Italy Drools For Dribbler From Brazil

RONALDO-MANIA

Amid the amorphous mass of humanity gathered in Rome to greet Italy's newest national hero, a teenage boy struggles to slip past security. Trapped in a tangle of arms and elbows, he cries out, "Ronaldo, Ronaldo! You will save us! Say you will save us!"

He is calling for Ronaldo Luis Nazario Lima, the Brazilian soccer superstar who now knows what it's like to be the leading man of Italy's national obsession: soccer.

"It defies logic and understanding," says Antonio Dinacci, a sports consultant, of Italy's passion for the game. "Even the British, who have a real passion for soccer, are incapable of such extreme behavior, such suffering, such agonized attachment to a team and its players."

"Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo: I can't take it anymore!" says Daniela Sacchi, an exasperated Roman, after picking up yet another magazine with Ronaldo's toothy grin and gleaming shaved head on the cover.

In fact, 9 out of 10 sports magazines on sale in Rome last week had - guess who - on the cover.

And last Thursday, all three national papers ran full-page stories on Ronaldo: Ronaldo's romance with a Brazilian model, Ronaldo's sullen performance in the Brazilian national team last week ("His heart is already in Italy," one paper intoned), and Ronaldo's new Web site (www.dada.it.ronaldinho).

Parents may be experiencing the harshest effect of the Ronaldo-mania: the novel tendency among children to "show up at the dinner table with their heads shaved," as one mother complained on national TV after her six-year-old son turned himself into a little bald-headed Ronaldo.

Since his transfer this summer from Barcelona in the Spanish league to Internazionale of Milan, Ronaldo's life has become public domain. Indeed, a poll taken by a private TV station in four cities across Italy shows that 3 of 4 Italians are not only aware of who Ronaldo is but know his nationality, his age, his girlfriend's name, and the price Inter agreed to pay for him ($27 million, the largest sum in the history of soccer).

But there's more. One third of those polled were able to explain the complexities of the Barcelona-Internazionale legal dispute. They know roughly how many goals Ronaldo scored last season with Barcelona.

Lastly, 1 out of 4 Italians could describe in detail the player's more memorable sweeps across the pitch and knew what size shoe he wears.

It seems Italy's love for Ronaldo has spun entirely out of control - transcending regional loyalties to clubs, infecting northerners and southerners, old and young alike.

The Italians' prodigious appetite for soccer accounts for some of the frenzy. And some experts say Ronaldo, widely considered the best player in the game today, could affect the sport as only two other players have in the past: Ronaldo's countryman Pel and Argentina's Diego Maradona. Yet, others pointed to deeper reasons for Italy's obsession.

"We are constantly being ridiculed for our inefficiency and general unreliability," says Dinacci. "We're essentially begging the Germans and the French to let us squeeze into the European Monetary Union. Well, all that changes when it comes to soccer. When the big guys in Italian soccer move, people pay attention. We wanted Ronaldo; we got him."

He didn't come easy. Ronaldo made his imperial Italian entrance surrounded by a tempest. The player's former club, Barcelona, fought desperately to prevent the young star from going, even after his lawyers bought out his contract for an estimated $14 million. (The Spanish team is demanding another $16 million. FIFA, soccer's governing body, will rule on the matter Sept. 4.)

The ability to acquire a star of Ronaldo's magnitude is purely financial, and Italian soccer is in no want of cash. In fact, clubs in Europe and South America have complained that Italy is consolidating a monopoly over young, talented players by outbidding the competition.

THE prosperous - even opulent - state of Italian soccer is largely a result of the sport's popularity.

In a country where 20 out of 58 million people tuned in for the World Cup final against Brazil in 1994, a team of Inter's caliber can safely expect to earn slightly more than $230 million in the next nine years, with $75 million coming directly from fans expected to invest in season passes.

Hugely popular state-sanctioned betting on match results also provides an extra $2 billion yearly. The sum is divvied up between the Italian Olympic Committee and soccer clubs in Italy's top division, Serie A.

But according to Simone Bemporad, a long-time soccer follower, the enthusiasm Ronaldo has generated taps into another, uniquely Italian characteristic: the irrational belief in il salvatore della patria - the homeland's savior.

"In their infinite, ancient cynicism, Italians still love the notion of the hero who will rise from obscurity to soothe the woes of the entire country," says Mr. Bemporad. "It's appalling, but if such a thing as a national hero exists in Italy right now, it's a 20-year-old Brazilian."

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