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The original Ronaldo. Brazilian Ronaldo. O Fenômeno. Or to be more precise, Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. Whatever you want to call him, the legendary striker will go down in history as one of the greatest players that ever lived. His dazzling dribbling, silky skills and outrageous finishing set the footballing world alight for 18 incredible years, with seven lucky clubs extremely grateful for his services over the years.
Not many players can say they’ve played for two sets of fierce rivals, and even fewer can say they are respected equally by all of them. But the forward’s feats in La Liga at Barcelona and Real Madrid, and in Serie A at Inter and AC Milan, have ensured that he is forever adored in both Spain and Italy. And all that came after an astonishing 54 goals in 57 appearances as a teenager for PSV Eindhoven. To call the Brazilian a living legend is an understatement, of that there can be no argument.
There is, however, one slightly unclear, unexplained and downright unusual stage of his career, and one that continues to raise eyebrows and leaves many unanswered questions to this day. And that is the infamous 1998 World Cup, which ended in heartache for Brazil’s goal-scoring sensation.
His venture on the international stage didn’t start there, however, with the 1994 tournament setting up what was to follow just four years later. Unlike the country’s current squad, the team was largely built up of homegrown heroes from the likes of Fluminense, Palmeiras and Sao Paulo.
A 17-year-old Ronaldo – the youngest member of the squad by some margin – was among those playing in Brazil at the time of the tournament, having impressed national team boss Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira with his displays at Cruzeiro. Team-mates Cafu, Leonardo and Marcio Santos were the next youngest in the squad at 24 years old. The teenager certainly didn’t make his mark then, watching on as his nation became the first to win the famous trophy for a fourth time. It didn’t take long, however, until he was given the chance to show what he was all about.
The attacker’s opportunity came at the 1998 World Cup, where he led a star-studded squad containing the names of Roberto Carlos, Dunga, and Rivaldo among countless other world-beaters. They were chasing back-to-back tournament wins, and it would take a very brave team to prevent them from doing so.
Only 21, the forward was once again the youngest member of the squad, but by now he had gained the attention of the world for his stunning season at Barcelona and debut campaign at Inter Milan. And he carried that club form into the tournament, helping his country to an opening game victory over Scotland. His first-ever World Cup goal arrived shortly after, when he found the net in the ninth minute of an eventual 3-0 win against Morocco. The Seleção then finished Group A in top spot, despite a shock 2-1 loss to Norway.
South American rivals Chile stood between Mário Zagallo’s outfit and a spot in the quarter-finals. But up-stepped Ronaldo and team-mate César Sampaio, with both players netting twice in the 4-1 win. A tricky test against Denmark followed, but this time it was Rivaldo at the double, with Bebeto also scoring in the exciting 3-2 victory. O Fenômeno was back on the scoresheet in the 1-1 semi-final stalemate with the Netherlands, with the striker one of four Brazilians to score their penalties in the ensuing shoot-out to clinch a spot in the final. A surprise double from Lilian Thuram saw France defeat Croatia in the other semi-final, setting up an exciting final between the hosts and the holders at Stade de France.
A final filled with chaos and confusion
Just one hour before kick-off, chaos broke out in and around the stadium when Ronaldo’s name was unthinkably left out of the Brazil team sheet. Heads were scratched and answers were demanded, but no-one seemed to understand just what was going on behind the scenes. The South Americans had strangely failed to emerge for their pre-match warm-up, simply adding further confusion to the situation.
Panic did, however, turn to relief when the striker’s name was on a revised team sheet submitted thirty minutes later. But questions still remained, and such questions turned to mass conspiracy theories when Ronaldo played the entire 90 minutes, with his country losing the match 3-0 courtesy of two headers from Zinedine Zidane and a late strike from Emmanuel Petit.
Clearly not himself throughout the match, it soon became public knowledge that the forward suffered a convulsive fit. That much is true, with the Brazilian revealing details of the fit some years later. But as always in the beautiful game, rumours started to flow, with many continuing to flow to this very day, resulting in various conspiracy theories as to exactly what went down that day.
Mental health issues to a squad in turmoil and everything in between
One such theory argues that the attacker was displaying signs of depression throughout the tournament and, on the eve of the big game, had a nervous breakdown. This reportedly led to a split in the team camp, with half of the squad wanting the striker to get the help he needed, and the other half desperately wanting him to forget about his issues and play through the mental pain.
Another theory that has gathered attention over the years involves sportswear giant Nike, who had reportedly invested over £100m in Ronaldo and the Brazil team. It was also reportedly common knowledge that Nike had been requesting the full turnout of Brazil’s best XI for many years, even in friendly matches, and so here they had quite simply forced the nation into playing their main man regardless of issues off the pitch.
A third theory in a seemingly endless list involves an outrageous claim that Brazil had been offered £15m to throw the final in exchange for both a favourable route to the final of the 2002 competition, and the opportunity to host the tournament within the coming years. Despite the audacious claim, many argue that this did indeed happen, with the Brazilians going on to lift the following World Cup, before hosting it in 2014.
Whatever story you choose to believe, only the man himself will know the exact events of the 1998 World Cup final, but perhaps those events are now distant memories to the legendary striker, who still managed to secure the Golden Ball for his efforts in the build-up to the now-infamous meeting with France.