Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo announced his retirement from professional football on February 14, 2011, citing difficulties maintaining his body and hypothyroidism, a medical condition which made it difficult for him to maintain an optimal weight.
Where will Ronaldo find his nest after retiring from professional football? Questions such as these about Ronaldo’s future hover like a ghost around the Brazilian legend's decision to retire in the wake of harassment from Corinthians fans because of the club's February 2 exit from the Copa Libertadores. After retirement, Ronaldo’s Selecao teammates Romario and Bebeto found careers in coaching, club management and, most recently, politics. Correspondingly, 1994 World Cup winners Dunga and Jorginho went on to coach one of the most tactically aware and defensively robust Brazil sides of all time. Right winger Leonardo coached AC Milan with considerable success from 2009-2010 and has transformed Inter Milan radically since taking over as coach in late December 2010.
Ronaldo has said little about his post-retirement plans but one senses he is less likely to pursue a career in coaching and more inclined to contribute to football in an advisory capacity for club teams or as a commentator on the game. As a global symbol of peace, goodwill and human rights for the United Nations at various moments during his career, Ronaldo may well end up following Romario and Bebeto in furthering causes for justice and the well-being of children worldwide, whether in politics or the non-profit sector. With respect to football, Ronaldo has professed an interest in remaining involved with his former club Real Madrid in an advisory role, and one would expect that he will continue to maintain close ties to Corinthians in subsequent years. But in all this, the question about Ronaldo’s retirement and attendant plans engages the fate of one of the first truly transnational sports heroes of all time.
Ronaldo rapidly became a symbol of goodwill and sportsmanship to generations of football fans all over the world. In the mid-1990s, his goal scoring feats and slalom runs catalyzed a renaissance of interest in the game that coincided with its emerging popularity in the United States and Asia. And most importantly, Ronaldo became the first truly global sports hero that men and women all over the world admired, shared and loved, beginning with his sublime goal a game ratio at Barcelona and Inter Milan, to his heart wrenching struggles with knee injuries, back to the glory of his 2002 World Cup victory and two goals against Germany in the final. Pele was never truly a global hero because he played in a historical moment that was not wired in quite the same way as the world is today with Google, YouTube and soccer websites and discussion boards in almost every language. Maradona had few fans amongst English football supporters and his greatness was ultimately eclipsed by his decline into cocaine addiction and alcoholism. Romario paved the way for the concept of a global super-hero, but his cat-like prowess around the goal mouth paled in comparison to Ronaldo’s almost superhuman speed, strength, dribbling ability and power. Moreover, the peak years of Romario’s career coincided with the dawn of the consumer internet era as opposed to the conjunction of the peak of Ronaldo's fame with the lightning fast proliferation of internet technologies across the globe.
Add to all this the manner in which football enjoys a global popularity that trumps basketball, tennis and golf, it becomes easy to understand how Ronaldo crossed national, class, generational and gender boundaries more so than Bruce Lee, Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. His fame ushered in the conditions of possibility for a transnational sports hero embraced by fans all over the entire globe. In terms of fame and global power as a cultural icon, only Michael Jackson and Madonna bear him comparison. While soccer historians would do well to begin cataloguing Ronaldo’s dizzying array of goals and records, cultural historians should take stock of the way in which Ronaldo elevated sport in general, and football in particular, to a global language with the power to galvanize audiences in all corners of the entire world. Messi stands on Ronaldo’s shoulders because his circulation in the world of contemporary popular culture derives from Ronaldo’s unprecedented, organic creation of the concept of a truly global sports hero for the very first time.
The above article features a post-February 14, 2011 update to the original December 4 posting.