The drums are still pounding here as Brazil
won the Beach Soccer World Cup, and there are plenty of things to talk
about. The 330-pound guy behind me banging a drum. Bikini-clad women on
Copacabana beach. Carnaval. Even Barry Manilow, who just performed here.
But I was among a bunch of journalists who were chatting with French
legend Eric Cantona, who coached France to the beach title last year,
the first time FIFA oversaw this tournament. The topic of conversation?
"Oh, le petit Ronaldo," Cantona said. "One day Rio, the next Holland. A
star in Catalonia, an idol in Italy and a god in Spain. And he is ready
to discover l'Amerique!"
I have to take Cantona at his word. The man knows too much; he lights up
when he's talking about Ronaldo. And the final chapter for one of
Brazil's most famous players of all-time is set to be written. New York
The next step, after being called a "non-athlete" by his coach and
having almost certainly lost his place on the Brazilian national team,
seems to be America. "The one and only place I feel normal, common, me,"
he said to me after the 2002 World Cup in one of the many private talks
I've had with him. "Where I can walk and be myself, doing what I want."
Knowing Ronaldo as a man, not as a player, there is no doubt in my mind
that America is the place he dreams about, ever since he first visited.
It's New York he loves most, the first U.S. city where he felt a
connection. And it's the city where doors are opening for him to come to
Major League Soccer.
No, at 30, he's not the same player he once was. People have already
written him off, saying he can no longer play at the top level. Do not
fool yourself. Ronaldo is not finished yet. And MLS is definitely not an
"elephant cemetery," where old, tired players go to end their
Ronaldo has bounced back before, and has what it takes to do it again.
Days after Brazil failed at the World Cup last summer, where he became
the all-time leading scorer in the world's biggest sporting event,
Ronaldo was back in New York. As the United Nations and a Brazilian bank
planned a Ronaldo-endorsed credit card, he found solace in the back
streets of Greenwich Village. No angry, screaming Brazilians. Only peace.
New York is where Ronaldo can escape his own personal nightmare. And the
gears are turning. Talks with the New York Red Bulls have taken place
and continue after an earlier deal reportedly collapsed. Many believe a
preliminary agreement has already been reached. Another person close to
Ronaldo has said that Red Bulls management has already agreed to acquire
him and has allocated the budget needed to attract him. It's just a
question of timing.
Now that the so-called "Beckham Rule" has been enacted by MLS owners,
where one player on each team won't count against the salary cap, the
final stumbling block is out of the way.
And as if that weren't enough, recently retired Red Bull Youri Djorkaeff
said in Germany (and repeated it elsewhere) that Ronaldo has "promised
him to come to the Bulls soon." People close to Ronaldo say "the U.S.
would open a new frontier for him." He'd be closer to Nike, for whom
he's been an endorser for years. And he'd have no trouble finding more
endorsements in the United States.
More importantly, Ronaldo wants to follow in the footsteps of Pelé. But
doesn't want to do it the way the King did, moving to the U.S. when his
career was finished. He wants to go to America while he's still got
plenty left in the tank.
He's already halfway there, making business contacts all over the Big
Apple. He's part of a new business collective that has invested $150
million in soccer, much of it in America. He's even scheduled to appear
in an episode of The Simpsons next May, in which he'll teach Bart some
tricks with the ball. His family would be happy, too: His girlfriend,
Brazilian supermodel Raíca de Oliveira, and his sister, Ione, often shop
and enjoy Manhattan as well.
On the other side of the fence, Ronaldo is on the mind of Red Bull CEO
Dietrich Mateschitz, who dreams of making the striker part of his plan
to be a superpower in soccer, as Red Bull already is in Formula 1 racing.
The Austrian company says Ronaldo is "just the beginning," and is
planning a $100 million marketing campaign that might even involve Franz
Beckenbauer in a management role and possibly a return to New York for
Pelé in a role to be determined, Ronaldo's assistants say.
Now to some immediate realities. Ronaldo has a new knee injury, and
won't play again until next year. He won't leave Real Madrid until at
least the end of the Spanish season, which wraps up next June. And he'll
do all he can to re-conquer his place with the team.
Then the future becomes unwritten. He has also long dreamed of playing
in England, but no top club will take a chance on him and he won't waste
time with smaller teams. After that, there is a new factor: Flamengo.
The most popular team in Brazil wants Ronaldo back in Rio de Janeiro,
and he has said he'd love to play in his hometown again.
But millions of dollars are needed for that dream. Flamengo has
contacted MSI -- the investment collective that took control of
Corinthians and is trying to buy England's West Ham (and is under
investigation for money-laundering) -- to try to raise money.
That makes the MLS picture a little clearer. As one of his family
members said recently on Brazilian TV, "Nothing like a couple of years
with some time out hanging around in New York."
Consider yourself warned, America. Ronaldo may take Manhattan, and it's
closer to happening than you think.