El Fenómeno

Ronaldo’s jaw-dropping 1996-97 season at Barcelona

By Graham Hunter / Design by Nathen McVittie

January 16, 2017

It’s possible that spring 1996 until summer 1997 was not only the most convulsive, ill-tempered, conniving, glorious, frustrating and controversial year in the history of FC Barcelona but also of any club in modern history.

The earth-shaking tremors began in May 1996 with the sacking of the high priest of the Camp Nou, Johan Cruyff.

That same month, Barcelona stole midfielder Luis Enrique from their most bitter rivals, Real Madrid—a "reverse Figo" if you like, and a sign of things to come.

And then Barca spent more than any club ever had on a footballer when they paid £13.2 million to capture the hero of our story. The deal meant the casual sacrifice of a verbal pact Cruyff had made to sign a certain French prospect from Bordeaux by the name of Zinedine Zidane.

Whatever would become of Enrique and Zidane?

Before the 12 months were out, Barca had lied to, betrayed and sacked coach Bobby Robson, been turned on by their rebellious fans, won three trophies, recruited Louis van Gaal, kept Jose Mourinho on the coaching staff and set in motion the “Blue Elephant” protest group (led by a young lawyer called Joan Laporta)—which would usher in the greatest era of football Barca—or perhaps any club—ever produced.

All of that. Plus the single Camp Nou season of a Brazilian named Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, the aforementioned world-record summer signing.

And, boy, what a jaw-droppingly thrilling, intricate, contrary, immature, adrenaline-fueled, regret-filled roller coaster of a ride that Ronaldo year was.

Signed just before his 20th birthday, already a World Cup winner, the beautiful, funny, buck-toothed, unbelievably chiseled, sublimely talented kid who was then widely known as Ronaldinho (not that one) had left Barca by the time he blew out the 21 candles on his next cake.

He left behind an amazing legacy of 47 goals in 49 games, three trophies, the record of being the youngest FIFA World Player of the Year winner and the dizzying numbers of two world-record transfer fees.

They say time is the great healer, but not in this instance.

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The flood of daring, scintillating football Ronaldo produced in Blaugrana colours was so spectacular that even the chorus of finger-jabbing, provocations and downright lies in the background shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the beauty of that season.

So great was the ill feeling that followed Ronaldo’s £19.5 million departure to Inter Milan (and subsequent arrival as a Real Madrid Galactico), however, that the striker recently told Minuto #0 he wishes his greatest 1996-97 goal, against Compostela, had been scored for Los Blancos (h/t Marca). He also remains the only "deserter" who gets anything close to the same vilification from the Camp Nou hardliners as Figo.

Which is saying something.

So, to the beginning. What’s that expression about success having many fathers but failure being an orphan?

There were two vital parental influences for the “successful” pairing of this kid—who’d been christened "El Fenomeno," The Phenomenon, since being discovered and mentored by Brazil 1970 legend Jairzinho—and the Catalan club where he would become true to his nickname.

The first father, of course, was Barcelona’s new English coach, Robson.

Twice during Robson’s brief reign at the Camp Nou I spent time watching him coach and interviewed him at length. He waxed lyrically about how cheaply Barcelona had procured this wonderkid thanks to his bullish recommendation.

Many years later, however, in his autobiography, Robson still had the good grace to reveal that the successful fishing expedition for Ronaldo was not his original idea. He had been strongly tipped off by his friend and former Sporting Lisbon and PSV player Stan Valckx.

Moreover, had it not been for the transfer-market double-talk that is prevalent in football, PSV would have ended up selling their prolific teenager to Milan, Inter, Arsenal or Manchester United. Not Barca.

Because Barca would have signed Alan Shearer instead.

In his book Farewell but not Goodbye, Robson wrote: "One of the legacies from my year in charge was to bring Ronaldo to the great Catalan circus."

He recalls president Josep Lluis Nunez saying: "Bobby, we need a top striker...someone to excite the fans and to score goals—do you know of anyone?"

Robson replied, "There’s a lad in England I like very much. He’s called Alan Shearer. He’ll get goals wherever he is. Put him in a good side with the kind of service [Pep] Guardiola and [Hristo] Stoichkov will give him, and he’ll get 30 a season—guaranteed. And he’s got good character, too."

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Robson phoned Blackburn’s manager, the late Ray Harford.

"We’ve got big money to spend," he said, and told Harford that Barcelona wanted Shearer.

He was told firmly—but untruthfully—that not only would Blackburn’s owner not sell Shearer “at any price” but also that he must not approach the England striker or leak anything to the press for fear of “disturbing” him.

Back at Blaugrana HQ, president Nunez was getting jumpy. Pre-season was nearing and, having sacked Cruyff, he needed to present a blockbuster signing to appease the fans and buy himself time.

Robson had an idea, sparked by Valckx, as it turns out.

"There’s this Brazilian kid of brilliant potential at PSV who’s got better dribbling skills than Shearer," he said. "I know the club; they’ll sell, and I think they’ll take $10 million [approximately £6.4 million, as per historical exchange rates]."

"One of the legacies from my year in charge was to bring Ronaldo to the great Catalan circus."

Bobby Robson on Ronaldo.

Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven haggled in a rapid-fire exchange, which went quickly up from $10 million to $18 million (£11.5m).

At which point Nunez said, “Enough!” and warned his manager, “You know your job depends on this?”

Robson doubted himself for a moment. “Am I seeing something that nobody else can see, or is there something wrong with him that I can’t see but everyone else can?’”

He pushed forward, and Ronaldo, on duty for Brazil at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that summer, was allowed to negotiate with Barcelona in Miami.

A world-record £13.2 million fee was agreed, and an eight-year contract signed.

(That transfer-fee record lasted just over a fortnight before Blackburn’s “unsellable” Shearer joined Newcastle United for £15 million, infuriating both Robson and a certain Alex Ferguson, who assumed the striker was going to Manchester United.)

The second father of Ronaldo’s blockbuster year at Barcelona was Dick Advocaat.

Just as the striker’s agents were seeking an excuse to move their prodigy on, to great financial gain, PSV’s Dutch coach gave them an inch. And they turned it into a mile.

The 19-year-old Ronaldo was injured during his final spring with PSV, sufficiently so to miss both legs of their Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Cruyff’s Barcelona. With the Olympic football tournament just around the corner, the Brazilian football federation wanted to see Ronaldo’s fitness level before they announced the squad. Thus, they arranged to attend the Dutch Cup final, in which Eindhoven would play Sparta Rotterdam.

PSV triumphed, but Ronaldo did not come off the bench until the 75th minute, as Advocaat kept him warming up on the touchline for what seemed an eternity.

"It was a bad surprise when I found I was only a sub, but then Advocaat made me warm up for 35 minutes before putting me on," the angry striker told Dutch TV channel RTL 4 after the game (h/t La Espoleta). "He and Frank Arnesen had been asking me constantly about whether I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I not only told them 'yes' but that I needed to prove my fitness in this cup final.

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"It’s my impression that they didn’t want me to go and play for Brazil in Atlanta and that’s why I was left out. It’s not being named a sub that angered me but when precisely it happened—when Brazilian federation staff had come to assess me. When I joined PSV, they told me they’d not put barriers in my way if I wanted to leave because I was unhappy, and that’s how I feel now."

The situation quickly became untenable.

Advocaat responded: "The door is open for him to leave and never come back. His treatment of PSV is unacceptable and infantile. I don’t think this ‘desire to depart’ has anything to do with the cup final but that the vultures around him are using it as an excuse to force his departure."

Ronaldo, quick as he was around the penalty box, sealed the end of his Dutch adventure with one killer line: "Advocaat has no idea about football and no idea how to treat people," he said.

Barca had their man.

Ronaldo arrived to a revolution at Barcelona under Robson. Despite reaching two Champions League finals, a quarter-final and a UEFA Cup semi-final since 1992, this was a club, and a squad, in transition.

Only two of the XI who won Barcelona their first European Cup just four years earlier remained at the club (Guardiola and Chapi Ferrer, though they would be rejoined by Stoichkov when he was repatriated from Parma).

Ronaldo, although obviously the marquee name, was part of an elite influx that included Enrique, Laurent Blanc, Vitor Baia, Fernando Couto, Giovanni and Juan Antonio Pizzi. Big names, big fees, big wages.

It was the club’s most significant mass importation of talent for eight years.

The Liga landscape?

Atletico Madrid—coached by Raddy Antic and staffed by a glorious mix of the tall, the powerful, the grafting, the creative, the clever and the technical—were reigning champions, and Los Colchoneros had completed the double by defeating Barca in the 1996 Spanish Cup final—adding to the pair of 3-1 wins Atleti had inflicted on the Blaugrana in La Liga.

But if Atleti were the incumbents, the incoming were Madrid.

Stung badly not only by suffering while their city neighbors ruled Spain but also by finishing sixth (behind both Espanyol and Tenerife), Los Blancos' ambitions were made clear in the summer of '96.

They sacked Jorge Valdano and signed Fabio Capello and gave him a considerable weight of fresh signings: Davor Suker, Pedja Mijatovic, Roberto Carlos, Bodo Illgner, Christian Panucci and Clarence Seedorf.

One of the most powerful summer operations in any club’s history.

Meanwhile, the hero of our story, like all great showmen, was ready to storm the stage.

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It seems utter madness now, but while Ronaldo was acclimatising after the Olympics (Brazil won bronze), Barcelona played nine friendly matches in 22 steaming hot August days. The Brazilian came on as a sub (for Figo) against San Lorenzo and then the next day against (ironically) Inter Milan. And then came the real thing.

Champions Atleti provided the Supercopa opposition for his full debut as a starter, but the match was played at the Olympic stadium on Montjuic hill because of ongoing work at the Camp Nou.

Barca fans could see their world-record signing for the first time, but only 37,000 bothered to turn up, such was the malaise around the club after the rupture with Cruyff.

It took Ronaldo just six minutes to suggest he might be the medicine. Fed by Giovanni midway between the halfway line and Atleti’s goal, the Brazilian used the space, sashayed past one challenge and slide-ruled the ball into the right-hand corner of Jose Molina’s net.

For good measure, El Fenomeno added Barcelona’s fifth goal against a team that had beat them 7-2 on aggregate the previous season.

Joyous Barcelona fans don’t know it, but the clock was already ticking.

They’d see that trademark Christ the Redeemer goal celebration 45 more times.  

But in 48 matches, their savior would be gone.

Oscar Garcia, who played 69 times for Barca and won 11 trophies, was Ronaldo’s team-mate that season.

Now coach of Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, the Catalan told Bleacher Report for this story: "Until that moment, I'd never seen anyone play football with such technical ability, creativity and precision at that incredible speed.

“What stood out to me, and all of us, from the moment we met Ronnie was that he could do things which other players found very difficult and make them look easy. But he could also produce those things while running at an unbelievable, explosive pace.

"Back then, he was all fibre and muscle. It’s incredible that his body could change as much as it has from then until he stopped playing. He was a perfect physical specimen. Such incredible power matched to his technical skills could make him unstoppable."

Garcia remembers Ronaldo as a “lovely guy” who was a warm and friendly team-mate.

“Not only was he correctly praised for playing with a smile on his face, for making it look like he was having fun, he was also a guy who seemed perpetually in a good mood, always joking around the training ground,” he said.

There were occasions, however, when local boy Garcia had to put Ronaldo in his place.

"One of our permanent jokes all that season was me demanding he slow down when he was celebrating a goal," Garcia said. "He was so much faster than me that I had to ask him to put the brakes on when he did his famous arms-out celebration just so that I could catch up with him and get in the goal photo. I'd shout, 'Brakes, pal...brakes on!'"

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Garcia will never forget the shock and awe Ronaldo injected into La Liga 21 years ago.

But—and here’s the key to his turbulent Barca year—those who speak to Ronaldo’s time at Barcelona do so via a mix of the adoring, the confused, the critical and the jealous. For a South American import who was just 20, in a foreign country and suddenly under the greatest pressure of his young life, it must have been both bewildering and intoxicating.

In October 1996, Joaquim Maria Puyal, to this day one of the city’s most famous football commentators, said on Catalunya Radio: "Ronaldo is the synthesis of everything valuable in football.”

Perhaps Robson should have known better than to tell El Pais his young striker was reminiscent of a "young Pele."

Pele, for his part, used a Brazil Ministry of Sports news conference to reply that the young pretender reminded him more of German legend Gerd Muller.

"Until that moment, I’d never seen anyone play football with such technical ability, creativity and precision at that incredible speed."

Oscar Garcia on Ronaldo.

Team-mate Blanc told El Pais: "I’ve never seen any other player score an impossible goal in every match he plays. You think back to Maradona’s brilliant goals in Mexico, but with Ronaldo it happens every day. An extraordinary goal now and again, that’s one thing.

"But this guy does it week in, week out."

Mourinho, one of Robson’s assistants, offered a different tone. Following a 1-1 draw against Racing Santander, he told the Catalan media in the post-match mixed zone: "You can’t get away with sleeping for 89 minutes of the game just because you score one fantastic goal."

Ronaldo, not yet sure of his place as football royalty, merely suggested Mourinho should make such comments to his face.

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The TV pundit Jorge Valdano added to the chorus of approval.

"Ronaldo finishes chances with surgical precision, and in the build-up to chances he always takes the right option of where to be and when to sprint," he said.

To his great credit, the player himself warned the Jornal do Brasil: "I may not be the best in the world yet. But I’m going to be. It’s wonderful to be compared to Pele, but he is the king and I’m just at the start of my career.

"I feel a great responsibility. I want to be Ronaldinho and nobody else."

It was during the latter half of his blitzkrieg year that Ronaldo truly hit superlative numbers (21 goals in his final 21 Liga games for Barca), but El Fenomeno was dubbed a footballing superhero within a matter of weeks in Spain.

Ronaldo instantly became the vogue name for every newspaper and radio and television station in Spain—and many thousands of their foreign equivalents.

It was in that autumn that I first saw this stunningly exciting footballer in the flesh.

After an interview with Robson in the Camp Nou manager’s office, I went outside to watch the striker undertake a fitness test.

At that time, Barcelona barely resembled the modern machine they have become. For starters, there wasn’t a training ground. First-team preparation either took place on the single pitch cramped between the La Masia residences (where Guardiola had once been housed and into which a tearful 12-year-old Andres Iniesta had just moved that September) and the Camp Nou or 300 metres along the road at the Mini Stadium.

If it was the single pitch, local media crammed in around the cage, and one side was visible (through a chain-link fence) to passers-by on the pavement.

These days, it’s hard to get near a first-team footballer—unless he’s keen to meet with you or you’ve found his car keys. Back then, they were marked more closely by journalists than by opposition players.

Once the squad had trained, they jogged back to the Camp Nou to shower and dress but then had to exit the dressing room area through a vestibule into which many dozens of reporters had crammed.

Often, it was a scrum. No security, no press officer shooing you away—a free-for-all.

On this day, I watched as the media hive trotted from the Camp Nou pitch-side to the press-room vestibule and then—Ronaldo not wishing to stop and chat—muscled alongside him all the way down through the innards of the stadium to the players’ private car park, where he had to persuade them to let him get in his beautiful sports car and drive off.

Chaotic. But also a reflection that this was the first real megastar (Romario included) Barcelona had signed since Diego Maradona some 14 years earlier.

There were three main debates.

Is he a typical Brazilian playboy like Romario who’ll dodge return-to-training dates when he’s on holiday or with the national team?

Is he already the best in the world?

Is there a way to stop him?

So when Tenerife managed to blunt Barcelona’s sharpest weapon, their tactics were hailed as a blueprint for a safer future for La Liga’s other 21 teams.

Jupp Heynckes, during a season that earned him the Real Madrid job in June 1997, chose to deploy Cesar Gomez as Ronaldo’s catenaccio-style man-to-man marker during that 1-1 draw.

Reporters queued up to quiz the 29-year-old Madrileno, but Gomez, to his great credit, was candid when he spoke to El Pais: "Marking Ronaldo is the hardest thing in the world.

"Basically, I prayed really hard and did a lot of running. I was very lucky because he didn’t manage to get away from me much, and when he did, he missed. I was totally knackered at the end, as if I’d just played five games instead of one."

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Gomez said one-to-one marking, with a tight defensive line, was the only way to counter Ronaldo.

"You have to be totally focused so that you can anticipate what he’s going to do and stop him from controlling the ball," he said. "If he gets on the ball and there’s even a metre of space for him to burst into...you’re lost.

"Let that happen, and he’ll start dribbling round defenders as if it’s a kick-about in the playground. He’ll be off. Unstoppable."

What did stop Ronaldo, at least temporarily—and this horrible theme resurfaced throughout the Brazilian’s career—were physical problems.

After injuring himself in a miraculously good performance while scoring a hat-trick to beat Valencia 3-2, he nevertheless volunteered to play away to Red Star Belgrade in Europe. Robson picked him.

After the match in Belgrade, the brave Brazilian acknowledged, "I played on one leg." He missed his first matches of the season, during which Barca dropped four points in two outings, and he was not fully right again until January.

It seems utterly bizarre now that there was a lack of understanding for the boy genius' physical well-being, but this is the context.

This was a 20-year-old kid who had played 53 matches in the last two seasons for PSV, who had been part of the Brazil squad at summer tournaments in 1994, 1995 and 1996, who was hacked every time he took the field, who had missed five months at PSV because of a knee problem and who was regularly asked to make transatlantic flights to and from international games during seasons.

Robson hoped Ronaldo would score early against Red Star "so I could take him off." But it didn’t work out that way.

From that game, on Oct. 31, 1996, until January 1997 was the low point of Ronaldo’s football performance while in Catalonia.

And thus began a running battle between Ronaldo, Barcelona fitness coach Paco Seirul-lo and Brazil national team physiotherapist Nilton Petrone.

"If he gets on the ball and there’s even a metre of space for him to burst into...you’re lost. Let that happen, and he’ll start dribbling round defenders as if it’s a kick-about in the playground. He’ll be off. Unstoppable."

Cesar Gomez on facing Ronaldo.

The Catalan media took sides. Ronaldo’s behavior and the time he spent in Brazil constantly came under question. There was hullabaloo over whether he (and Giovanni) would behave as self-indulgently as Romario once did.

Ronaldo failed to score for five games, two of which Barca lost (at San Mames and the Bernabeu). It was then he stated Robson’s system “worked fine initially but isn’t functioning well enough now—particularly against the stronger teams.

"I respect the Barcelona playing style, but with Brazil we play with three up front, we play more compactly, I get the ball more and it wouldn’t just be good for me if we changed to that system but good for the whole team."

Upon losing to Madrid in the first Clasico, he blamed himself.

"Barca didn’t disappoint me; the match didn’t disappoint me...I disappointed myself," he said. "I had three clear chances and didn’t score any of them."

Big-hearted as he was, the disappointment wasn’t about losing a €6,000 bet with Roberto Carlos over the result. The two Brazilians made a pact in the week leading up to the Clasico that the loser would pay that sum to the other’s chosen charity.

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Just before Christmas, Ronaldo and Giovanni missed training after a flight delay on returning from a Brazil match against Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were told that instead of having Dec. 31 free, they would be required to work out under the supervision of Robson and Mourinho. (Both players had intended to indulge in a lightning-quick but ludicrous flight back to Brazil for the new year with their families and then a return to club duty 48 hours later.)

The players appeared blameless but felt castigated.

After returning from the match against Bosnia, Ronaldo had with him a folder of medical and fitness documents from Petrone to present to the club’s fitness staff.

In many instances, that would have been regarded as an extreme provocation, but given his evident lack of sporting well-being during November and December, a new peace broke out once he made it clear to the media that all was OK.

"It’s not that I disagreed with [Seirul-lo’s] treatment," he said. "But the fact is that after my injury, I didn’t fully recover, and while I’ve been on duty with Brazil, their staff got me full back to my best."

This all came against a backdrop of contract renegotiations—which had started approximately two-and-a-half months into an eight-year deal. Nothing like getting ahead in your work, is there?

The initiative, however, shrewdly came from Robson.

When I met Robson in the winter of that season, the former Ipswich and England manager told me he believed Ronaldo would stay for several seasons and become, perhaps, Barcelona’s greatest-ever player. He’d been so stunned by Ronaldo’s immediate explosion—in sporting, media and marketing terms—that he’d suggested increasing the youngster’s wages and, thus, vastly increasing his buyout clause, too.

Although the talks were embarrassingly public thanks to constant media briefings by the player's three representatives (two of whom were convicted of money laundering several years later), Robson's idea that the €30 million buyout clause wasn’t sufficiently bullish proved spot-on.

By the turn of the year, a new heads of agreement had been drafted. If it were signed by late January, then all sides would have clarity and security.

Fat chance.

This dark, unsettling period in the year finished with the Camp Nou fans whistling and waving white hankies in the air to evidence their frustration and displeasure at a stilted 1-0 win over Celta.

Ronaldo, fed up with the last few weeks and now banned from spending Hogmanay in Rio, snarked: "Those who turn up to whistle their own team aren’t real Barca fans, and they’d be better staying at home."

Whether what became a stunning last few months at the club owes anything to the “mala leche” (devilment) of Stoichkov remains unproven. But there was a mid-season moment, in the dark, sleeting, freezing months of January, when a little joke that could have gone badly wrong appeared to break the ice.

Ronaldo, in Baloo the Bear mode—just happily shambling along in the blissful idea that everyone’s as laid-back and groovy as him—asked the Bulgarian what time training was the following day.

Stoichkov, notoriously brimming with mischief, told his young colleague it was an afternoon session, "about 3:30 or 4 p.m."

The next morning, Ronaldo’s telephone was ringing off the hook. When he answered blearily, he heard FC Barcelona match delegate Carlos Naval bellowing at him: "Ronaldo, it’s half past 10, and you’re already late for training!"

The player screamed along the C-32 and B-20 in his white BMW M3 but arrived to find Stoichkov had turned him over good and proper—training was wrapping up because the Brazilian was 75 minutes late.

Later, he told the local media: "I didn’t look at the training schedule up on the board. ... I just asked Stoichkov.

"It’s a joke, albeit in bad taste, and I wouldn’t play that kind of prank on him. I was sound asleep when the phone rang, and I’d have slept until early afternoon because I thought I didn’t have to be here till past three o'clock.

"No pasa nada...I’m not angry."

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Nor, it turned out, was Robson. When Stoichkov said he’d been worried about Ronaldo speeding along in the slush and poor visibility, the English coach opted for clemency and refused to dramatize it.

Having been thrown into a swimming pool by Terry Butcher during Italia 90—coming so close to hitting his head on a concrete diving board that a couple of millimetres might have cost him his life—Robson well understood the nature of dressing-room pranks.

And when not to overreact.

From that moment, Ronaldo sprang to life.

Ronaldo had not scored for his club since mid-November 1996, but he banged in five in four Liga matches.

Then Robson’s side gained a measure of revenge for their 2-0 Clasico defeat at the Bernabeu by beating Real Madrid, as Ronaldo scored in a 3-2 home cup win. Notably, that ended a 30-game unbeaten run for Madrid that stretched back nine months.

"I’m aware that Ronaldo could win this game on his own—in Madrid, he hit the post with an incredible piece of play that we couldn’t do anything about," Los Blancos coach Capello said prior to the loss.

Perspicacious words. The Brazilian’s first shot at goal came after an outrageous nutmeg that left Madrid central defender Rafa Alkorta on his backside.

"OOooooooooooEEEE!!!!!" screamed the crowd, as Ronaldo’s drive slid narrowly past both Illgner’s full-length dive and the far post.

They didn’t have to wait much longer. And when it came, the roar of "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!" from the 95,000 Catalans present was as loud and as clearly defined a celebratory word as you’ll ever hear. Anywhere. I was there.

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Guardiola’s pass was brilliant, clinical and skimmed across 50 metres of pitch so that Ronaldo could right-foot his shot home.

It was a night of stars. And it became an extraordinary game. Even for a Clasico.

Barcelona’s Julen Lopetegui, now manager of Spain, jigged around while celebrating Ronaldo’s goal. Croatian international Suker promptly equalised. Fernando Hierro scored one of the best free-kick routines you’ll see in your life.

Madrid, from 1-0 down, now led. There were 23 minutes left. Much was still to happen.

Hierro deflected Miguel Angel Nadal’s free-kick into his own net for 2-2. Guardiola's corner was headed in by Giovanni for 3-2, and then Ronaldo tried to finish the tie before the return leg.

A mind-blowing nutmeg—he clipped the ball through Hierro’s legs with his back turned to the defender—allowed him to romp away and shoot a millimetre or two wide of the top corner.

A 1-1 draw in the return leg was sufficient to gain Robson, and Ronaldo, the victory.

Madrid still held the league advantage, however, and even Ronaldo scoring the only goal when Capello’s side returned to the Camp Nou in May was not enough to win the title.

Los Blancos surged from an unmagnificent sixth in 1995-96 to title winners in 1996-97—by a margin of two points.

But the cups tumbled to Ronaldo in this rocking ride.

There was growing suspicion Ronaldo had something personal against Atleti.

The striker’s first meeting with them was the win with two of the five goals. Then came a rerun of the previous season’s Copa del Rey final, as the teams were drawn in the quarter-final.

The first leg, without Ronaldo, finished a draw.

Atleti played the second leg under protest, with three of their players suspended from the previous weekend’s match at Betis. But, thanks to the exceptional Milinko Pantic, Atleti came to the Camp Nou and stormed into a blistering three-goal lead. Pantic scored all of them—a 31-minute hat-trick at Catalan HQ. It was a football miracle.

Atleti players were skipping around the pitch as if they owned it. The Camp Nou was mutinous. After just 39 minutes, Robson dared to take off Blanc and Gica Popescu and played with two at the back. He added both Stoichkov and Pizzi to the attack. Anarchy.

But this was Ronaldo’s game. At half-time, his prankster nemesis, Stoichkov, told him: "You’ve got to use this to demonstrate that you are No. 1 in the world—you’ve got to score three or four goals."

Six minutes later, it was 3-2, and the Corcovado goal celebration had been seen twice. Ronaldo’s rescue was truncated by Pantic’s fourth; Barca looked as if they were cooked. It was a cliffhanger.

But Figo smashed home the goal of his life, from outside the box, and then Ronaldo finished his hat-trick, and Pizzi sliced in the winner—after what Mundo Deportivo’s front page classed as “delirium” had overtaken the stadium.

President Nunez unashamedly cried in the VIP box, while vice president Joan Gaspart spent the last 10 minutes locked in the toilet.

Also there, spying and noting—ominously, it transpired—was Ajax coach Van Gaal. His side were about to play Atletico in the Champions League. But he had already been contracted to take over from Robson in June.

"In all my 35 years as a player and then a coach, I’ve never, ever seen a game like this," Madrid coach Capello said with glowing admiration. “It was completely sensational. Only Italy beating [West] Germany 4-3 in the 1970 World Cup semi-final comes anywhere close.”

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Evangelical praise from a normally serious-minded pastor.

A month after the miracle against Atletico, Ronaldo produced his last truly great performance for Barcelona. Again, it came against the reigning champions—this time in the notoriously hostile Calderon Stadium by Madrid’s Manzanares River.

Quinton Fortune, who’d go on to play 126 times for Manchester United and win three league titles, was a 19-year-old who’d already been part of Atletico’s double win the previous season.

He made his home debut of 1996-97 against Ronaldo’s Barcelona and was happy to tell Bleacher Report about the experience.

"It was hostile in our stadium, particularly against Ronaldo, and the fans were giving him lots of stick about his girlfriend [Susana Werner], who was a high-profile actress," he said.

"By now, it felt personal from Ronaldo against us. He played Atleti three times that season, Barcelona scored five each time and he bagged himself eight goals. But this was dream territory to me. I grew up in love with Barcelona—posters of [Jose Mari] Bakero and Figo on my wall.

"So when I’m warming up and the coach [Antic] tells me, ‘I want you to go and mark Ronaldo...’ Well, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to show me the post-match video for me to get close to him."

Suffice to say, Ronaldo gave Fortune a torrid time.

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"I saw him after the match finished, and that’s the nearest I was to Ronaldo on the night," Fortune said. "I’ve heard stories about Michelangelo’s statue of David, although I’ve never visited Florence to witness it, but I imagine it must look like Ronaldo did back then.

"He was physical perfection, and he seemed like a mythical figure. I love [Lionel] Messi, I played many times with Cristiano [Ronaldo] and I adore him, Neymar is outstanding, Ronaldinho was exceptional—but if you put all of them together, you might get what Ronaldo was that season."

Quite the accolade. More followed.

"As a kid, I wanted to be Pele. I bought all the books, all the videos and I studied what it could be like to be the best. I set off on that path,” Fortune said. "Then I met Ronaldo. Some players were technical, some were quick, some were strong, some were smart...Ronaldo was all of those. He was a beast; it was unfair to everyone else.

"It was great to be part of that season because I witnessed beauty. Poetry, painting, all the arts...this was their equal. I just appreciate to this day that I shared a pitch with him."

Madrid were a metronome in La Liga.

The most critical weekend came when a six-point lead became nine. Los Blancos beat Espanyol in Barcelona, while Barca were walloped 4-0 on the Canary Island of Tenerife. It was the fifth point the Blaugrana dropped to Heynckes’ side that season—too many. Enough to toss away a league title. And a gap Robson, Ronaldo and Co. couldn’t bridge.

Current Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic was a key part of that island team, and he hit a glorious hat-trick on a night when Ronaldo stayed barren.

“I was the designated penalty-taker, and that meant that I’d scored goal Nos. 2 and 3 before I headed the fourth for my hat-trick,” Jokanovic recalled for Bleacher Report. "Barcelona were a team full of world-class stars like Figo, Guardiola and Ronaldo, but once we went ahead early, it was one of those matches that—against any possible predictions—was easy for us, and not a single thing went right for them.

"They had Nadal sent off quite early and had only nine men for the last [31] minutes. That’s the kind of game it was for them. But Ronaldo was one of a kind. Every single player who faced him would rather have been in his team, and we all gave our maximum not to be left in a one-v-one with him because in that case there was simply no solution."

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Jokanovic, and all who witnessed it, will never forget Ronaldo’s 1996-97 campaign with Barcelona.

"Two things are still completely embedded in Spanish football memories from that season," he said. "His goal against Compostela is world-famous. And with all the correct respect to Cristiano, all of those who saw Ronaldo that season or played against him will, sometimes in jest, sometimes seriously, call him the ‘real’ Ronaldo because he was the first.

"This was a super-talented, laid-back, loveable guy who won all our respect that season—but was in a class of his own."

The league was gone. And Ronaldo was going.

The convoluted and often ill-tempered negotiations to improve the player’s salary, to deal fairly with the commercial value that derived from his image rights and to protect Barcelona by more than doubling the buyout clause enshrined in his contract had dragged on since September—and they’d distracted from what could have been a four-trophy season.

"I love [Lionel] Messi, I played many times with Cristiano [Ronaldo] and I adore him, Neymar is outstanding, Ronaldinho was exceptional—but if you put all of them together, you might get what Ronaldo was that season."

Quinton Fortune remembers playing against Ronaldo.

In due course, his three representatives—Reinaldo Pitta, Alexandre Martins and Giovanni Branchini—found an agreement with Nunez and Gaspart: Ten years of contract at €3 million per year to begin with, and a €60 million buyout clause.

In fairness to the player, and even his three unlikeable representatives, the message was consistent all season: The player liked the club, the city and the league, and he didn’t want to leave.

But...there was always a but. And it had a dollar sign tied round it.

The final straw came after Ronaldo had won the club their second trophy of the season—and a European one at that.

Until then, his impact on the Cup Winners’ Cup—having caused himself that blighted injury in the autumn by playing through a hamstring problem—had been discrete.

Goals against Solna, none against Fiorentina.

"Some players were technical, some were quick, some were strong, some were smart...Ronaldo was all of those. He was a beast; it was unfair to everyone else."

Fortune on Ronaldo.

But in Rotterdam, at the De Kuip stadium, which was where he’d played his last, controversial 15 minutes for PSV, El Fenomeno had the last word on his Barcelona career.

He scored his 46th and 47th Blaugrana goals—setting a record that stood until Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi went head-to-head nearly 15 years later—at Celta and against Deportivo La Coruna.

Neither goal counted for anything significant. But his 45th did.

PSG were the rivals, and Barca were playing in the stadium where they lost the Cup Winners’ Cup final of 1991 to Manchester United. Of that Cruyff team, only one player had made it to this repeat test six years on: Ferrer at right-back. A remarkable clean-out.  

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Rai and Leonardo played with such technical elegance and savvy for PSG that they were never far from spoiling the happy Robson-Ronaldo ending. But not long before half-time, when Enrique measured a nice pass through to the Brazilian on the left side of the French penalty box, Ronaldo pounced.

His touch wasn’t perfect, but he surged forward on the loose control and got to the ball an instant before Bruno N’Gotty, who’d foolishly decided to lunge in. Ronaldo crumpled to the floor, Markus Merk knew it was a penalty, and the final excelsior moment of El Fenomeno’s phenomenal season was completed without fuss.

Ball meet net, net meet ball.

Introductions over, there was one more Christ the Redeemer goal celebration to come and one more trophy to lift.

It could, and should, have been an "and they all lived happily ever after" story.

But the final-straw phrase wasn't just for fun.

With the league race down to a two-point gap, Barcelona had to kiss goodbye to their star striker.

For months, the club had been arguing with FIFA that the Tournoi de France (a forerunner of the Confederations Cup, which is now used to test the readiness of the following summer’s World Cup host) wasn’t officially on the calendar and therefore Brazil couldn’t demand Ronaldo when there were still Liga matches and a Copa final to play.

FIFA, in their eternal wisdom, ruled otherwise.

So while Barcelona were losing at Hercules and definitively waving a tearful goodbye to the title, Ronaldo was in Lyon with the Selecao preparing to face France in what was, effectively, a spruced-up friendly. An injustice.

Barcelona’s board were enraged—the already teetering negotiations that had resulted in a verbal agreement but were patched together with gaffer tape and blue tack disintegrated.

"This was a super-talented, laid-back, loveable guy who won all our respect that season—but was in a class of his own."

Slavisa Jokanovic on Ronaldo.

Robson claimed it was over the fees Ronaldo’s people demanded for the renegotiation.

The player's entourage stated that a deal they had taken as “final” was torn up the following day by president Nunez.

What remains is that Ronaldo was infuriated—his "amor" for the city and the club set aside out of a burning desire to be paid more, and to demonstrate blind loyalty to his representatives.

By the penultimate week of the season, with Madrid already champions, Ronaldo was gone—in Colombia straight from the Tournoi de France. He scored twice in a 5-0 victory over Costa Rica as Brazil began what was their stroll to a Copa America victory in which they crushed their opposition.

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That South American championship, rather than Spain’s Copa del Rey, became Ronaldo’s third trophy of the season.

In his absence, Barcelona won an epic final against Real Betis in the Santiago Bernabeu—the night famous for Barca vice president Gaspart insisting (as a member of the Spanish FA) that the Barca anthem (“Himno,” it’s called there) be played over and over again at Madrid’s HQ in celebration of the cup winners after a five-goal extra-time thriller.

I was there and can testify to a genuine, firm anti-Ronaldo feeling among fans and press.

What for?

For not rejecting the Tournoi de France and not telling the Brazil coach where to go so that he could have played at Hercules.

One might argue Ronaldo is more than entitled to suggest his club should have been able to win that one without him and that his compensation, not small, was being chosen as a starting striker for Brazil at age 20 and ensuring they won only their second Copa America in 48 years.

That Copa del Rey weekend, I spent a long time speaking to Robson. He’d known for weeks that win, lose or draw the league, he was going to be replaced by Van Gaal. He was wounded, planning revenge but happy with what he and Ronaldo had brought to the Camp Nou.

The double-dealing and dark times of the previous summer included not only the fact that Barcelona had lied to Robson and pretended he was their first choice, but also that Van Gaal had known all season he was the guaranteed successor.

Ronaldo’s people, too, appeared to have known all along that Inter were more than willing suitors and that unless Barcelona accepted being taken hostage over the Ronaldo contract situation, Inter president Massimo Moratti was going to get another toy for his set.

But that’s the inglorious past now. Set it aside.

What we are left with is that for all his affection for Real Madrid and antipathy for Barcelona, this still might well have been, pound for pound, Ronaldo’s greatest club season.

To Oscar Garcia for the final word:

"I’ve worked around Barcelona while Leo Messi’s been there and at his best. I’ve never seen anything like [Ronaldo]. For all that we saw in matches from Ronaldo when he was at the Camp Nou, we all witnessed him do simply astounding things with the ball in training.

"Just remarkable stuff. The pressure was off, and Ronnie had the ability to do anything. Nobody could stop him in training.

"And if you took just that single year at Barcelona, you’d have said that he was guaranteed to go on and be at least one of the top four or five players in the history of the game. That’s because his nickname was accurate. It was an epic season, and he was a football phenomenon."

Amen to that.