‘The Phenomenon’ may be back, but his return to full fitness continues to be dogged by doubts over whether he will ever be the same player again. In late January, Ronaldo strained a thigh muscle in training which put him out of action for three weeks.

His return to Brazil for treatment only fuelled speculation about his true physical condition. Ronaldo’s recent injury history is well documented. In November 1998, in a League game against Lecce, he ripped ligaments in his right knee.

He was out a year – and then suffered a similar injury the following November, again against Lecce. In April 2000 his comeback, in an Italian cup semi-final against Lazio, was wrecked when the knee collapsed again.

Yet more surgery and a delicately-planned convalescence brought Ronaldo back to the first-team squad in July this year, though it was only in November that coach Hector Cuper has dared expose Ronaldo to the full-frontal challenge of Serie A.

He scored his first comeback goal against Brescia then two more against Verona, when even rival fans applauded. Before his latest setback, he remained upbeat about his future.

WORLD SOCCER : How are you feeling?

RONALDO: I feel great, really great. Maybe it’s not wise to say so after so many problems. But it was wonderful to play again and scoring goalshas been a bonus. I have to thank my coach (Hector Cuper). He has judged everything very carefully. It was frustrating when he let me be a substitute for only a few minutes at first but it was for my own good. I know that. It’s just that I was so impatient to play as much as possible and regain all my old fitness and form. The coach has had to hold me back but it is working for the best.

Fans of not only Inter but the clubs you play have given you a great reception. Did you expect that?
Certainly not. Theperson the most excited to be playing again is me, after all! But I would like to say thank you to all the people from around the world who have written to me and sent me good luck cards. When I scored that first goal the other week, against Brescia, it was very emotional that even their supporters applauded me. That was very sporting and very kind and I appreciated it. There is room in football for such gestures – despite what critics say.

Pele said recently that he thought you have grown up as a man over the past two years. What did he mean? You have never considered yourself a playboy, have you?
No, I don’t think so. But I understand what Pele meant. People always say that problems make you stronger. That’s true in my case. Also, in the past two years I have become a father which has been a great blessing and, I suppose, has helped me think more responsibly about my lifestyle. That’s then reflected – I hope – on the pitch.

Can Internazionale win the championship this season?
Of course we can. We have a squad of great players. It’s not about one or two individuals. You can see that from the fact that we have been top of the table this season even though Christian Vieri and I have been out injured. In fact, wehave to worry about our places like every other player. That’s a great incentive for an individual and I think it then works well for the team.

It’s remarkable that Inter have not won the Serie A title since 1989. Why is that?
I only came here in 1997 – you can’t blame me for the years beforehand. Seriously, I think the Italian league is the most competitive in the world. Inter, Juventus, Milan, Roma, Lazio … they are all great clubs and they spend more money than anyone else on the greatest players. There is a very narrow line between winning the title and finishing runner-up. It can be one point, one goal, one lucky or unlucky bounce. Maybe we just haven’t had the luck. Of course, I would certainly say that I haven’t had any luck over the past two years with injuries.

Apparently the Brazil national coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, wants to select you for the friendly against Poland in February. Is that certain?
I have been told about it by my agent, because the Brazilian confederation has givenme a lot of encouragement to get fit again. I haven’t received anything formal yet – I think it’s too early. But it would be wonderful to play for Brazil again. Despite the problems in qualifying, I reallybelieve we can do very well at the World Cup. The fans in Japan will support us. Everyone knows they like Brazilian football the best. Lots of Brazilians play there in the J.League. But I have learned it’sdangerous to look too far ahead. The priority is to be fit enough to play consistently and score goals for Inter. This is my club, after all. They pay my wages and they have stood by me. I owe them and thefans so much.

What did you think, when you were convalescing, and many people said you would never return?
I never took any notice. What did people on the outside know? The truth is that I always knew it would take a lot of time and a lot of hard work. I had to get on with it. That was the reality. Now I am happy not only for the club and the fans but for our president, Massimo Moratti, in particular. He’s been very supportive – almost like another father to me. He deserves all the success the players can bring for him.

When did you feel you had turned the corner after all the pain?
On July 23, when we played a pre-season friendly against a little amateur club. I scored two goals and hit the post. That’s when I felt, at last, that I was a footballer again.

This interview appeared in the March 2002 issue of World Soccer