And thus, with a goofy smile and a wistful glance, he was gone. Ronaldo Fenômeno enjoyed one last moment in the spotlight last night, making a 15 minute cameo appearance for the seleção in the match against Romania. Of more note, perhaps, was the emotional farewell that followed; the veteran, joined by his two sons, walked the entire perimeter of the Pacaembu, waving goodbye to his adoring public. When he finally descended back into the dressing room, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
The evening brought back all of the sadness of Ronaldo's retirement, announced just a few months ago. Rather than restating my reaction to that news here, allow me to point you in the direction of a piece I wrote at the time, paying tribute to the best striker of his generation. He will be sorely missed.
What, though, of the match itself? Mano Menezes shuffled his pack, maintaining only five of those who started against Holland at the weekend. Grêmio 'keeper Victor earnt a start in goal, whilst Maicon and David Luiz came into the back line at the expense of Daniel Alves and Thiago Silva. The midfield also underwent a complete overhaul; Tottenham Hotspur player Sandro acted as the anchor, with Elias and Jádson either side of him.
Brazil started brightly, evidently keen to put Saturday's underwhelming performance behind them. Lúcio tested Ciprian Tătăruşanu early on, before Neymar blazed over at the end of a flowing move. Robinho also squandered a great chance, hooking into the side netting after a wonderful run from Maicon. The early pressure finally paid off, however, as Fred gave Brazil a 21st minute lead. Running onto a pass from Jádson (who produced his best performance yet in the yellow jersey), Neymar rounded the goalkeeper before presenting the Fluminense striker with the easiest of opportunities. Fred proceeded to celebrate with Ronaldo's trademark 'finger-wagging' routine, and was soon withdrawn to allow O Fenômeno himself some game time.
Ronaldo actually could have scored a couple of goals; he had one effort saved from point blank range, and blazed over when well-placed a few minutes later. His reaction to that latter miss reminded everyone present that nobody does a rueful smile quite as well as the 34-year-old. Those chances were to be the last of his distinguished playing days; he gave a short speech at halftime, and was replaced by Nilmar for the second period. Predictably, some of the spark left the game; Brazil came close on a few more occasions, but couldn't manage another goal.
Despite the scoreline and the modest opposition, this was a far more convincing performance from Brazil. Robinho participated far more in attack, and Jádson added some much-needed guile in the centre of the park. It was also pleasing to see Maicon provide a reminder of his considerable ability. The match itself, however, was always going to be the secondary attraction. Last night belonged, like so many before it, to Ronaldo; a man who, even in retirement, continues to bewitch the football world. Adeus, Fenômeno, and thanks for the memories!
(Photo credits; (1) Nacho Doce, (2) Ari Ferreira.)