Ronaldo blistered past fellow contenders on his way to the Ballon d’Or in 2002. In the space of a year the striker continued his unstoppable rise, and despite initial injuries at Inter, stormed to the World Cup in between securing a move to Real Madrid. The Rio de Janeiro native became the first Brazilian, and the youngest ever play at the age of 21, to pick up the award in 1997, but five years later the superstar had achieved much more in gathering a cult following around the entire globe.
Inter signed Ronaldo for a then world record fee from Barcelona in 1997, and having become fully accustomed to life at San Siro, the striker should have been heading into the prime of his career at the beginning of the 2002 campaign. The former Cruzeiro man was struggling to recover from a series of injuries to both of his knees, and had been sidelined for the entire 2000-01 season. That term proved to be no different, and the 26-year-old only managed to recover in time for the World Cup having made just a handful of appearances but still mustering a respectable 12 goals in all competitions.
Ronaldo travelled to South Korea and Japan seeking revenge for a controversial series of events that lead to France defeating his side in 1998. The powerful forward did not disappoint on this occasion, and scored in every game aside for the quarter-finals against England as Cafu eventually lifted the trophy following a brace from the former PSV Eindhoven man in final against Germany. In total racking up eight strikes, and equalling fellow countryman Pele’s record for goals in the competition.
Ronaldo transferred to La Liga for the second time in his career that summer having reportedly fallen out with Inter tactician Hector Cuper, and joined his former club’s bitter rivals Real Madrid in a deal worth just under €50m. Despite not featuring until October due to injury, the faithful at Santiago Bernabeu created a sense of euphoria leading up to his debut by chanting his name in the games prior, as he joined the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and David Beckham as the first set of Galacticos at the club.
The Brazilian was in his prime as he steamrollered defences in Europe and domestically with his collective mix of brute force and blistering pace coupled with a deadly eye for goal. No team could contain him as he eventually scored 30 in 45 appearances in the 2002-03 season. In December 2002, Ronaldo was awarded the Ballon d’Or seeing off Los Blancos teammate and fellow countryman Roberto Carlos and the goalkeeper he beat twice in the World Cup final in Oliver Kahn. He also picked up the FIFA best player of the year for a record third time following a tremendous year showcasing the very best of his abilities.