Few images are as representative of Italian football in the 1990s as that of the Fenomeno Ronaldo Luis Nazario da Lima dashing past Lazio goalie Luca Marchegiani at the Parc des Princes in the all-Italian UEFA Cup Final of the 1997/98 season.
Donning an iconic horizontal striped black and blue Inter jersey, in just a few seconds Ronaldo delivered poor Marchegiani more feints that he likely received in the rest of his career, leaving him flat on his behind as he scored the final goal in Inter’s 3-0 thrashing of the Biancocelesti.
It was the climax of an age when Italian clubs run riot in Europe, and the best players in the football world regularly showcased their skills in the Serie A. Ronaldo was simply the best of the best. As pointless as it is to compare players from different football ages, there is little doubt about Ronaldo having reached almost unprecedented and unmatched peaks in terms of speed, creativity, power, and stamina.
During his very prime period, which was unfortunately cut short by a string of dramatic knee injuries and mysterious pre-World Cup Final spasms, the Fenomeno was just unstoppable. And, he played for Inter.
The Nerazzurri chairman Massimo Moratti paid no mind to expenses when it came to trying raise Inter back into the football aristocracy after a disappointing decade. As soon as Ronaldo had fired himself into the football pantheon with a phenomenal season at Barcelona that earned him the Ballon d’Or, Moratti had swooped and covered Ronaldo and the Blaugrana in gold to secure the Brazilian’s services for the following season. Back in those days, he could. Italian clubs could.
With the sensational signing of Ronaldo, Moratti’s manifest goal was to claim the Scudetto, which the Nerazzurri had not won since 1989. But things were not going according to plans, and, mostly in the wake of an overly controversial Serie A six-pointer against Juventus, it was clear that the Italian title was taking once again the road to Turin, and specifically the white-and-black side of the city.
The UEFA Cup was all that Inter had left to save a season where they were arguably the best side in Italy and likely in Europe. After a gargantuan transfer market campaign of which Ronaldo was the cherry on top, the Nerazzurri and their coach Gigi Simoni had to win something. In the previous campaign, they had come close to lifting the trophy, but lost on penalties to Schalke 04 in the Final despite the odds being in Inter’s favor.
Inter’s road to Paris was a thrilling rollercoaster, in perfect “Pazza Inter” style. The Nerazzurri went through an epic comeback in the third round as they beat Strasbourg 3-0 in the second leg after losing 0-2 in France. In the Quarter Finals, they avenged their previous season’s loss as they prevailed 2-1 on aggregate over Schalke 04 of Germany.
In the Semi Finals, they were paired against Spartak Moscow. They won both games 2-1, but it was the second leg in the Russian capital to achieve legend status as it was played on a snow-covered, worn-out turf under a freezing weather. Ronaldo scored both goals of the day, the second after gracefully dribbling past three Spartak defenders despite the terrible condition of the pitch.
The last obstacle was Lazio, in what was going to be the third all-Italian UEFA Cup Final after the 1989/90 and 1994/95 editions, and the first to be contested in a single match on neutral ground (before then, the UEFA Cup Final was played on a home / away two-leg format).
Coached by the Swedish maestro Sven Goran Eriksson, the Biancocelesti were slowly cementing themselves as a force to be reckoned with both domestically and abroad. Pavel Nedved and Roberto Mancini were the key names, while Alessandro Nesta was quickly rising as one of the best defenders in the world at just 22 years of age. He was the one expected to take care of the Fenomeno.
Lazio’s path to the Final had been much less bumpy. After all, those were the years when the Italian clubs would regularly rule the roost on European soil. In the Semi Finals, they had edged past Atletico Madrid thanks to a lone Vladimir Jugovic strike in the first leg at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. Even though Atleti could boast Christian Vieri upfront, the Lazio wall had held at the Stadio Olimpico two weeks later.
The two sides met for the final showdown at the Parc des Princes on May 6, 1998. That was just ten days after that infamous Inter vs. Juventus matchup, which Juve won 1-0 as the Nerazzurri were denied what looked like a crystal-clear penalty. Inter were furious as that loss had basically put a damper on their Scudetto ambitions.
Lazio hoped that Inter would still be feeling the effects of such a disheartening outcome to their title claims. But they were proven terribly wrong as the UEFA Cup Final quickly turned into a triumphal showcase of Ronaldo’s Inter‘s ephemeral greatness.
Five minutes into the game, Ivan Zamorano put Simoni’s side in the driving seat. Nesta had no answer to the Fenomeno’s accelerations and Ronaldo came close to scoring in the first half already. Marchegiani was saved by the crossbar, which pushed back the Brazilian’s shot from outside the box on 42 minutes.
However, Inter’s second came on the one-hour mark, and who better than future icon Javier Zanetti to put his stamp on one of Inter’s greatest European nights ever? Zanetti’s long-range screamer set the stage for Ronaldo to put the finishing touch on the routing of Lazio, which came on 75 minutes.
The Fenomeno’s dance past Marchegiani was a moment that defined a football age, perhaps the most powerful snapshot from the first part of his career (before his knee injuries) along with the famed goal that he had scored to Compostela in the previous season.
The UEFA Cup was Nerazzurra, but that would turn out to be the only trophy the Fenomeno won at Inter. Maybe it was just meant to be like that. Ronaldo’s age at Inter was short, tormented, and fragmented. Still, many would argue that Inter never looked that good, not even in the days of José Mourinho and the Triplete.
For a few glorious months, the Inter fans could keep their eyes open and didn’t have to dream. This was for real. The best footballer in the world is playing for Inter. And, he is absolutely rocking it.
May 6, 1998 – UEFA Cup 1997/98 Final
LAZIO – INTER 0-3
SCORERS: 4′ Zamorano, 60’ Zanetti, 70’ Ronaldo
|LAZIO (4-4-2): Marchegiani; Grandoni (55’ Gottardi), Nesta, Negro, Favalli; Fuser, Venturin (49’ Almeyda), Jugovic, Nedved; Casiraghi, Mancini (Ballotta, Lopez, Marcolin, Rambaudi) Coach: Eriksson
|INTER (4-4-2): Pagliuca; Fresi; Colonnese, West, Zanetti; Winter (69′ Cauet), Zé Elias, Simeone; Djorkaeff (69′ Moriero); Ronaldo, Zamorano (74′ Sartor) (Mazzantini, Galante, Recoba, Kanu) Coach: Simoni
REFEREE: Mr. Lopez Nieto (Spain)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Negro, Jugovic (L), Fresi, Zanetti, Ronaldo (I); Red Cards: Almeyda (L), West (I)