A marriage like no other

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BRASILIA, May 13- No other player in the last 20 years has enjoyed a career as irrevocably intertwined with the romance of the World Cup as Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima.
From the breakthrough of 1994 to the broken records of 2006 via the despair of 1998 and the redemption of 2002, the Brazilian striker experienced the full spectrum of emotions at the sport’s showpiece event.

A promising goalscorer with Brazilian side Cruzeiro, Ronaldo was invited to the 1994 World Cup at the age of 17 as a non-playing member of the Brazil squad.

He cheered from the sidelines as a team fired by the goals of Romario and Bebeto ended Brazil’s 24-year wait for the trophy, before moving to Europe with Dutch side PSV Eindhoven.

His phenomenal goalscoring exploits in Holland, where he scored 54 goals in 57 games, alerted Barcelona, and he smashed 47 goals in 49 matches in his only season at the Nou Camp as the Catalans romped to the Cup Winners’ Cup.

Elected FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996, he was on the move once more a year later when Inter Milan brought him to Italy for a world record fee.

Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or and was named World Player of the Year again in 1997, before arriving at the 1998 World Cup in France as the most complete striker on the planet.

Sporting silver boots and showcasing terrifying skill, Ronaldo scored four goals for the defending champions as they brushed off Chile and Denmark and squeezed past Holland in the semi-finals to set up a meeting with the hosts.

The stage was set for Ronaldo, the pre-eminent player of his generation, to etch his name into World Cup folklore but on the eve of the game he suffered a mysterious fit and was taken out of the team.

Thirty minutes before kick-off his name re-appeared on the team-sheet and to general bewilderment he took to the field, but was clearly off colour as Mario Zagallo’s side slumped to a 3-0 defeat.

"Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead. The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying," said room-mate Roberto Carlos of his pre-match crisis.

The Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player was scant consolation to the 21-year-old, who returned to Inter under a cloud and then, a year later, suffered a serious knee tendon injury that kept him out of the game for the best part of two years.

Plenty of premature obituaries for Ronaldo’s career were penned as he fought to overcome the first serious setback of his professional life but at the 2002 World Cup he emerged triumphant to exorcise the ghosts of Paris.

The focal point of a devastating attack that also featured Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, Ronaldo appeared back to his best and scored eight times, including both goals in a 2-0 victory over Germany in the final in Yokohoma.

"We missed out on the joy we are feeling now in France 98, but we are living it now and it is such a pleasure for every Brazilian," said a jubilant Ronaldo.

His third World Player of the Year gong followed and in the aftermath of his World Cup redemption he joined the Galacticos of Real Madrid in another big-money move, but after initial success his injuries became a recurrent source of frustration.

As the 2006 World Cup approached he was struggling for form and looked overweight, but despite Brazil’s quarter-final exit he netted three goals to become the outright top scorer in World Cup finals history with 15.

Ronaldo joined AC Milan in 2007 but suffered another serious knee injury in February 2008, prompting the end of his European odyssey and a return to Brazil with Corinthians.

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