• 16 Mar - 22 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
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As the World Cup arrived in 1998, Ronaldo – a non-playing member of Brazil’s victorious team when taken as a 17-year-old to the 1994 finals in the United States – was the finest footballer on the planet. Major European teams had already twice broken the world record transfer fee to sign Ronaldo, who the previous year had become the youngest ever recipient of the Ballon d’Or.
At just 21, an age in which ordinary players are often finding their feet in football, the watching world had their eyes fixated on Brazil’s talisman. The tournament began in expected fashion with Ronaldo the star turn in Mario Zagallo’s exciting side. He scored four goals, including the opener in the last four win over Holland, as Brazil reached a second successive final.
“He was a constant danger,” remembers former Brazil team-mate Savio. “A player with a lot of talent, a lot of capacity, a lot of resources in the field and – history tells us all – the best nine in football history. Phenomenal!”

On the day of the final of France 98’, Ronaldo woke from his sleep after the team lunch to be told he’d had a seizure, been unconscious for two minutes and would not play that evening. Cafu was one of the first to his hotel room after the convulsions. “We were very worried because he was one of the key players of the team. He didn’t travel with us on the bus, he went to the hospital and then came directly to the stadium.”
Ronaldo convinced the medical team to do fitness tests but it was not until shortly before kick-off head coach Mario Zagallo was persuaded the forward was fine to start. In the home dressing room, Lilian Thuram and his France team-mates were convinced it was a ploy. “We thought ‘no way, Ronaldo is playing, they are just making this up to try and fool us’,” the defender remembers.
“In games like this, small margins and how a player is feeling can make a difference. As the hosts steamrolled past the A selecào 3-0, much to the disbelief of the on-lookers and millions of Brazilian fans across the globe, courtesy of another up and coming star goes by the name Zinedine Zidane. The Les Blues talisman scored a brace to secure the then maiden world cup trophy for his country.
Who knows, if Ronaldo had been at 100% of his abilities and feeling well, maybe Brazil would have won? Little did Ronaldo know things would get worse before they got better.

Brazil, now under the management of Luiz Felipe Scolari, gambled on the fitness of Ronaldo after being sidelined for two years leading up to the world cup. It was a decision that proved vindicated. Despite reaching back-to-back finals Brazil were not among the lead favourites for the tournament, but began their campaign with a win over Turkey in Korea.
Confidence began to ooze through the 25-year-old and moments later he was the youthful Ronaldo bursting into the world’s consciousness again, bumping off one defender, bamboozling another with a trademark step over and then forcing Rustu to save. Rivaldo’s late penalty completed the turnaround. Brazil were back in business.
As would-be contenders in France and Argentina faltered, Brazil handled the heat and humidity of Far East Asia in fine fashion. Ronaldo’s run continued with a brace as Costa Rica were hit for five, taking O Fenômeno to four goals from three games and ensuring Brazil progressed from the group with a perfect record.
Brazil’s success had been built on a formidable forward line and whilst Ronaldo’s return had taken the headlines, the performances of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho saw the trio of South American stars dubbed ‘the three Rs’, each enjoying memorable moments across the course of the campaign. The former duo were on the scoresheet as Brazil beat Belgium in the round of 16, with Ronaldo scoring the second to set up a quarter-final date with England.
The last eight game in Shizuoka was the one fixture Ronaldo failed to score in, though Brazil survived falling behind to an early Michael Owen goal – and Ronaldinho’s red card – to progress. The dismissed Ronaldinho had earlier scored the winner with a speculative free-kick from distance, catching David Seaman flat-footed after Rivaldo had levelled on the stroke of half-time.

Scolari’s side met Turkey in the semi-final in a rematch of their tournament opener, the clash containing an element of needle following previous events. Ronaldo dominated the headlines ahead of the clash, after sporting a bizarre haircut. However, his decision to shave his entire head, but for an odd semi-circle fringe, was part of a greater plan.
“I had an injury in my leg and everybody was talking about that,” Ronaldo said. “I decided to cut my hair and leave the small thing there. I come to training and everybody saw me with bad hair. Everybody was talking about the hair and forgot about the injury. I could stay more calm and relaxed and focused on my training. I’m not proud about the hair itself because it was pretty strange. But it was a good way to change the subject.”
Turkey – who had emerged as a surprise package to reach the tournament’s last four – again proved awkward opposition, with the game decided by a moment of magic from Brazil’s number nine. Picking up possession in the left channel, he manoeuvred around an opposition challenge before bearing down on goal. Red shirts flocked around the tournament’s leading scorer, who improvised to prod a toe-poked finish under the dive of the deceived Rustu Recber.
The toe-poke is not a universally loved technique, but it is an execution honed from futsal and one revered in Brazil. Romario was perhaps the greatest exponent of the finish and will no doubt have watched on with joy as his former teammate and goal-scoring heir booked Brazil’s place in a third straight final.

Ronaldo’s date with destiny was set: June 30, 2002, International Stadium Yokohama. Germany were the opponents, an unfancied Die Mannschaft side having reached the final on the back of the individual brilliance of Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack.
Remarkably, it was a seventh final for each team but a first meeting between them in a World Cup in the tournament’s 72-year history. Kahn proved a formidable obstacle in the German goal and across the opening exchanges in Japan frustrated Ronaldo and company. Three times the forward found himself in on goal, only to be denied. He would, however, not be denied for long.
Two second-half finishes, the first coming after Ronaldo pounced on an uncharacteristic error from Kahn, crowned Brazil world champions for a fifth time. “Thankfully I was able to score twice to secure the title and bury traumas of the previous four years once and for all,” Ronaldo reflected and continued, “I almost collapsed, overpowered by the emotion. You could say I was the happiest man on earth. We were playing so well that the referee could have added 100 minutes of injury time and Germany wouldn’t have been able to stop us. I was intently watching those final minutes with tears in my eyes at the thought of not only Brazil winning another title, but also my own personal victory.
“In that moment, I felt complete. I hadn’t just won the World Cup, I’d also won a battle with my body that lasted more than two years. That was the biggest victory of my career – and of my life.” It had been an arduous road to recovery and redemption for the finest footballer of a generation, but in Japan he enjoyed the crowning moment that immortalised O Fenômeno into World Cup history. As the ball nestled into the corner of Oliver Kahn’s goal with the same ruthless precision that characterised a whole career, Ronaldo’s response was a resounding ‘no’.
Brazil were world champions. The frenzied celebrations rippled around Yokohama’s International Stadium, through a delirious Rio de Janeiro and via millions rejoicing in front of their television screens at home. Il Fenomeno had silenced the critics and seemingly defied science. He had not only overcome the injury problems that threatened to derail him at Inter Milan but also exorcised the demons that lingered from Selecao’s World Cup final defeat against France in 1998, when their star man suffered a seizure before the game.
Ronaldo had reclaimed his throne as the greatest among football’s pantheon of goal-getters and his iconic grin, like his dazzling feet, lit up TV screens around the globe. “He was fantastic, amazing,” Brazil team-mate Cafu told BBC Sport. “It showed the mental strength Ronaldo has to overcome the problems. It has been the story of his life.”
It speaks to Ronaldo's character that the surgeon who operated on his knee was in the crowd that day as one of the forward’s guests. “I’m slowly realising just what happened,” Ronaldo continued afterwards. “My happiness and my emotion are so great that it’s difficult to understand. I’ve said before that my big victory was to play football again, to run again and to score goals again. This victory, for our fifth world title, has crowned my recovery and the work of the whole team.” For Ronaldo, the road to redemption was complete.

About the writer
Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]