BRAZIL

Ronaldo’s Troubled Second Period

BRAZIL
Jun 10, 2014 at 1:17 PM ET

It’s hard not to stare when he walks into the room, flashing that familiar buck-toothed smile. He’s traded in his soccer uniform for shorts and a T-shirt, but the twin surgical scars that cut jagged lines down both of his knees are a grotesque reminder of his injuries—the only obstacles that truly stood in the way of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.

Once known as the Phenomenon, Ronaldo is well past his prime. But on a recent afternoon, the scars on his legs are proof that the man sitting in the living room of his São Paulo mansion, smoking cigarettes and patting his potbelly, is indeed the national hero who became the highest-scoring player in World Cup history. “After I retired, people see a different side of me,” he says before ducking into the kitchen to sing “Happy Birthday” to his maid and grab a piece of chocolate cake. “They see I have opinions because I can’t do the talking with my feet anymore.”

Now 37, Ronaldo is more likely to been seen at the poker table or on the golf course than on the field. But the retired Hall of Famer is making some of the boldest moves of his career, parlaying soccer fame into greater fortune and political influence. Yet without the goals and the glory, critics—some of whom were once his biggest fans—aren’t taking kindly to the second period of his life.

Since hanging up his cleats four years ago, the star striker has carved out a place for himself as a successful commentator and agent. In his new role, Ronaldo is minting his image as a soccer mogul, dedicated to discovering and grooming talent, striking deals with international teams and shepherding major advertising gigs for himself and his clients. And at a time when a growing number of people have complained about the lavish cost of the World Cup, soccer’s Super Bowl, Ronaldo has also become one of Brazil’s biggest ambassadors for the sport.

The past year has been a whirlwind for the Rio de Janeiro native. Constantly on the road, Ronaldo has had little time to kick back and enjoy his posh residence in São Paulo’s tony Jardim América neighborhood, let alone dance with his soon-to-be fourth wife in his in-house disco. In early May, he toured three of Brazil’s World Cup host cities, jetted to London on private business for his football consulting firm, and found time to slip over to Kuwait to meet with sponsors.

Heading his talent agency, 9ine, Ronaldo also helps upcoming players polish their game, on and off the field. One of his star pupils is Neymar dos Santos Silva Junior, a gangly kid from the São Paulo backcountry who is a magician on grass, but a loose cannon on the pavement. After signing with Ronaldo to burnish his image, Neymar cleaned up his act and last year landed a $78 million contract with FC Barcelona.

At times, however, Ronaldo has failed to score—and even stepped out of bounds. His consulting firm spent a bundle on Leandro Damião, a promising player who many expected to sport the Phenomenon’s own No. 9 for Brazil in the World Cup, but has since flopped. And Ronaldo has appeared in so many commercials that marketing agencies are beginning to wonder if he may be overexposed. As the key game analyst for the giant Brazilian television network, TV Globo, the former Real Madrid star will be tasked with commenting on the play-by-play of the home team’s poster boy, Neymar, whose career he helped shape and who happens to be the prime breadwinner of Ronaldo’s sports agency. The Brazilian footballer denies there is any conflict of interest and says he’ll call the game as he sees it. (Like any good striker, Ronaldo knows how to feint.)

Now, however, the jeers and gossip are threatening to trump Ronaldo’s glory. The one-time idol has taken hits from protesters and government officials alike, who accuse him of being an A-league flip-flopper. After all, they say, for months Ronaldo never uttered a harsh word about the tournament and its sponsors, much less the host government during the three years he spent stumping for it. Last summer, as protestors in Brazil took to the streets by the millions to clamor for better schools and health care instead of lavish stadiums, he made his position clear: “You can’t play the World Cup in a hospital.”

Then, with the clock ticking to kickoff and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff falling in the polls, Ronaldo mysteriously pivoted, turning on the tournament he helped organize and ripping the same soccer authorities he once backed. “It’s a shame,” he told Reuters in late May, referring to the building delays and projects that will likely go unfinished. “I am embarrassed, this is my country and I love it and we shouldn’t be transmitting this image abroad.”

In a matter of months, Brazil’s soccer demigod managed to irritate both sides of the bleachers, a performance critics say amounts to a diplomatic own-goal. Even Rousseff’s longtime opponents are wary of Ronaldo’s 11th-hour criticisms. Why did it take him so long to come out and throw his weight behind the president’s main challenger, Social Democratic Party leader Aécio Neves? “I’ve been a friend of Aecio’s for 15 years, so it’s only fair,” the striker says about his decision.

Only once before had Brazil’s storied No. 9 face such scathing scrutiny. During the 1998 World Cup, hours before the final game against France, Ronaldo succumbed to mysterious convulsions at his hotel and was rushed to the hospital. The physicians released him and sped him back to the stadium, where he took the field and played despite concerns from his teammates and handlers. Brazil lost 3-0, and Ronaldo’s performance was strangely lackluster. The crushing defeat aroused considerable speculation and even prompted a Brazilian congressional probe into the striker’s meltdown.

Yet for Ronaldo, who has made difficult comebacks before, criticism is just part of the game. The first time he underwent surgery, in 1999 while playing for Inter Milan, the coaches benched him for five months. He suited up again the next year, but then reinjured the same right knee and was laid up for another 15 months. Sports physicians, fans and managers whispered that his career was done, at age 25.

After months of grueling physical therapy, he came back and helped Brazil win its fifth World Cup title in 2002. He went under the knife again in 2008 and recovered in time to play for Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, the most popular team in São Paulo. Only later, when the excruciating pain in his thighs kept him on the bench, did he hang up his cleats, at age 33.

Today Ronaldo favors wingtips, but it’s too soon to count him out of the game. For all the brouhaha about politics and professional setbacks, his scars are proof that he’ll do whatever it takes to win.