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Saturday, April 19, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Antlers logical destination for rehabbing Ronaldo in Japan


Whether there's truth in reports this week suggesting Ronaldo may be headed to the J. League, it is certainly a compelling story.

Andrew McKirdy

Ronaldo, three-time FIFA player of the year, scorer of the most World Cup goals ever and one of the most famous faces in soccer history, was this week linked with a loan spell at a Japanese team while he feels his way back from a serious injury suffered while playing for his club team, AC Milan.

The Nikkan Gendai tabloid reported the unnamed team could secure the services of the 31-year-old Brazilian as part of his rehabilitation, with a view to playing part of the 2009 J. League season.

On the face of it, the story seems as likely to stand up as Ronaldo without crutches.

For one thing, there is no guarantee the striker will ever play again for any team Such is the extent of his injury.

Ronaldo spent the four years between the 1998 and 2002 World Cups almost entirely on the treatment table, and his latest setback brought back a familiar battle.

"If my knee doesn't hurt me and I feel well, then I'll keep on playing," he said after his February operation. "Otherwise I'll have to take a very difficult decision. I'll just have to call it a day."

Ronaldo has since "firmly ruled out retiring" after getting over his initial despondency toward the injury, and has set his sights on a loan move to the club he supported as a boy, Flamengo.

"The idea is for (me) to play a few months in Brazil," he said. "And if everything goes well, I would then go back to Milan. I'm assuming I'll go to Flamengo."

The example of Ronaldo's good friend and fellow national team striker Adriano might give the Milan hierarchy second thoughts about sanctioning such a move.

Adriano moved to Sao Paulo on loan from Milan's city rival Inter late last year after suffering depression, drinking problems and a loss of form and fitness.

The switch was supposed to give the player known as "The Emperor" peace of mind before returning to Italy, but things have not exactly gone according to plan.

The former Brazil international was spotted with a beer can at a concert in Rio de Janeiro two days after signing with the club.

A week later he was involved in a car accident.

In February he arrived late for training before threatening a cameraman and leaving early.

Adriano has since gotten his act together enough for talk of a recall to the national team, but Milan would be forgiven for choosing the J. League as a safe option for Ronaldo.

For one thing, Japan would offer far less temptation than Brazil, and the action on the pitch would be more forgiving, too.

Brazilian soccer is a brutal world, far from the happy-go-lucky carnival of skills and tricks of popular mythology.

Teams pack their midfields with ruthless hitmen, players who dribble are threatened with broken legs, and games routinely descend into on-field violence.

In contrast, the J. League is a safe haven where Milan could wrap Ronaldo in cotton wool while he gets enough games under his belt to return to the more demanding environment of Serie A.

But which Japanese team is reportedly considering having him remains unclear.

A Kanto-area club was all Gendai's story specified, giving few clues as to who might be willing to take the not-inconsiderable chance on the Brazilian.

The obvious choice is Urawa Reds, Japan's biggest and most media-savvy team. But Reds have enough egos in the dressing room, and player power has already cost one manager his job this season.

Besides, Urawa has enough on its hands trying to assimilate star signing Naohiro Takahara into the starting lineup.

Yokohama F. Marinos are a big name in need of resuscitation, and although a top-class striker would help fill Nissan Stadium, money is another matter.

The same goes for FC Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy, leaving champions Kashima Antlers as the only viable option.

The club has extremely strong ties with Brazil, and in Oswaldo Oliveira, a manager easygoing enough to cope with the demands of a player accustomed to the best, yet shrewd enough to integrate a legend into his squad.

Whether or not Japan sees Ronaldo prepare for the final chapter of his career on these shores remains to be seen, but if it does, Kashima's years of hard work establishing links with Brazil may stand to pay dividends.



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