Yes, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, it’s hard to believe, but there was indeed a Ronaldo before the current Ronaldo. His full name is Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima and he was a gem of a football player. As pure a center-forward as one will ever find, watching Ronaldo play truly was poetry in motion. Though he achieved success at every level of football, his days at Inter, where he was the chosen one, the man to lead Inter back to Serie A and European glory, was cut incredibly short by a series of ill-timed injuries. He is perhaps the greatest “what if” in Inter history, especially when one considers what he achieved with Real Madrid after leaving the San Siro. This is the story of the original, and best Ronaldo, and his time with the Nerazzurri.

Ronaldo is a two-time Ballon d’Or winner, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year award recipient, UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, winner of the 1998 European Golden Boot, and World Cup champion. Most of these achievements, however, were attained while playing for Barcelona and Real Madrid, and not while at Inter, the club where he spent what should have been the five most productive years of his career.

The funny thing is, it all started so unbelievably well for Ronaldo at Inter. The Brazilian’s 1997-98 debut season at the club was one for the history books. He won his first of two Ballon d’Or awards, was named the FIFA Footballer of the Year, and scored 25 goals in 32 league appearances. He also secured the continental Golden Boot award, scoring 34 goals across all competitions. Ronaldo’s individual brilliance also helped Inter win the 1998 UEFA Cup. The Nerazzurri seemed primed to dominate Europe for years to come.

There is a funny thing about life and football. Just when you think you have either completely figured out, both can sucker punch you out of nowhere and it’s back to square one. This is where great improvisation skills come in handy. Having a solid plan b, c, or d is absolutely critical to succeed in anything, but most certainly in the game of football. Just as Inter seemed destined to win their first Scudetto in a decade, disaster struck.

Ronaldo is perhaps the greatest example of the perfect combination of pace, technical skill, and power that the game has ever seen. He could be graceful, relentless, and lightning quick all within the same sequence. How does one neutralize such an opponent? Simply put, you don’t. Only injuries can ground such an elite talent.

Inter were Serie A runners-up and the reigning UEFA Cup champions as the 1998-99 campaign got underway. Ronaldo missed seven of the Nerazzuri’s first eleven games in the fall of 1998 as Inter were already solidly in the mid-table of the league by the time Ronaldo played his first stretch of games without an absence. The team recovered to climb into the top four only to see the Brazilian star miss eight of the next nine games. Inter managed only two wins in that time, officially ending their dreams of domestic or European glory.

The 1999-00 campaign began with much of the same enthusiasm as the year prior. Inter were top of the table in the Serie A for four of the first ten weeks of the season. Any hope they had of lifting the Scudetto as the first Italian champions of the new millennium ended in late November, 1999. Ronaldo suffered the first in a series of knee injuries that would rob him and Inter of accomplishing their short and long-term goals. This particular injury would not only cost him the remainder of that season, but, the entire 2000-01 campaign as well. The realization had begun to creep into the minds of many Nerazzurri faithful, that this player would in fact not be the savior of their beloved club.

When Ronaldo came to Inter he was the most expensive transfer in the world. Inter doubled down on that and broke the transfer record again by acquiring Christian Vieri in 1999 as a security policy for their often-injured Brazilian striker. The thought at the time was that Vieri and Ronaldo, the two costliest center-forwards in the game, would shoot Inter to multiple trophies and the team would not suffer a drop in form should one or the other be unable to play.

Ronaldo’s first minutes back in a Nerazzurri shirt after the horrific knee injury that had robbed him of nearly two years of his career came on match day ten of the 2001-02 campaign. Inter were right in the mix of the title race as Ronaldo made his return. He played for much of the next two months, helping Inter climb to first place in the league table. Fortune quickly turned to misfortune though, as Ronaldo would miss the next three months after suffering another serious injury.

Unlike in the previous campaign, Inter were able to hold their position as Italy’s top team through the three months without Ronaldo’s services. This was in in large part due to the efforts of the aforementioned Christian Vieri, aka, the insurance policy. Ronaldo made his return to the team with four games left in the season. Inter were at long last a lock to win the Scudetto.

Ronaldo scored four goals in three appearances for Inter leading up to the Serie A’s final match day of the 2001-02 season. The only thing separating Inter from the glory days of Giovanni Trapattoni’s 1989 Inter squad was a win against Lazio. A victory at the Stadio Olimpico would see black and blue once again become the colors of royalty in Italian football.

As fate would have it, Inter would lose to the Biancoceleste 4-2, and with it, their title hopes. The team dropped from first to third in the final league table as a result of the loss. The game still ranks as one of the most heartbreaking defeats in the club’s history. Sadly, this game would also mark the end of Ronaldo’s career at Inter as he departed for Real Madrid that summer.

Ronaldo’s tenure at Inter still ranks as one of the biggest disappointments from an individual player perspective, in the history of the sport. It is because of what followed, the success he achieved post-Inter, that makes it all the more painful for many Interisti. He won the World Cup, earned another Ballon d’Or, and enjoyed both individual as well as sustained team success after joining Los Blancos. His accomplishments at Inter pale in comparison to those which he achieved while at Real Madrid.

To hear other’s speak of Ronaldo it makes one forget about the kid from Portugal who burst onto the scene with the same namesake only a few years later. Lionel Messi is on record stating that: “Ronaldo is the best striker I have ever seen. He could score from nothing and could shoot the ball better than anyone in the sport.” Former Brazil teammate Ronaldinho claims that: “Ronaldo is the most complete striker there has ever been.”

You could write a whole book, much less a single article, about the many accomplishments of Ronaldo’s career as well as the admiration and respect he earned along the way through his many brilliant years on the pitch. Additionally, it must be said that Ronaldo had one of the best personalities the sport has ever seen. “He could be going to dinner at a restaurant with just himself and a teammate, and by the end of the night he may have invited 20-30 people to join them.” says former Real Madrid teammate Steve McManaman.

Ronaldo is a once-in-a-generation type of player. Today it is all about Messi and some guy from Portugal, but, for a solid decade spanning the years 1997 through 2007, it was all about one player, one name, the original Ronaldo.

Closing the door on the Inter chapter of Ronaldo’s legendary career, we can all only imagine what could have been. He remains the greatest “what if” in Nerazzurri history. To this day, he is still the most talented player to ever wear the black and blue shirt of Inter. His place in club history, however, is hard to gauge. He appeared in a minuscule 68 league games out of a possible 170 during his five years with the club. To compare, he spent the same amount of time at Real Madrid and appeared in 127 games.

As it pertains to Inter, Ronaldo’s name will never stand the test of time when comparing him to the likes of Matthäus, Picchi, Facchetti, Milito, Ibrahimovic, Mazzola, or perhaps even Icardi. Though, none of those names will likely ever be remembered as fondly as his from the neutral fan’s point of view and when considering his full body of work.

Signing Ronaldo, regardless of how things ultimately turned out, put Inter back on the world football map. When Inter played, everyone watched. When he played, there was a chance you might see something unfold on the pitch that you may never see again. He was to football what Michael Jordan was to basketball: a global icon and ambassador. Ronaldo was the best player on the pitch each time Inter played a game, regardless of who the opponents were. Only a handful of names in the sport can make that claim.

Other legends in these series:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Inter’s Own Mr. Scudetto

Walter Samuel: The Brick Wall In Inter’s Defense

Diego Milito: The Symbol Of Inter’s Treble Winning Side

Christian Vieri: Inter’s Unsung Hero

Sandro Mazzola: The Man Who Embodies The Word “Nerazzurri”

Armando Picchi : The Great Captain Of Grande Inter

Jürgen Klinsmann: The Leader Of Inter’s German Strikeforce

Dejan Stankovic: The Dragon Guarding Inter’s Midfield

Walter Zenga: The Nerazzurri Spiderman

Giacinto Facchetti – A Giant Among Men

Lothar Matthäus – The Definition Of  A Complete Player

Andreas Brehme – The German Utility Man