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47 goals in 49 games. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima’s first and only season at FC Barcelona had been an unqualified success on an individual level with the Brazilian striker’s beguiling combination of physical power, pace and technical ability leading many to consider him the best striker in the world. Goals such as his famous effort against Compostela in the league made it hard to disagree.
On a collective level his goals helped Bobby Robson’s Barça claim a cup double; Ronaldo’s penalty against Paris Saint-Germain gave the blaugranes victory in the European Cup Winners Cup final in May 1997 and victory over Betis the following month handed them the Copa del Rey title. The only black mark against the side came in La Liga where they were pipped to the title by a Real Madrid side coached by Italian Fabio Capello.
Striker Ronaldo was missing for Barça in the Copa del Rey final against Betis in June with the Brazilian part of coach Mario Zagallo’s squad for the Copa América. Ronaldo had made his international debut for Brazil in 1994 at the age of 17. The striker was part of the 1994 World Cup winning squad but did not play a single minute in the tournament. A year later he played just five minutes of Brazil’s Copa América campaign which saw them defeated by hosts Uruguay in the final on penalties.
The stage was set in Bolivia, the host nation for the 1997 tournament, for Ronaldo to announce himself on the international stage. Brazil’s group stage fixtures kicked off with a game in Santa Cruz against one of the two invited nations to the competition, Costa Rica. Zagallo’s team dispatched the Central American side with Ronaldo helping himself to two goals in a 5-0 win.
‘La canarinha’ were made to work harder in their next match against a talented Mexican team. Luis Hernández scored twice in the first half to give the other invited nation a shock lead. The Mexican striker would go to be top scorer in the tournament with six goals, one ahead of Ronaldo.Nevertheless, a second half fightback from Brazil saw Leonardo score the winner to give them a 3-2 victory and a place in the quarter-finals. In the final group stage fixture Ronaldo played an hour in the 2-0 win over Colombia, keeping his powder dry for the knock out phase.
On to the knockout stages
The rest seemed to do the striker the world of good as he scored twice in the first half to hand Zagallo’s side a 2-0 victory against Paraguay and a place in the semi-final against surprise package Peru. The contest turned out to be a one side affair with the only surprise being how Ronaldo failed to get on the scoresheet in a 7-0 drubbing for the Peruvians which set up a final against hosts Bolivia.
Up until the final, the draw had been kind to Ronaldo and his Brazilian team as they had played all their games in the city of Santa Cruz, only 400 metres above sea level. However, the tournament was to be decided at the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, some 2,600 metres above sea level.Just four years previously Brazil’s 40 year unbeaten record in World Cup qualifying had come to an end courtesy of a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia in the very same stadium, leading to recriminations about the advantage gained by the home side by playing in the oxygen starved air of the Bolivian capital.
Brazil’s concerns turned out to be unfounded. A fresh Ronaldo, he played 58 minutes only against Peru in the semi-final, was too much for the hosts coached by Spaniard Antonio López. Denilson gave Brazil the lead only for Bolivia to equalize just before half time thanks a mistake from keeper Taffarel. However, in the second half Ronaldo’s spectacular effort, his fifth of the tournament, put Brazil back in front and Zé Roberto’s late goal concluded a 3-1 victory.
Ronaldo was named Player of the Tournament for his contribution to Brazil’s first Copa América win since 1989, rounding off a thrilling season for the 20 year old striker which ended with him claiming three trophies and a place in football as one of the most exciting players to emerge for a long, long time.
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