It’s 8 June 1997 in Lyon, where Italy and Brazil are preparing to square off in Le Tournoi for their first meeting since the World Cup final three years earlier. Italy coach Cesare Maldini walks over to Fabio Cannavaro and says: “Fabio, we’ll see if this Ronaldo truly is a phenomenon.” By the end of a pulsating 3-3 draw, Ronaldo has scored and tormented both Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini. Cannavaro returns to his manager and tells him that the young Brazilian is indeed the real deal, to which Maldini replies: “Yes Fabio, you are right.”
Ronaldo joined Inter six weeks later. According to former Inter president Massimo Moratti, the idea of signing Ronaldo occurred after a drab, goalless draw at Fiorentina three months earlier. Moratti supposedly concocted the plan in the back of a Florentine taxi. And true to his word, he delivered, exploiting rising tensions between Ronaldo and Barcelona to activate the Brazilian’s buyout clause. The transfer sent a wave of excitement through Italian football not seen since the summer Diego Maradona joined Napoli 13 years earlier.
The revisionist narrative surrounding Ronaldo’s career is that the year in Barcelona was the pinnacle of his career. According to the statistics, this is true. The fact he rifled in 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, including the wonder goal against Compostela in October 1996, where he swatted away defenders with such outrageous ease, reinforces the narrative.
Yet his true peak came in his first season at Inter, where this perfectly assembled force of nature destroyed everything in his path. Rampaging through La Liga was one thing, but doing it in Serie A – by far and away the greatest league in the world (and with 1997-98 perhaps the strongest single season the sport has ever seen) – was quite another.
Serie A had been home to the world’s best players and the game’s most feared strikers for years. Italy’s grizzled defenders were used to locking horns with great foreign players, but they weren’t quite ready for Ronaldo. If Maradona possessed dribbling genius, Zinedine Zidane the ethereal technique and Marco van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta and George Weah raw physicality and pace sprinkled with a dash of elegance, Ronaldo was an intoxicating cocktail of them all. A PlayStation footballer come to life.
Ronaldo’s highly anticipated debut was upended by Álvaro Recoba, who scored two howitzers in the space of five minutes to overcome Brescia. The second match of the season saw Inter travel to face Bologna in a game billed as “Ronaldo v Baggio”, a battle between the game’s two premier players for a large stretch of the decade. The game at the rain-drenched Stadio Dall’ara was an instant classic, with Baggio scoring two and Inter scoring four. Ronaldo got off the mark, twisting Bologna defender Massimo Paganin like a pretzel on the edge of the box with a right foot shimmy before planting the ball into the bottom corner with his left.
“Ronaldo? Mamma mia! What a player,” reflected Baggio in 2021. “He came from the future. He played football with technique and speed ahead of his time. I saw him do things that were unthinkable, which no one had done or thought of until then. He was unique.”
Ronaldo scored six in his next seven games, including a mesmeric performance against Parma in October. He danced and glided his way past players at will, even crashing a free-kick past Gianluigi Buffon from 25 yards out that clipped the underside of the crossbar. By Christmas, he had nine goals in 13 games.
“He was an alien among humans,” said Buffon. “It seemed like he was created in a lab. He was the perfect player, as he had power, speed, intuition, technical skills and quickness.” That was the beauty of the first Ronaldo. He could do everything: he took penalties, free-kicks and even corners in his first season at Inter; he would pick up the ball near the halfway line and dribble past as many players dared stand in his way.
Ronaldo and Inter suffered a bit of a dip following the 1-0 win against Juventus in early 1998, dropping 10 points in January and February. His one and only league hat-trick came in the 5-0 demolition of Lecce in the middle of this sticky patch.
If you want a snapshot of just how good Ronaldo was during his golden period at Inter, his performance against Spartak Moscow in the second leg of their Uefa Cup semi-final is the perfect distillation of a player operating in a different orbit. Describing the pitch at the old Dynamo Stadium as a potato field would be an affront to potato fields the world over. Even though the surface was laced with ice and snow, the game was inexplicably allowed to go ahead. It made little difference to Ronaldo.
He scored twice and his second was spectacular. Like his goals against Sampdoria, Lecce and Schalke, Ronaldo collected the ball from deep. He spun on a dime, ran deep into the heart of the defence and passed to Iván Zamorano, who squeezed the ball back to Ronaldo, who danced through two defenders with a single touch, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted the ball home, while effectively playing on an ice rink. “Straordinario” shouted legendary Rai commentator Bruno Pizzul.
The season had been building to the titanic clash between Inter and Juventus at the end of April. The most important Derby d’Italia in years, with only a point separating them, was essentially stripped down to a battle between Ronaldo and Alessandro Del Piero, the two best players in the world. They had been upstaging one another all season, forcing the other to raise the stakes even higher. “When you arrived at Inter you were already in my head, and you inspired me to become better,” said Del Piero to Ronaldo in 2020. Ronaldo had scored 22 in 28 Serie A games and had dominated the Uefa Cup; Del Piero had 20 in 30 games and had dominated the Champions League. Whoever won the game would win the title.
The game now lives in infamy, a tale of two penalties: one denied to Inter and one given to Juventus just 15 seconds later. The controversy went right to the top, with Italian politicians even debating the decision – and fighting over it in parliament. But the truth is that Ronaldo had missed several chances before Mark Iuliano sent him tumbling in the box. The story of the game was of missed chances rather than a penalty not given. The 1-0 defeat took the wind out of Inter’s sails and, with the league mathematically gone following a surprise defeat to Bari in early May, the focus now became the Uefa Cup final against Lazio in Paris.
Ronaldo stole the show. “I have watched that game on video so many times since then, trying to work out what I did wrong,” recalled Alessandro Nesta. “We lost 3-0, but I don’t think it was my fault. Ronaldo was simply unstoppable. He is so quick he makes everyone else look as if they are standing still.” Nesta, one of the most elegant defenders Italy ever produced and a player who shackled Lionel Messi at the age of 36, could do little to stop Ronaldo at 22.
The Brazilian produced the most complete performance of his career, toying with Lazio for 90 minutes. Javier Zanetti and Zamorano had already scored before Ronaldo sprung Lazio’s offside trap in the 69th minute to utterly bamboozle the hapless Luca Marchegiani, putting the goalkeeper on the floor without so much as touching the ball before stroking it into the empty net.
“It was incredible, but he did tricks like that in every training session,” recalled Youri Djorkaeff. “We were used to it. Ronaldo was phenomenal. He proved that he was a cut above the rest that season.” It became one of the defining goals of the 1990s, confirmation that Ronaldo was a 21st-century footballer playing in the dying embers of the 20th.
Ronaldo would end the 1997-98 season with 34 goals in all competitions, 25 in Serie A. He had torn the most unrelenting league the world has ever seen to shreds. “My toughest opponents would be Maradona, Ronaldo, who was phenomenal in his two years at Inter, and Zidane,” said Maldini when asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport to name the players who gave him the hardest time in his 24-year career. “Ronaldo was the only player who really stirred fear in me. Just walking on the same pitch as he did was terrifying for me,” wrote Cannavaro in 2018.
Inter did not win the Scudetto, but going into France 98 there was no doubting Ronaldo was the finest footballer on planet Earth. Everything seemed to be there for the taking and most assumed that he would only get better. Yet, just two months after his Uefa Cup zenith in Paris, the same city bore witness to the beginning of the end of peak Ronaldo, and he was never the same. The human knee simply wasn’t built for that level of contorting, pulling and pushing – not on a frame as muscular as Ronaldo’s and at such devastating speed.
But, if you were fortunate enough to witness it, Ronaldo was special in 1997-98. The ultimate cheat code player. Il Fenomeno.