Ronaldo's 1996-97 season with Barcelona was the sort of event in sports that you simply can't count on witnessing. Rather than lamenting that it didn't happen again, we should be marveling that it happened in the first place. Is it worth pointing out, too, that Ronaldo's so-called decline wasn't exactly the stuff of horror? He won a World Cup in 2002, scoring eight goals along the way; won two La Liga titles with Real Madrid; netted hundreds of goals; successfully retooled his game after twice rupturing a tendon in his knee; picked up two more FIFA World Player of the Year awards; and, after moving back to Brazil in the twilight of his career, won two trophies with Corinthians in 2009. I wish more athletes were such comprehensive failures.
What I loved most about watching Ronaldo was that—quite possibly because of the same vague goofiness that made him into a laughingstock—he never stopped playing like the game was just unbelievable fun. Two of my favorite Ronaldo moments came in games that had nothing, or very little, to do with the grim task of beating the competition. The first is the jaw-dropping goal he scored at a charity match in 2002. He and his Real Madrid teammate Raul pirouette in tandem through the entire defense, Raul plays the final pass just behind Ronaldo, and Ronaldo—casually, as if he did this sort of thing all the time—flips the ball up over his body with his heel, controls it with his chest, and slices it into the back of the net past the diving goalkeeper's hands.
My other favorite moment came in 2008. Ronaldo, now very much in his dotage as a high-level player, made a rare start for A.C. Milan after a season of injuries. The game, against Napoli, was notable for marking the debut of the hotly touted 17-year-old Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato. Ronaldo, visibly delighted to be playing in Pato's first match—and can you imagine, say, Michael Jordan being visibly delighted in those circumstances?—scored twice himself, including the match-winning goal, then spent the rest of the game trying to get Pato on the score sheet, urging the kid along, bounding around the pitch like he thought he was 17, too. When Pato finally scored, it wasn't clear which of them was happier.
Remarkably, it's that same feeling of exhilaration that comes across in the astonishing video of all his goals from the miracle year with Barcelona, as if he'd made the competitive aspect of the game secondary to pure play. Beckham made the game feel like a spy movie; Zidane made it feel like a war. Ronaldo made it feel like joy.