In Saitama, during the summer of 2002, a busload of Japanese commuters facing the tiring last leg of their journey home found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by a gang of exuberant Brazilians who jumped aboard armed with ukeleles, percussion and an outpouring of joyous song. The centerpiece of this bouncing crew was a huge cheerful man in home-made drag costume – his spectacularly garish makeup was smudged in all the elated excitement, his wig askew, his fake cleavage hoiked at a peculiar angle. He was dressed as “Ronaldo’s nurse”. He had scrawled the words over his outfit in case anybody needed clarification about the nature of his dressing-up. Ronaldo’s nurse explained that he felt obliged to ensure the nation’s great hope would be just fine – anything to bring luck and protection to a mesmerizing yet vulnerable talent was worth trying.
The bus made its raucous way back into town at the end of Brazil’s victorious World Cup semi-final against Turkey. Ronaldo had been the match-winner, a dominant force throughout the game, and the final whistle inspired fans behind the goal to hoist huge white letters to spell out his name Hollywood-style. This was a sentimental storyline that demanded the works. To take Brazil into the final, to grab another shot at that most special of games, to give himself and his country the chance to make some kind of peace after the shattering dramas four years previously, meant a great deal. “The nightmare is over,” Ronaldo said. Well, nearly. Just one more hurdle was required for the full catharsis.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, the Brazilian nicknamed “Fenomeno”, had a date with World Cup destiny and the story, scripted 15 years ago on Friday, is worth retelling as it remains one of football’s most beautiful tales of redemption.
It concerns a player who took our breath away from the moment he appeared in Europe, turning up at PSV Eindhoven at the age of 17 on the advice of Romário, as a cheerful bucktoothed boy with supernatural ability. The way he combined powerhouse athleticism with a poetic touch made for an awesome sight. In the 1990s, in his physical pomp, in his free-flowing prime, there was nothing remotely like him.
Ronaldo was selected in Brazil’s squad for the 1994 World Cup at the age of 17. By then he had scored 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro but he watched and learned rather than played as his compatriots won the tournament. By the time the next tournament came along in 1998 his reputation had extended to the point of fully formed marvel. A happening. A thing of wonder. It was only natural that great things were expected of him at the World Cup in France, aged 21 and anointed as Brazil’s golden boy.
His trajectory twisted on the day of the final as his name became synonymous with one of the most mysterious chapters in the competition’s history. Preparations to play the host nation in Paris became panicked when, a few hours before the game at the Stade de France, Ronaldo suffered an unexplained seizure. Whether it was stress, illness or something else nobody knew. He was taken out of the lineup and sent to hospital for tests. Curiously, he was later passed fit and reinstated on to the team sheet. He drifted through the game in a daze. His team-mates, party to this traumatic and confusing situation unfolding through the day, underperformed. Brazil were soundly beaten by France, enduring what was at the time their heaviest World Cup defeat.
As if four years of questions, conspiracy theories, inquiries and doubts were not enough, Ronaldo went on to rupture the cruciate ligament in his right knee before the next World Cup. He missed the qualification campaign as he rehabilitated. That explains why Ronaldo’s nurse on the bus in Saitama felt such a strong sense of duty to send protective vibes. Ronaldo’s capacity to return to peak form, and to deal with the attention, remained delicate subjects. Slightly heavier than before, with a monkish haircut, and carrying all that baggage and attention, he set about his business racking up goals.
On the eve of the final, Ronaldo and his attacking accomplices, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, warmed up in the Yokohama International Stadium by merrily trying to out-wizard each other in the Japanese drizzle.
The three Rs, as they were known, had all had their moment in the spotlight at some point of the 2002 World Cup. Rivaldo courted controversy when he faked injury in Brazil’s opening game against Turkey (he was fined £1,000 for rolling on the ground clutching his face when a ball had been kicked against his hand). Ronaldinho had turned on the style to score one of the goals of the tournament from distance against David Seaman. But all eyes were trained on Ronaldo going into the final against Germany. He claimed to be feeling very calm. “Everyone keeps on reminding me of 1998 but I don’t know why,” he said. “I keep on forgetting it and have no problem with it. I am just finding tranquillity to play a good game, and to bring the title to Brazil.”
Laurent Blanc was a former team-mate of Ronaldo’s at Barcelona and Inter and he had a better idea than most about how it feels to be forlorn on World Cup final day. He missed France’s 1998 win over Brazil through an unjust suspension. Four years later he was in Japan rooting for a boy to turn around his own World Cup trauma. “He left us on the day of the last final when he was not himself, and seeing him in such a negative spiral was scary,” Blanc said. “He’s an adorable guy. He’s like a big child – at Barcelona we used to call him ‘Baby’. I’ve seen him in his best period of glory when the things he could do were supernatural. Then I saw him destroyed by injury. Seeing that boy smiling again with joy is a great moment for people who love football.”
The final pitched Brazil against Germany. It was an odd quirk that the two most successful nations in the competition’s history at that point (Brazil had four wins to Germany’s three) had never before met at a World Cup. Here they were, eyeball to eyeball, in the final. The thrills of the three Rs versus the defiance of Oliver Kahn, who had fetched the ball out of his net only once en route to the final.
The final would belong to one man. Ronaldo was one v one against Kahn three times in the first half but found no way through. Momentum swung in the second half with a pair of clinical finishes to take his tournament total to eight. With that came the golden boot, the World Cup trophy, and deliverance. At the end of it all the tears flowed.
“My happiness and my emotion are so great that it’s difficult to understand,” he said. “I’ve said before that my big victory was to play football again, to run again and to score goals again. More than anything it’s a victory for the group. The whole team ran and battled and helped each other. No individual conquest can beat what the group achieved.”
The goodwill of everyone – from Ronaldo’s Nurse to the French surgeon, Gérard Saillant, who operated twice on the player’s damaged knee and watched from the stadium as his patient’s guest – was rewarded. “This gives hope to everyone who is injured,” Saillant said, “even those who aren’t sportsmen, to see that by fighting you can make it. I am very moved.”
It had been an intriguing World Cup for many reasons, the most obvious being that the tournament was taken to a part of the planet where football was less established. Even if the 1994 edition in the US was relatively new territory, the first real break from traditional footballing nations, Asia was seen as a bold move, also providing joint hosts for the first time. South Korea relished the experience and made it all the way to the semi-finals, an unprecedented success for the region which made football into a national craze overnight. Even their group matches were watched on giant screens by up to three million people in the streets of Seoul.
South Korea bumped some major names out of the tournament. They beat Portugal, then Italy and Spain amid crazed accusations of refereeing peculiarities. Favorites dropped like flies – defending champions France were humiliated in the group stage and Argentina made an early departure. England did the usual. The Republic of Ireland became embroiled in the notorious battle of Saipan, with the row between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy prompting the captain’s premature return home, but the remains of the squad relished the competition. Turkey were a surprise package finishing third. But it was the story of Ronaldo’s renaissance that shone brightest.
Numerous great players have never won a World Cup. Ronaldo was in the squad for three consecutive finals but had to bide his time to make the moment his own.
One year before the next World Cup in Russia, his modern namesake, Cristiano, knows he will not have many more opportunities to land the one momentous medal that has eluded him. Right now he is in an extraordinary phase of his career even by the exceptional standards he has made routine.
The best things do not always come to those who wait but for the Brazilian Ronaldo, the original and some might argue the greater, it was worth waiting for.