For football fans of a certain vintage, it can be difficult to remember a time before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo dominated the highest level of the game, a duopoly which has seen 12 of the past 13 editions of the Ballon d’Or shared between the two iconic figures.
The ‘rivalry’ between Messi and Ronaldo has led to a rather mundane and frustrating debate over who really is the best ever, the social media age leading to no end of dedicated accounts championing their choice with combinations of warped statistics and an endless supply of goat emojis.
An older generation, however, can hark back to a period in which another Ronaldo emerged as the most exciting player in world football, a footballer whose skill and style had never before been seen.
For some, only injuries prevented Ronaldo Nazario from becoming the undisputed greatest, whilst there is arguably no player who has ever created such feverish excitement when bursting onto the scene as a precocious talent.
This is a player whose twice broke the world transfer record before his 21st birthday and a man who remains the youngest ever player to win football’s most prestigious individual accolade, the Ballon d’Or.
We’ve decided to look back at Ronaldo’s early emergence and remember his record-breaking triumph.
Ronaldo wasted little time in establishing himself as Brazil’s great footballing hope after making his debut as a 16-year-old for Cruzeiro, shooting to wider prominence following a five-goal haul against Bahia just months later.
The goals flowed at an astonishing rate for a player barely out of childhood as he scored 44 goals in just 47 games at club level, his performances earning the teenager inclusion in the Brazil squad for the 1994 World Cup.
Ronaldo did not feature as the Selecao were crowned as world champions for a fourth time, but his inclusion was a testament to his frightening ability with many lauding the prospect as the most exciting talent since Pele.
Europe was the logical next step and, on the advice of international teammate Romario, he signed for PSV Eindhoven, wasting little time in making an impact following his cross-Atlantic transfer.
Just as Romario had done before him, the young forward thrived in the Eredivisie and finished his debut campaign with 35 goals in just 36 appearances in all competitions for PSV.
He finished as the division’s leading scorer in the Netherlands before netting a further 19 in just 21 games the following campaign, in a second season disrupted by the first of what would come to be defining knee injuries.
Ronaldo had already outgrown his surroundings, however, and in 1996 a host of Europe’s elite were queuing up in a bid to woo the game’s most exciting talent.
Barcelona won the race to secure his signature in a deal that cost the Catalans £13.6m, making the 19-year-old the most expensive player in the history of football.
Ronaldo spent just a single season at the Camp Nou, though it is a campaign that remains firmly etched into the memories of those who witnessed it and contained arguably the defining performances of an iconic career.
His record arrival helped Barcelona out of a transitional phase and into contention for major silverware once more, the exhilarating Brazilian spearheading an exciting side under Sir Bobby Robson during the 1996/97 season.
Ronaldo, in essence, was unstoppable.
There is perhaps no player in history who combined such scintillating speed, skill and strength, Ronaldo leaving defenders in his wake as he burst through opposition lines in that signature explosive style.
He was the blueprint for what became the modern forward, a player capable of picking up possession and beating players like a traditional winger, though retaining the predatory instincts and goalscoring touch of an elite number nine.
Goalkeepers and defenders were left bamboozled by his footwork, his step-overs and trademark elasticos leaving even the best of opposition tangled and tormented.
In the years since there have been players who have looked towards his style for inspiration, but there have been none who dazzled quite like the Ronaldo of the nineties.
That single season in Barcelona colours saw the star score a stunning 47 goals in 49 appearances across all competitions, firing the Spanish side to Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup success.
Those numbers may have been replicated by modern greats, but they were unprecedented during his own era and came in a manner never before seen.
There was an iconic hat-trick against Valencia and that goal as part of another treble against Compostela, Ronaldo running from inside his own half and beyond a succession of desperate challenges with sheer pace, power and frightening footwork.
He became the youngest ever winner of FIFA’s World Player of the Year award in 1996 aged just 20, before moving to Inter Milan as the Nerazzurri triggered his £19.5m release clause, making Ronaldo the most expensive player in history once again.
The nineties was a time when Serie A was at its finest, a who’s who of the game’s finest footballers. None, however, proved much of a match for the brilliant Brazilian.
Ronaldo’s debut season saw him score 34 goals in all competitions, firing Inter to UEFA Cup success and cementing his status as the best forward in the game.
That season also saw the star’s record-breaking coronation as winner of the Ballon d’Or, becoming the youngest player to win the accolade and by a landslide margin, in addition to retaining his FIFA World Player of the Year accolade.
Ronaldo’s second season at Inter saw him suffer the first of several injuries that would change his career, a succession of knee issues with one devastating injury sidelining the star throughout the entirety of the 2000/01 season.
He returned and enjoyed huge success, including scoring eight times as Brazil won the 2002 World Cup, earning him redemption from his final demons of four years earlier.
Those performances earned him a move to Real Madrid as the club’s latest Galactico, in addition to both a second Ballon d’Or and third FIFA World Player of the Year accolade.
Ronaldo remained a great player and a world-class goalscorer, but the explosiveness that leaves football fans of the nineties misty-eyed and nostalgic was tragically no more.
We’ll never know if that sense of ‘what if?’ enhanced his legend or reduced it, but what is certain is Ronaldo was the most exciting young talent the game has ever seen.