Brazil’s Summer of 1998: Defending Champions, Favourites and the Best Forward in the World

This is part one of a series on Brazil’s 1998 FIFA World Cup. To read part two, “Brazil’s Summer of 1998: The Final, Confusion and Chaos,” click here.


“Why did we not win? Because we let in three goals. Because we lost.” 


Speaking to a flurry of reporters two years after losing a World Cup final, Ronaldo could only be straightforward in his explanation. The Seleção were the thrill of international football. Just four years prior to that final against France, they had won their fourth World Cup in the United States, and in 1998, they had a team of superstars – a group that were favourites to go all the way once again. 


The team that won the tournament in 1994 were quite special themselves. Inspired by the greatness of Romário and a cast that included players like Raí, Bebeto and captain Dunga, Carlos Alberto Parriera’s team took on challenge after challenge with comfort and beat Italy on penalties in the final. Unlike previous wins, however, this team never channelled the style normally associated with Brazil: one of beautiful football, freedom and flair. Instead, a more pragmatic approach worked for them.


Seated on the bench throughout the tournament was a 17-year-old up-and-coming Ronaldo, who won a medal, but had minimal contribution. The biggest prize in football entering his medal haul at such a young age would’ve been a motivating factor and would prove to be something to drive him forward. 


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It’s rare to see a player as young as 17 make the squad for the World Cup, but that only exemplifies how good Ronaldo was at the time. After just a solitary season playing for Cruzeiro in his native Brazil, the quality was there to warrant a place in the squad of one international football’s most prestigious team. Like most children in Brazil, he was born and raised with a ball around him. Much to his single mother’s anger, he often skipped school to play and just after year seven, he quit it altogether to forge a career in the game. 


It was a big risk, but considering his talent, it was perhaps a risk worth taking. “I could not accept the fact that my son thought only of playing soccer. What kind of future would he have? I always found him on the street playing ball with friends when he should have been in school. I know, I lost my battle,” she said in 1997.


Growing up, Ronaldo idolised the glorious Flamengo teams that not only captivated Brazil, but the world of football. Led by the charismatic Zico, they would win the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup, giving Ronaldo dreams of playing for them. From a very young age, the forward had it all.


In one game for his futsal team, he netted 11 of his team’s 12 goals and then at the age of 13 for youth club São Cristóvão, he scored five in a 9-1 win for his side. That performance prompted agents Alexandre Martins and Reinaldo Pitta to have him on their books. The two purchased his player pass for $7,500. Their clientele included 67 footballers – all senior professionals. The 68th was a teenager who had never spent a minute playing top-level football – a testament to Ronaldo’s other-worldly skill. 


By the age of 16, Cruzeiro decided they had seen enough and decided to purchase him for $25,000 – a significant fee for a player that young. Right from the off, there was no doubt in his mind that he was going right to the top. For his debut game in May 1993, 2,500 fans were in attendance, but it took until three months later for him to bag his first goal.


In a friendly against Portuguese club Belenenses, he scored a firm header – the first goal of many to follow. The friendlies in Portugal caught the attention of many, most famously, Inter, who were willing to pay $500,000 for his services. A move never materialized, but that didn’t hinder Ronaldo’s progress.


In November that year, Ronaldo became the first player in Cruzeiro’s history to score five goals in a single game, as his Cruzeiro team overcame Bahia 6-0. A few months later, he followed that up with a hat-trick against Atlético Mineiro. The goals weren’t restricted to local competitions either. In the Copa Libertadores, he netted a wonderful solo strike against Boca Juniors. All these goals and this rapid ascent from a nobody to a man vying for a spot on the plane to the States led to comparisons to the great Pelé, but Ronaldo wasn’t getting ahead of himself. 


The World Cup selection was a humbling experience, and his lack of minutes perhaps gave him an idea of how far he had to go. Still only 17, he had a massive learning curve, sharing the dressing room with some greats of Brazilian football. Ronaldo had full reason to believe the winners’ medal wasn’t earned, but he kicked on. After just a season in Brazil, he would move to PSV Eindhoven, where in two years, he would shatter more records. 


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By this point, Brazil had their sight sets on an era of world domination. After winning in 1994, they had belief they could retain their title in 1998, and they had the crop of players to do so. Rivaldo was on the same trajectory as Ronaldo; Denilson was improving; pieces from the last World Cup success stuck around, while Ronaldo was breaking records.


He moved to Barcelona in a world-record transfer, scored a club-record 47 goals in a season, then broke the transfer record again to move to Inter. In 1997, he was officially crowned as the world’s best player, becoming the youngest winner of the Ballon d’Or at the age of 21.


In charge at the time was Mário Zagallo, who in 1994, was the assistant coach. He held the record of being the first person to win the World Cup as a player (which he did in 1958 and 1962) and coach (in 1970), and he was seen as the ideal man to take the team forward. The 1997 Copa América was seen as the perfect preparation for the big one the following year.


Brazil won in impressive fashion, topping their group with a 100 percent record before dispatching Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia with ease. Zagallo had the respect of his team and the fans – they were top favourites for the World Cup. It was rare to see a side so heavily favoured ahead of the World Cup, but the faith in Brazil didn’t arise for no reason.


Indeed, they were the defending champions, the best team in the world with the best footballer in the world, but another key reason for it was that their competitors were stuttering. Argentina, their fiercest rivals, showed some weaknesses in their qualifying path and despite having an immensely talented team, they showed where they could be beaten. The Netherlands were a fine group of players – they were a massive threat to Brazil and were gunning for their first-ever World Cup win. 


The hosts, France, were given a chance as well. Home advantage would count for them, and the fact that the mercurial Zinedine Zidane played for them helped their cause. A year prior to the tournament, however, the French public weren’t too pleased with their progress and made their displeasure clear at Le Tournoi, a dress rehearsal tournament before the World Cup which was contested by Brazil, Italy, France and winners England.


The hosts finished third, and the public often jeered their own team. Others such as Italy and England had a great crop of players as well, but Brazil looked a step clear of the rest. Nearly three decades after his last World Cup success as a coach, Zagallo was charged with leading the nation to victory again. Like 1970 where he had Pelé, Zagallo had a world-renowned superstar in Ronaldo to work with again, and a supporting cast that was supremely talented. 


Speaking to The Blizzard many years later about his team from 1970 and the faith they put in him, he said: “I had the advantage of having won the World Cup twice and I also had a string of titles to my name as a coach. Many had played with me, but the only one who had been my teammate in the World Cup wins was Pelé — many of the others had already played under me at club level.


It was easy to command, because the players saw and felt that I had the strength of personality to make the changes that I thought were necessary. I imposed myself — and this kind of leadership in front of the group is fundamental, even if you’ve participated in this group before as a player. I did some tactical training sessions, and the players analysed my work, because players know. They can tell when the quality of the work is good.”


Indeed, this group was another oozing quality. At the back, full-backs Roberto Carlos and Cafu were a marauding pairing that provided a different dimension going forward. With both in their prime years at the time, they carried forward the legacy of Brazilian full-backs of yesteryear.


With their smart overlapping runs and support provided to the talented forwards of the team, they were a jackpot, a pairing any team would wish to have and one that could change the game from the back. At the World Cup, they had the opportunity to show their best form on the grandest stage. Over the years, the likes of Leandro and Júnior dominated the flanks for Brazil. Now, it was time for these two to do the same. 


The draw for the World Cup group stages gave Brazil a favourable run: Scotland, Morocco and Norway, neither with the pedigree compared to Brazil, were to take on the Seleção in the first round of the finals. Kicking off against the boisterous Tartan Army of Scotland at the Stade de France, the game was expected to be one dominated by Ronaldo. Scotland didn’t have a mighty reputation, and it was widely believed that Brazil would get past them with ease, perhaps even embarrass them to open their campaign. 


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However, the Scots were resolute. Prior to kick-off, there were murmurs that Ronaldo was showing signs of anxiety, that the stage, his first World Cup appearance – despite already possessing a winners’ medal – made him a bit nervous. On the pitch, he showed signs of it, failing to do much of note as Scotland fought until the end. After scoring in the fourth minute through César Sampaio, there was reason to believe Brazil would end the night scoring four or five.


Instead, Scotland only lost by one, and were rather unlucky to do so. A Thomas Boyd own-goal in the 73rd minute caused the 2-1 defeat, and they could leave Saint-Denis with their heads held high. Brazil, though, were given a taste of what was ahead of them. After the game, Ronaldo spoke about feeling a new level of pressure – that of the world’s best player gunning to win football’s biggest prize.


The game against Scotland also slightly exposed the frailties of the full-backs. Roberto Carlos and Cafu were great going forward, but from a defensive standpoint, they could’ve done more. This star-studded team had the quality to dominate but would have to wait for the clash against Morocco to show their best form. Every team against them would set up like how Scotland did – strong at the back, willing to do the dirty work and hold out for a result.


Sharing the forward line with Ronaldo was Bebeto, the veteran who won the World Cup four years prior. Against Scotland, the forwards were criticized for not imposing themselves enough, with belief that the absence of Romário, who suffered a serious injury in the 1997 Confederations Cup, would hinder the side. The experience of Bebeto was required for this young team, and against Morocco, he showed exactly why as Brazil kicked into gear and reminded the world what exactly they were capable of when they hit their best form. 


Bebeto scored the third in a 3-0 win, adding to goals by fellow forwards Rivaldo and Ronaldo, who netted the first World Cup goal in his career. The Fenômeno’s goal was a classic: a trademark run was spotted, and he smashed home a looped ball past the goalkeeper before jetting off in ecstatic celebration. “That was the most important goal of my life as it was my first World Cup goal,” Ronaldo said after the game.


“I was mad with joy, like a prisoner being set free. We enjoyed ourselves against Morocco, we regained our old confidence. When things are going well, it is as if we are on fire. We did not want that game to end. That’s when I really started to enjoy playing alongside Rivaldo. I thought we made a great double act.”


Indeed, all three forwards were able to gel together very well. The movement and instinctiveness of the three forwards put Morocco to the sword. The third goal by Bebeto was down to the brilliance of Rivaldo: his slaloming run through the North African side’s defence allowed him to set up Bebeto, who had a simple tap-in. As said by Ronaldo, Brazil felt they found their flow and qualification to the next round was secure. Before they could play there, however, a near full-strength team took to the pitch to play Norway in the final group game. 


The Norway game caused a worry. They lost 2-1 after taking the lead and against a side that had the potential to cause an upset, Brazil knew exactly where they weaknesses were. In all three games, especially against Morocco, a common theme was identifiable: the constant hacking and toughness shown towards Brazil’s players would isolate them.


They ended up winning the group as expected, but it was a task that was far more difficult than Brazil would’ve thought or liked. They were favourites, for sure, but apart from that game against Morocco, there wasn’t much to boast about.


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As group winners, Brazil would get a favourable draw once again for the Round of 16: South American rivals Chile. The game provided the Seleção with a boost they very much needed. Chile had struggled thus far in the tournament, making it through their group with just three points. Brazil asserted their dominance: a brace each from Ronaldo and César Sampaio sealed a comfortable 4-1 win and progression through to the last eight. 


Once again, Brazil were on the better half of the bracket. In a quarter-final line-up consisting of themselves, Argentina, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Denmark, they drew the latter and given their quality and experience compared to that of the Scandinavians, they fancied their chances. Denmark weren’t willing to lie down, and knowing where Brazil were at their weakest, they drew first blood.


The magnificent Brian Laudrup set up Martin Jørgensen for the opener in the second minute. Their lead didn’t last long, as Bebeto and Rivaldo struck one each to give Brazil control by the 25th minute, but Denmark weren’t deterred. A chance to send the holders home and book a semi-final place meant that there was loads at stake, and after immense pressure, they equalized early in the second half after Roberto Carlos’ error led to Laudrup’s goal.


Once again, the joy was short-lived. Rivaldo smashed home from 25 yards out after being set up by captain Dunga, and that was enough to seal Brazil’s path through to yet another World Cup semi-final. The Netherlands were next on the cards and their run so far had been impressive, but difficult. In the last-16 and quarter-finals against Yugoslavia and Argentina respectively, they had to put on a late show to get to this point, and it was certain that Brazil were in for their biggest test of the tournament thus far. 


There was also plenty of attention surrounding Ronaldo and his fitness over the course of the tournament, mainly for rumours suggesting he was regularly receiving painkillers to assist his troubled knee, which had caused him plenty of problems during the domestic season with Inter. To clear all doubt, he called a press conference and said “I’m doing training along with everyone else and in addition, I’ve had a massage and am using a lot of ice. The ultrasound equipment in the hotel has also helped.”


He made it clear that his knee had issues, and throughout the summer thus far, he had been put to the test in terms of physicality. Kicking and pushing was frequent in Brazil games, mainly targeted at Ronaldo, and against the Netherlands, it wouldn’t stop.  The Netherlands and Brazil had two contrasting paths to the World Cup semi-final, but when they met on the pitch, the game was close and cagey.


The first half ended goalless, but the second kicked off with Ronaldo being at the end of a sumptuous Rivaldo ball, squeezing through the Dutch defence and slotting past goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Another moment of magic in a summer that was only getting better for the forward, they were now about 45 minutes away from a second successive World Cup final. 


However, just like their previous two knockout games, the Netherlands left it late to hit back. Three minutes from time, Patrick Kluivert was at the end of a Ronald de Boer cross to force extra-time and the Dutch would make Brazil work. Extra-time brought out a different beast: Ronaldo showed no signs of struggles with his knee and had two fine chances to score.


The first was an ambitious bicycle kick that was bound for goal had it not been for a Frank de Boer clearance off the line; the second attempt saw Van der Sar make one of the most important saves of the tournament – he denied Ronaldo from scoring a wonderful solo goal. The extra 30 minutes couldn’t draw a winner, and the semi-final would have to be decided by penalties.


The Brazilian quartet of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Emerson and Dunga all scored their spot-kicks, while for the Oranje, Philip Cocu and Ronald de Boer saw theirs saved as Brazil won 4-2 and booked their place in the World Cup final once again. 


While most expected Brazil to reach this far, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff wasn’t sold on how they had played, and made his feelings about the team clear before the final: “I said at the start of the tournament that I did not like this Brazilian team, and I still say that. It would be really bad for football if Brazil won with such poor play, because this team is imitated throughout the world. I am not going to say that France will win, because Brazil are a strong team, but my hope is for the sake of football, because the play produced by Zagallo’s team is really poor.”


By: Karan Tejwani / @karan_tejwani26

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images