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World Cup qualifiers lift Ronaldo's spirits

RIO DE JANEIRO, MARCH 24. Days ago, a furious Ronaldo threw a plastic water bottle at jeering fans who yelled racist insults at him and his mother. Today, the Real Madrid striker is all smiles.

What a difference a homecoming makes.

Workouts and wind sprints started his day on Wednesday, as Ronaldo prepared for the World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Uruguay. His big toothy grin was a reassuring sign that the tension of Real Madrid was temporarily forgotten.

``He showed up eager, happy and very motivated,'' coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said after the team arrived on Monday in Teresopolis, near Rio. ``Ronaldo is a player who loves challenges, and I'm sure he'll be the decisive player he always was.''

Parreira knows the 27-year-old striker well. He recognised Ronaldo's potential a decade ago, when he selected the teenager for the Brazilian team that won a record fourth World Cup title in 1994 in the United States.

Ronaldo went on to a career of glories on PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Internazionale — but nearly saw it all end prematurely. A severe knee injury required two operations and sidelined him for months between 1999 and 2001.

When few expected he would return, Ronaldo came back to lead Brazil to its fifth World Cup title in 2002. He was the tournament's top scorer with eight goals, including both in the 2-0 final over Germany.

He hasn't slowed down in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Ronaldo leads all scorers with nine goals, and Parreira expects more in this month's matches against Peru and Uruguay.

``He'll be there, with brilliant play,'' Parreira told Pele's website, www.pele.net.

It's very different in Spain, where Real Madrid trails Barcelona in the Spanish league and was knocked out of the European Champions League by the quarterfinals. On Sunday, fans shouted racist insults that brought Ronaldo to the boiling point.

In Brazil, however, Ronaldo is a hero — even to his own teammates.

``In my opinion, Ronaldo is still the best in the world,'' FIFA Player of the Year Ronaldinho said in an interview with the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. ``His team isn't playing great, but I want to get him the ball to help him.''

Team captain Cafu added: ``We'll always be with Ronaldo, whatever happens.''

Ronaldo may have a guaranteed spot in the line-up, but the squad could have a new look when it faces Peru on Sunday in the central Brazilian city of Goiania.

Parreira is tinkering with a new, more aggressive line-up with Juninho Pernambucano, Ze Roberto and Kaka in the midfield, joining World Cup veterans Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.

That formation would give Brazil more firepower against Peru and Uruguay, and a better chance to regain first place in the South American qualifying standings. Brazil is in second with 20 points, two behind Argentina.Some players may be even more aggressive — adding Santos youngster Robinho to the front line and giving Brazil a three-pronged attack.

``He's a super player,'' AC Milan's Kaka said in an interview with Pele's website. ``It's great to watch Robinho grow, on and off the field.''

``Robinho is evolving, month by month,'' added Ronaldinho.

— AP

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