placed second and third respectively in the 2006 edition of Rai Radio’s annual Bidone d’oro.

To add to the woe, fourth choice striker Marco Borriello was sensationally banned until March after failing a routine doping test in November. At the turn of the year, frustrated and in danger of missing out on the Champions League for the first time since 2001, Ancelotti went about scouring the continent for a centre forward who could give his team the shot in the arm they needed.

Despite his legend, Ronaldo may not have been an immediately obvious choice. His decline at Real Madrid was being played out in full view of the public and his evidently expanding waistline was a source of constant exasperation to Madrid manager Fabio Capello who bemoaned his unwillingness to get himself into shape.

After featuring only 13 times in the first half of the season for Real, Capello made it clear that Ronaldo was on the market. If the man himself is to be believed, he was desperate to return to Milan, not in Rossoneri red but rather in the black and blue of his former club, Inter, claiming in an interview upon his retirement: “I did everything I could to get back to Inter. I waited as long as I could to give them time to say yes or no. When neither a yes nor a no comes, it means no.”

Roberto Mancini’s side of 06/07 were on a different planet to the rest of the league. Taking advantage of the sanctions imposed on Juventus and Milan, they were well on the way to a first Scudetto since 1989 and saw no reason to add another gunner to an arsenal that already boasted Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hernan Crespo, Adriano, Julio Cruz and Alvaro Recoba.

Faced with the prospect of their city rivals finally ending their drought, Silvio Berlusconi’s willingness to spend a not insignificant £6.75m on the then 30-year-old Ronaldo was possibly rooted just as much in infuriating and unsettling a rampant Inter side than it was in bolstering his own clubs attacking options. Ronaldo for his part saw no problem with antagonising his former employers, later stating that rather than feeling like a traitor to the Nerazzuri, he had felt betrayed by their refusal to grant him refuge from his Capello inspired nightmare in Spain.

Taking the number 99 shirt at Milan not – as some suggested – because of his love of ice cream, but rather because Inzaghi was already long established in his favoured number 9, Ronaldo posed for the cameras with the grin of a man who had knowingly set the cat amongst the pigeons. After some sharp words for Capello, he quickly set about reminding Serie A of just how good he could be.

His first start brought two goals, both delivered emphatically, and both delivered with that trademark Ronaldo grin. The first, a fabulously directed header that seemed to somehow curl into the far corner, was laid on a plate by the equally delighted Andrea Pirlo. The two had briefly played together once upon a time at Inter and were clearly relishing the opportunity to link up again. 

His second was a tap in served up delightfully by the effervescent Kaka, another player right at the pinnacle of global football (and on the way to the 2007 Ballon d’Or), who was clearly over the moon to be playing with Ronaldo once again following their exploits with the national team. It was bread and butter stuff for a man with over 350 career goals, but it was crucial to a side struggling for goals and points and gave them a 4-3 win over Siena at a time when they could not afford to fall off the pace.

Ronaldo scoring against Inter in the Derby della Madonnina

The Rossoneri went the next three games unbeaten, with Ronaldo starting two and coming off the bench in the other – an important 0-0 draw away at Palermo. They took this form into the game that fans of both clubs must have been circling from the minute the ink on Ronaldo’s contract was dry.

Few were surprised by the reception Ronaldo received from the Curva Nord during that early spring Milan Derby. Despite his pre-game pleas for the Interisti to show him respect, his every touch was accompanied by a cacophony of whistling from the nominally ‘home’ crowd. Even fewer would be surprised then to note the name of the first goal scorer of the day. Of course it was Ronaldo, and of course it was a showstopper. Picking up a routine ball from Rino Gattuso just before half time, the traditore (traitor) cut inside Dejan Stankovic from the right wing and unleashed a low drive from 25 yards with his left foot.

Julio Cesar was a little slow to react, maybe caught off guard by his countryman’s decision to take the shot on from so far out with his weaker foot, and the ball zipped past him into the far corner to put the Rossoneri in front. With the terraces having failed to observe his wishes of a restrained reception, Ronaldo saw no reason not to do the same and duly cupped both hands to his ears in front of the stunned Inter fans before being mobbed by his teammates.

The goal made Il Fenomeno the only man in the history of the game to score for both Milan and Inter in the Derby della Madonnina and for both Barcelona and Real Madrid in El Clasico. An iconic stat that could only belong to a truly iconic player.

It felt like a big moment for Milan and for Ronaldo – vindication that the Brazilian could still make his mark in the biggest of games and a timely reminder to Inter that although they may be kings for a day, they were not above taking a beating from their old foe.

The second half erased that notion as Ibrahimovic reminded everyone exactly who was the best striker in the league – first assisting Julio Cruz’s equaliser, before slamming home the winner with 15 minutes left. Milan left San Siro knowing in no uncertain terms that they would be finishing the season second best in the city.

Undeterred by this despairing thought, they won six of the next seven to put themselves in pole position of finishing in the top four. Ronaldo started them all, usually in a 4-3-1-2 alongside either Oliveira or Gilardino with Kaka sitting deeper.

Ronaldo was enjoying himself. Visibly relaxed and powered by the love he felt from Berlusconi, Ancelotti and his new teammates, he scored four goals in those seven games. This included a rasping left footed finish into the roof of the net during a crucial win over Empoli as well as a brace against Cagliari. Best of all though, was the golazzo that finished off Messina – a thunderous 25-yard strike into the top corner that almost took the net clean off to kill the game at 3-0.

These goals, coupled with the upturn in results and the enjoyment he had injected into a previously jaded looking squad, made Ronaldo look every bit the solution to the lack of star quality that Ancelotti had been desperate to address since Shevchenko’s departure. Everyone seemingly loved him, and when a goal went it, it was celebrated twice as hard by every Milanista when it had been tucked home by their number 99.

Ronaldo’s No.99 shirt became a best seller

Despite failing to win any of their last four games (with Ronaldo coincidentally missing three of them), Ancelotti had made good on his promise of securing Champions League football for 2007/08, finishing three points ahead of both Fiorentina and Palermo to take fourth place. Whichever way you looked at it, Ronaldo had been the catalyst. Milan sat seventh when he joined in January, and over the course of the 17 games that he was a Milan player for, his seven goals was the most of anyone in the squad. Of the 14 games he played in, 12 were starts and 10 were wins.

His goals were also nicely varied. Three of the seven he had managed up until that point were scored with his left foot, one had been a header and two had been belters from distance. He was not just turning into a poacher as he edged into the autumn of his career, he was contributing in ways that had made him indispensable to Ancelotti.

The only sour note was that he could not play a part in the euphoric Champions League final in Athens, where Milan banished the ghosts of Istanbul to gain revenge on Liverpool and secure their 7th title.

It is a strange quirk of Ronaldo’s career that he never won the Champions League despite his respective clubs racking up 10 titles between them over the course his career. With that in mind it felt almost poetic that he was forced to watch on as his Milan teammates conquered Europe without him.

There is an image of him celebrating with the Brazilians of the squad on the pitch following the win. Kaka and Cafu hold the trophy while Ricardo Oliveira beams from behind and Serginho looks on. Ronaldo stands on the far left looking sheepish next to a jubilant Dida. His arm is reaching across the goalkeeper, but instead of touching the trophy, which is easily within his reach, his hand rests on Kaka’s arm. So close and yet so far. It would be his last time on a Champions League pitch.

Things never really got going in 2007/08 for Ronaldo. A fractured tibia sustained during the summer meant that he missed the full preseason and did not return until a win away at Cagliari at the end of November, missing out on further silverware as the Rossoneri beat Sevilla to claim the Super Cup.

His next game came after the winter break in mid-January where he started for the first time alongside new signing and the latest ‘next Ronaldo’, 18-year-old Alexandre Pato. Milan fans had every right to feel like they could have something special going as the pair scored three goals between them in a 5-2 win over Napoli – Ronaldo grabbing a brace and Pato adding another. His grin was back but his second goal of the game, a lovely, flicked header to put his side 3-2 up just after half time, was his 9th and final one in a Milan shirt.

Ka-Pa-Ro in action

A handful of sporadic appearances later and Milan were trailing Livorno 1-0 at San Siro in February. Things were not going well for the European Champions. A return to the early season form of the previous campaign had seen them slide to 8th place in Serie A, already a whopping 18 points behind leaders Inter. Having fallen behind just a few minutes earlier, Ancelotti turned to Ronaldo just before the hour mark in the hope that he could once again spark a revival.

Within a minute he was challenging for a header in the box with Livorno’s Jose Vidgal. It was a challenge that he would unfortunately lose in spectacular fashion as his left leg gave way beneath him and sent him sprawling to the ground, a familiar agony exploding through his knee.

The referee sympathetically gave a penalty, but no one of a Milan persuasion was too bothered about that. As the man who was twice recognised as the best player on the planet was stretchered off the pitch, his hands covering his face, everyone in the stadium knew that it was goodbye. Goodbye to one of the purest strikers to ever play the game, goodbye to a career laced with controversy and intrigue; goodbye to Il Fenomeno.

A player robbed of so much by his knees, this was the third time Ronaldo had suffered the same potentially career ending injury; twice on the same right knee, Livorno being the revenge of the left. There was a dark irony in the previous two being sustained whilst playing for Inter and this final, definitive blow coming whilst returning to play for the other half of the city.

Unsurprisingly the diagnosis wasn’t good. At the age of 31 and already of questionable fitness, he would not return to the squad and left Milan once his contract ran out at the end of the season. The team finished a disappointing fifth in the league and crashed out of the Champions League against Arsenal in the last 16, just a few weeks after Ronaldo’s injury.

After just 20 games and nine goals in the red and black and having missed three chances to add to his trophy cabinet (Milan also won the Club World Cup in the winter without Ronaldo in the squad) it was an agonising way for such a renowned player to bow out of European football.

Words by: James Brooke. @jamesvictorb