It was as recent as June 2011 that Ronaldo bid farewell to the Selecao with a final 15-minute cameo during a friendly with Romania in Sao Paulo.
The Brazilian was a far cry from his O Fenomeno peak by that point, with his last appearance for the national team coming five years previous.
But in a near-unprecedented move, the Brazilian Football Confederation granted Ronaldo one final farewell appearance ahead of his retirement and the end of a glittering 18-year career often defined by his exploits in the yellow jersey of Brazil.
One of the game’s very best strikers, a series of serious knee injuries had robbed Ronaldo of some of his peak years at club level. While setbacks of this kind convinced contemporaries like Alan Shearer to hang up their international boots in order to prioritise their club football, Ronaldo’s commitment to the Selecao remained unwavering.
Only Pele scored more international goals for Brazil than Ronaldo, but O Fenomeno outstripped his legendary predecessor when it came to World Cups, with his tally of 15 across four tournaments making him Brazil’s greatest marksman in the one competition that mattered more than most.
In all, Ronaldo scored 67 goals in 104 matches for Brazil. No No.9 has done more for Brazil and the task of replacing him hasn’t just proven difficult, it’s proven nearly impossible.
Here’s a ranking of the good, the bad and the ugly of Brazil No.9s in the years since Ronaldo.
13. Bruno Henrique – 2 caps, 0 goals
A fresh addition to the Ronaldo replacement ranks, Bruno Henrique’s time as Selecao No.9 has amounted to a paltry 16 minutes across two friendlies in 2019, but he’s done incredibly well to get this far.
The 28-year-old attacker first hit the big time in 2016, following a big-money move to Wolfsburg. But things didn’t work out for the pacy forward, who endured 14 goalless appearances in Germany before returning to Brazil.
An impressive return of 23 goals in 48 games with most recent club Flamengo saw him earn an international call-up by Tite for a couple of pre-Copa America friendlies. He didn’t make the final squad, but Henrique remains one to file under “TBD”.
Last night, Bruno Henrique showed everybody why he has been called up to the Brazil squad
His two goals handed Flamengo control of their #Libertadores quarter final vs. Internacional
— Yellow & Green Football (@football_yellow) August 22, 2019
12. Jonas – 12 caps, 3 goals
Jonas’s Brazil career stands in stark contrast to his time with Benfica. The former Gremio man moved to Benfica on a free transfer in 2014 following a steady if unspectacular stint in Spain with Valencia.
He proceeded to conquer all before him in Portugal, scoring 137 goals in 183 before hanging up his boots with four Primeira Liga titles, two Taca de Ligas and a Taca de Portugal to his name.
It was an entirely different story for Brazil. Tested out at No.9 on a few occasions over the years, Jonas scored in friendlies against Egypt and Panama but never convinced.
He got his one and only chance at glory in 2016, when an injury to first-choice Leandro Damiao saw him selected as Brazil’s main striker for the Copa América Centenario.
Jonas flopped at the tournament, failing to get off the mark with Brazil exiting the tournament in embarrassing fashion at the group stage. He never played for the Selecao again.
11. Diego Souza – 7 caps, 2 goals
Deployed as an attacking midfielder for much of his career, Souza deserves some modicum of praise for the fact he had the No.9 jersey thrust upon him by Tite following an injury to Gabriel Jesus.
The much-travelled attacker had previously shown a decent eye for goal with Brazil, scoring twice in a 4-0 win over Australia. But Tite’s experiment with Souza in the main striker role proved short-lived – one full game and a couple of substitute cameos to be precise.
A former Brazil youth star, Souza failed to make a single major tournament squad for the senior side.
10. Diego Tardelli – 14 caps, 3 goals
Much like Ronaldo, Diego Tardelli’s first foray into European football came in Holland with PSV Eindhoven. But while O Fenomeno dazzled, the Dutch club ditched Tardelli, who returned to Brazil after just three goals in 13 Eredivisie games.
Tardelli spent the large bulk of his career back in his homeland, starring with Atletico Mineiro over two spells with money-spinning stints at Anzhi Makhachkala and Al Gharafa sandwiched in between.
Ignored by Luis Felipe Scolari during his second stint in charge, he enjoyed something of an Indian summer for the national team under Dunga. Recalled for the 2014 Superclásico de las Américas against Argentina, Tardelli scored both goals in a 2-0 win, paving the way for a call-up as Brazil’s No.9 for the 2015 Copa America.
But he failed to find the back of the net and, despite earning further calls-ups, hasn’t featured for Brazil since that tournament.
Diego Tardelli, Brazil’s new star? The Selecao attacker was hailed for his brace vs Argentina: http://t.co/mLKZKgpvGu pic.twitter.com/gDir8QUWBk
— LiveSoccerTV.com (@LiveSoccerTV) October 12, 2014
9. Leandro Damiao – 17 caps 3 goals
Perennially linked with Tottenham back in the day, Damiao was the great bright hope of Brazilian football, having first broken through at Internacional in 2009, playing a key role in their 2010 Copa Libertadores success and earning praise from Ronaldo along with a Brazil call-up in the process.
By 2012 he was following in the footsteps of Romario and Bebeto by finishing top scorer as Brazil’s no.9 at the London Olympic Games. The Selecao may have ultimately lost out to Mexico in the final but Damiao seemed destined for bigger things.
Then it all came crashing down. Within a year Damiao has seen a dream move to Napoli collapse with his form on the pitch collapsing soon after. A move to Santos failed to reignite his career for club and country, prompting a slide into footballing obscurity. He was last seen scoring against Chelsea for J-League outfit Kawasaki Frontale.
READ: 14 never-ending transfer sagas: Damiao to Spurs, Benzema to Arsenal & more
8. Fred – 39 caps, 18 goals
Though Fred’s time with Brazil will forever be tainted by memories of his lacklustre efforts at the 2014 World Cup, the goal poacher was a far more potent presence than that tournament suggested.
Still recovering from injury at the time, the fact is that fans had seen a better reflection of Fred’s talents during the 2013 Confederations Cup. A solid goalscorer during his time with Lyon, Fred had finished the World Cup warm-up tournament as the joint-top scorer.
Yet unlike Ronaldo, when it came time to deliver on the biggest stage, with the weight of a watching Brazilian public on his shoulders, Fred crumbled.
All told, he managed just five shots on target and one goal in six appearances for the Selecao at the 2014 World Cup and found himself the target of ridicule from his own fans.
Subbed off with 20 minutes remaining of Brazil’s 7-1 humbling at the hands of Germany, he retired from international duty soon after the World Cup, with his place in infamy assured.
7. Ricardo Oliveira – 16 caps, 5 goals
A steady goalscorer in Spain with Valencia, Zaragoza and, most notably, Real Betis, Oliveira first broke into the Brazil national team set-up around 2004, serving as one of several understudies to Ronaldo.
Usually deployed from the bench, there were a few highlights along the way for Oliveira, who also turned out for AC Milan as part of a nomadic career that took in spells with 10 different clubs – some more than once.
Part of the Brazil squad that emerged victorious from the 2004 Copa America minus Ronaldo, Oliveira even got on the scoresheet in a 4-0 win over Mexico in the quarter-finals and started five of Brazil’s six games at the 2005 Confederations Cup, scoring twice.
But injuries ultimately curtailed Oliveira’s impact with the Brazilian forced to sit out the 2006 World Cup, where he could well have made a difference and, later after a renaissance back in Brazil, the 2016 Copa America.
6. Vagner Love – 20 caps, 4 goals
Another well-travelled Brazilian, Love made his name in Russia with CSKA Moscow, firing the Koni to multiple domestic honours and, most notably, the 2005 UEFA Cup.
By then he had already been called up by Brazil as part of their experimental 2004 Copa America squad that ended up taking home the trophy.
Love only appeared once at that edition of the tournament but found himself very much part of Dunga’s plans two years later, featuring in the former Brazil captain’s first squad as Selecao coach in 2006 and scoring his first goal in a friendly against Wales later that year.
He staked his claim to become Brazil’s permanent new No.9 at the 2007 Copa America. Handed a starting place, he may have only scored once at the tournament but his all-round attacking play and tally of four assists proved crucial to Brazil retaining their title.
That should have signalled the start of an extended stint in Brazil’s starting line-up, but Love’s career was ultimately derailed and destabilised by a desire to return to his homeland and insistence on indulging in off-the-field antics more colourful than his signature dyed dreadlocks and beads.
READ: Where are they now? The strange Brazil team that won the 2007 Copa America
5. Alexandre Pato – 27 caps, 10 goals
Pato found success in Europe early on in his career with AC Milan, scoring close to a goal every two games for the Rossoneri in Serie A over six years from 2007 to 2013. He looked poised to lead the line for Brazil for years to come and was finally handed the chance at the 2011 Copa America.
Quick, agile and confident in front of goal, Carlo Ancelotti was among those to compare Pato to Ronaldo and such comparisons appeared justified with two fine goals in a 4-2 group stage win over Ecuador.
Yet Dunga’s cautious approach to the tournament proved costly for both Pato and the Selecao. Subbed off during a drab 0-0 draw with Paraguay in the quarter-finals, he could only watch on as Brazil contrived to miss all four of their penalties in the resulting shootout.
Dunga’s presence wasn’t Pato’s true downfall though. A constant target for the over-physical defensive approach of Serie A, Pato suffered numerous niggling recurring injuries that affected his pace, mobility and overall consistency.
They also left him pining for a return to an easier life away from the demands of the Italian game. He got his wish in the end, but it came at the cost of a career that once promised so much.
4. Gabriel Jesus – 56 caps, 19 goals
A sensation from the off for Palmeiras and Manchester City, Jesus had a record of 18 goals from 37 caps back in 2019, but that only one goal in his next 19 caps has seen him lose his place to Richarlison.
Jesus has faced adversity and bounced back before – something Ronaldo knows only too well about – with a return of eight goals in 13 games speaking volumes for his maturity after a disappointing 2018 World Cup.
His return to form culminated at the 2019 Copa America with two goals which helped Brazil finally lift another major trophy on home soil, but he is playing second fiddle now.
3. Richarlison – 38 caps, 17 goals
Initially handed the No.9 shirt only in the absence of Jesus, Richarlison marked his Brazil debut with two goals against El Salvador. Jesus soon reclaimed the shirt, but Richarlison’s scoring form continued with goals in friendlies against Cameroon, Qatar and Honduras.
His first major contribution would come in the 2019 Copa America, with a goal in the Selecao’s 3-1 over Peru in the final, with a further five goals following at the 2020 Olympics, played in 2021, that saw him finish as the competition’s top scorer.
Richarlison also scored five goals to help Brazil to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where the Tottenham forward would score twice on his finals debut, including a sensational scissor-kick, to fully justify the decision to start him ahead of Jesus and left-at-home Roberto Firmino.
He could yet climb this list…
2. Luis Fabiano – 45 caps, 28 goals
He may not have had the finesse and touch of O Fenomeno, but Luis Fabiano will be remembered fondly among Brazil fans as a striker who overcame setbacks to maximise his abilities on the biggest stage for the national side.
A prolific striker in his native Brazil with Sao Paulo, Fabiano flopped badly at Porto, scoring just three times in 22 league games. But he wasn’t about to take the easy way out and return to his homeland, instead opting to take up the offer of a move to Sevilla.
The Andalusian club has a great track record when it comes to helping Brazilians adapt to life in Europe and has made a habit of rejuvenating waifs and strays following disappointing spells elsewhere.
A two-time UEFA Cup and Copa del Rey winner with Sevilla, though Fabiano first broke into the Brazil team in the period prior to his Porto move, he became a fixture in the side thanks to his time in La Liga.
Handed the No.9 shirt by Dunga, he proved the perfect striker for the coach’s back-to-basics counter-attacking approach. Nine goals in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup set the tone for what was to come, with the gangly target man adding three in four appearances once the tournament got underway.
Perhaps it could and should have been more. Leading eventual finalists Holland 1-0 in the quarter-finals, mistakes from Julio Cesar and Felipe Melo handed the game to the Dutch, dumping Fabiano and Brazil out with much of their potential unfulfilled.
Unfairly lumped in as part of outgoing manager Dunga’s more direct, defensively-minded approach, Fabiano never made another appearance at a major tournament for Brazil. He returned to Sao Paulo in 2011 before a final payday in China.
When the dust finally settled, Fabiano’s record spoke for itself.
1. Adriano – 48 caps, 27 goals
For so long, it seemed like Brazil had life after Ronaldo sorted with Adriano ably waiting in the wings. Dubbed “The Emperor” by Inter Milan fans, Adriano was the most exciting Brazilian to emerge on the scene since, well, Ronaldo.
A decidedly different striker, Adriano was all about strength and power rather than agility and finesse, but he remained a potent goalscoring force. His finest performances for Brazil came while Ronaldo was still an active part of the Selecao’s plans.
There were the seven goals at the 2004 Copa America which saw him land the Golden Boot while Brazil took home the trophy. A year later he was at it again, landing the Golden Boot at the 2005 Confederations Cup, where he scored five goals.
But while the presence of Ronaldo seemed to spur Adriano on to great things, he would also contribute to his downfall. Eager to shoehorn the incredible array of attacking talent at his disposal into a semi-coherent team, Carlos Alberto Parreira included both Ronaldo and Adriano in a top-heavy line-up that failed to progress past the quarter-finals at the 2006 World Cup.
Adriano cut a decidedly disappointing figure, scoring twice and managing just five shots for the entire tournament. The years following that World Cup saw Adriano’s career go off the rails, with the sudden death of his father resulting in the Brazilian losing focus on the game that had made him a star.
Fitness and discipline issues followed and while Adriano’s career stretched on for another decade, it was one made up of disobedience and disappointment alongside glimpses of the player he once was.
Given chance after chance, he earned 12 more caps, scoring twice, but the Emperor of old was no more.
By Jack Beresford
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