SPORTS

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January 29, 2002

Will poor Ronaldo ever return to fitness?

Poor Ronaldo. Last week his club team, Inter Milan, informed the media that Ronaldo could miss up to three more weeks because of a thigh injury he sustained during a recent practice. You just gotta feel bad for this guy. In the past five years or so, no premier player has faced Ronaldo's sort of injury problems. From his mysterious ailment before playing France in the 1998 World Cup final to his demoralizing knee injuries suffered at the start of multiple seasons, Ronaldo could very well be the most injury- prone superstar in any sport. At the height of his powers, Ronaldo easily stands as one of the world's best players. Coupled with fellow Brazilian Rivaldo, Ronaldo could punish opposing defenses, threading through hapless defenders with ease.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed Ronaldo's style of attacking play. Granted, he never will be Brazil's next Pele or Garincha, but his straight-ahead, powerful style delighted fans around the world. Now the question is: can he ever come back?

Soccer, like most sports, requires athletes to constantly adjust to a plethora of variables and inconsistencies. Injuries nag players, sometimes halting their progress and resulting in curtailed careers. Changing styles, varying standards of play around the world, and the constant evolution of players marks soccer as a sport in flux. When Michael Owen, now one of the world's premier strikers, fell to injury a few seasons back, some critics doubted whether he could return at full force. Of course, Owen returned with a vengeance — now complementing his speed and balance with the cunning edge of experience. Ronaldo, however, has missed much more than Owen. He literally hasn't played consistently since 1998, nearly four years ago.

Ronaldo is still a relatively young player, but he always relied on his physical skills to create goals and opportunities. Perhaps even more than players like Owen, Ronaldo's whole game revolved around running at defenders. Some offensive players, like Germany's great striker Oliver Bierhoff, play tactically, capitalizing on chances as they come their way. Bierhoff, for example, positions himself extremely well, and he takes advantage of his superior heading ability to knock in goal after goal. Ronaldo, however, can create space for himself against two, three, or even four markers. Wait, check that. Ronaldo, at his peak, can do more than just create space for himself — lots of players can do that — he forces defenders to eat his dust as he blows past them.

That's what makes him, along with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, a living, breathing Nike commercial.

Ronaldo's acceleration and power has, at times, been breathtaking. Injuries, unfortunately, can rob even the greatest athletes of their physical powers. Undoubtedly, Ronaldo's multiple injuries have taken a toll on his beleaguered body. Accordingly, when Ronaldo truly returns — and I believe he will — look for him to do what other great athletes have done to adjust to the debilitating effects of time and injury: change the way he plays the game.

In the future, Ronaldo may not blow by defenders, he may not give a marker a quick feint before thundering past him. At the same time, Ronaldo will use little tricks that lack such showy athleticism but work just as well. For instance, Ronaldo could turn and create space for himself to shoot at goal. When Ronaldo possessed all his physical abilities, a quick turn to face goal could result in two or three defenders gasping for air. Now, Ronaldo could create space and then use his solid shot to score. Both methods result in goals, but one signals increased maturity and the ability to sustain one's energy.

Just as Michael Owen has learned to use his left foot, Ronaldo will adjust and improve his own game to once again captivate the world. Of course, this is all speculation, and Ronaldo may very well defy the critics, returning to the field and flying past defenders. Precedent, however, says otherwise, as countless other players have had to adjust their methods of play after suffering through injuries. Indeed, Ronaldo's enervating injuries dictate that a slight change in method could prove the best medicine for Brazil's brightest star. With all this in mind, Ronaldo's greatest challenges lie ahead of him. With diligence and intelligence, Ronaldo could once again delight fans across the planet. If Ronaldo cannot summon his reserve of resiliency, however, the Brazilian faces any superstar's worst nightmare: unrelenting mediocrity.