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Ronaldo within touching distance of the untouchable

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Paul Wilson

The world's favourite footballer is probably Ronaldinho. The mesmerising Brazilian with the cheeky smile looks as good on the billboards as he does on the pitch and, having guided Barcelona to the top prize in Europe, he is widely expected to do the same in Germany for the perennial tournament favourite.

Ronaldinho is also challenging David Beckham as football's most famous face, although that could change in the next few weeks if England has a successful tournament. Even if Beckham or Ronaldinho get their hands on the World Cup, though, even with the blizzard of global publicity that would attract, they would still have a way to go to dislodge Pele as the ultimate World Cup player.

Yet if Ronaldo scores once in this competition he will overtake Pele as his country's leading World Cup goalscorer. Come on, you must remember Ronaldo. He is the slightly embarrassing Brazilian, an unloved World Cup legend. Just as unstoppable in his prime as Pele, and once as revered as Ronaldinho, he is now palpably out of favour with the football public.

Indifferent form

Love affairs cannot survive suspicion and Ronaldo's career since the 1998 World Cup final has been full of it. After the non-performance in the 3-0 defeat by France came the changes to his physique when playing in Italy, and his controversial transfer to Real Madrid.

As a galactico he only intermittently reached his full potential and his current indifferent form in Spain can readily be explained by his waistline.

But Carlos Alberto Parreira believes in Ronaldo, naming him early to remove doubt and banish debate, and the striker came up with the goods last time. He was a surprise winner of the Golden Boot in 2002, given that he had been almost constantly injured in the four years since Paris, but like Brazil his form picked up during the tournament and his eight goals were crucial to his team's success. They also took him level with Pele on 12 goals from 14 World Cup games.

Only two players have ever scored more goals in World Cup finals, and with a single goal Ronaldo will equal Just Fontaine's remarkable haul of 13 for France from the 1958 competition. Should Ronaldo score two goals he will equal Gerd Muller's all-time record of 14, and anything beyond that will be World Cup history.

Memorable moments

The top three World Cup moments, ever: (i) Pele dummying the Uruguay goalkeeper by running away from a through ball in the semifinals in Guadalajara in 1970. No goal resulted, but the audacity and imagination was astonishing.

(ii) Pele's pass to Carlos Alberto for the last goal in the 1970 final. There seemed no need to pass, he and Jairzinho had already opened up the Italy defence, and on the televisions we were watching, with their limited field of vision, it was not immediately clear for whom the pass was intended. But Pele knew his captain was galloping in from the right with the intention of concluding the tournament with an unnecessary yet unforgettable flourish, and so he did.

3) Pele shooting from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia in 1970. Others have since done it better Pele missed but this was another jaw-dropping moment from an era when World Cups promised and delivered the extraordinary.

At 29, Ronaldo is the same age as Pele was in 1970, and this is almost certain to be his last World Cup. The stage is set; the stats appear almost a formality.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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