Note: It’s “What If?” week at SB Nation, so we’re taking a look at a couple of hypothetical scenarios involving Barcelona...
In 1997, Ronaldo Nazário was on top of the world. The 20 year old was coming off a season in which he scored 47 goals in 49 games, and had just been crowned FIFA World Player of the year. Numbers of that sort may have been normalised in the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era but, make no mistake, they were absolutely astounding at the time, especially for someone who wasn’t even “legal” then. He was a physical behemoth at the time: lean and fast, with a penchant for rounding the goalkeeper. El Fenomeno was a rare breed of attacker, blessed with physicality and technique in abundance. It was poetic of sorts, to see him move past players with ease and then round the keeper with the same sort of effortlessness.
This goal map is a story in and of itself. So many darting runs towards goals. With El Fenomeno, Barça had their attack in place for the next decade. In fact, the plan was to keep the striker at the club till 2006.
And then, disaster struck. Barça thought they had a long term deal in place, but the deal fell apart the very next day. Inter Milan then swooped in and broke the transfer record again (with a fee of 27 million USD) and Ronaldo Nazário became the second player, after Maradona, to have broken the transfer world record twice.
This begs the question: what if Ronaldo had never left? What if he’d stayed at the club for good?
Well, that depends. 1997-98 wasn’t exactly a bad season for the club. Barça hired Louis van Gaal as their new coach, who brought along Rivaldo with him. Rivaldo was Van Gaal’s centerpiece; he played as the primary attacker in his 4-3-3. Barça managed to banish the ghosts of Ronaldo’s departure too. They won their first league title in four years, with Rivaldo finishing with 19 goals. Barça also won the domestic double, winning their 24th Copa del Rey in the process.
So, in the short term, there was no effect. At least, not substantially. How about in the long term?
On the 21st of November 1999, Ronaldo suffered a ruptured knee tendon, which sidelined him for months. Upon his return, it happened again. Ronaldo was sidelined, effectively, till the 2002 World Cup. Fate had taken away his prime. Perhaps, the same wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed at Barça? It’s impossible to say.
It is interesting that Ronaldo’s departure didn’t have much long-term effects on the club in the same way that the departure of Neymar did. Perhaps it was the competency of Nuñez and the management staff or maybe it was luck?
Yes, 1998-99 was the last ‘good season’ for a while (Barça next won the league in 2004-05) but goals were certainly not the issue. Rivaldo and Patrick Kluivert were chipping in those departments. The issues were bigger than that. Yet, sometimes ethereal talent itself can be a galvanising force. Rivaldo and Kluivert, good as they were, were no Ronaldo Nazário. Could his staying have prevented a poor patch of form? It is unlikely, although not impossible.
History often becomes a series of ifs and buts, especially in Barcelona’s case. So many legends of the game have played for the club yet have gone on to play their best football elsewhere (Fenomeno, Diego Maradona, Zlatan Inrahimovic, etc come to mind). In Ronaldo’s case, there is no doubt that it would’ve been wonderful to see him continue to play for the club. After all, he was the best player in the world at the time, and by quite a distance.
Perhaps the team would have seen unprecedented success with Ronaldo and Romario working together, or with Ronaldinho later on? Perhaps.
But, there’s no point crying over spilt milk.