This is part two of a series on Brazil’s 1998 FIFA World Cup. To read part one, “Brazil’s Summer of 1998: Defending Champions, Favourites and the Best Forward in the World,” click here.
Awaiting them were the hosts, France, who had gotten better as the tournament progressed. Inspired by the greatness of Zidane and a team featuring the likes of Didier Deschamps, Fabien Barthez, Laurent Blanc (who was suspended for the final) and more, they won the hearts of their nation, but wished to go all the way.
Over the course of history, only one host had reached the final and not won the match – that was Brazil in 1950. Since the World Cup’s inception, six hosts had reached the final, five had won, and France were looking to make it six out of seven. Brazil, however, were looking to make some history of their own. That loss in 1950 was the last World Cup final they had lost.
They played in four after that and won them all. Now, they were looking to follow the feats of Pelé and Garrincha by becoming the first team since the Brazil sides of 1958 and 1962 to successfully defend their title. There was prestige awaiting both teams and on 12 July 1998 at the Stade de France, there would either be a new champion or a five-time champion crowned.
Ronaldo, Brazil’s top scorer in the tournament thus far with four, was confident as well. In his young career, he had played in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1997 for Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain, the UEFA Cup final in 1998 for Inter against Lazio and for Brazil, he played in the Copa América final against Bolivia and Confederations Cup final against Australia, both in 1997.
The common denominator between them all was that he had scored. Four finals and four goals in his career – he was a man for the big occasion. The World Cup final, though, was the ultimate game, one that mattered more than any of the others. The day of the final didn’t transpire in the way he, the team or any Brazilians would’ve wanted it to.
The events of that afternoon are still a mystery to this day and after a World Cup which was often criticized for its lack of drama, the final day surely bought plenty of it. The confusion started when both sets of coaches sent over their official team sheets to FIFA. Brazil’s went as expected. Mostly.
Taffarel; Cafu, Aldair, Junior Baiano, Roberto Carlos; César Sampaio, Dunga, Rivaldo, Leonardo; Bebeto, Edmundo. Edmundo?! Edmundo. It was indeed Edmundo, dubbed as ‘The Animal’, who was starting. Not Ronaldo. Not Brazil’s top scorer. Not the best footballer in the world. Edmundo. In a World Cup final.
Edmundo was a controversial character. Talented, yes, but also with a streak for the absolutely bizarre. A year prior at Copa América, he gained notoriety for punching his Bolivian opponent while he also got in hot water with animal welfare groups for getting a chimpanzee drunk on whiskey…at his son’s first birthday party. But he was still quite good at football.
Perhaps not as good as Ronaldo – as evident by the reaction to him starting the final over the Inter forward. The selection caused hysteria the world over and it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most shocking sequences of events in any sport ever – even without a ball being kicked. Soon after, more news broke that Ronaldo was actually going to start and that it was all a mistake. Normalcy returned, the game kicked-off, Brazil lost 3-0, Ronaldo looked lost, the team looked beaten before kick-off.
The events of 12 July 1998 can be explained in two parts: what happened before the final, and what happened during the final. First, the final, which, as it turns out, is fairly easy to explain. France’s game-plan for Brazil, devised by coach Aimé Jacquet, came in three parts.
First, their two full-backs, Lilian Thuram on the right and Bixente Lizarazu on the left, were far more defensive-minded than usual to nullify the threat posed by Rivaldo and Leonardo. They combined well with those ahead of them on the flanks Christian Karembeu and Emmanuel Petit to shun Brazil’s wide threat.
Secondly, the role of Stéphane Guivarc’h was important. Guivarc’h was often the most criticized player in this team but despite not scoring many goals, his work was crucial, which is why he stuck around throughout the tournament.
He was well-known for a poor Premier League spell with Newcastle United, and also, perhaps more impressively, the apostrophe at the end of his name, but for France, Jacquet believed he was the ideal man. Jacquet asked Guivarc’h to close down Dunga, the powerhouse of the team, and the forward obliged. This, in effect, shut down the entire Brazilian midfield and gave France the advantage.
Third, Brazil’s set-piece weaknesses were identified. With their quick movements and runs in the box, the French went into the break two goals to the good, and they were two identical goals. Two in-swinging corners were met by Zidane, who had a free header at both after defeating his marker.
The third goal from Petit, coming at the end of a counter, ensured France’s win and first World Cup success and it was a game result that thoroughly deserved to go France’s way. A masterclass from Jacquet and his team enforced nation-wide joy and celebrations, but on the Brazilian end, the autopsy had just begun. This is the second part of the events of that day, the complicated part. For all of their genius, that final is often remembered for Ronaldo’s struggles rather than France’s win.
Maybe, if the confusion surrounding Ronaldo hadn’t occurred, France would probably receive far more credit than they actually do. Ronaldo contributed nothing to that final, apart from a collision with Barthez and a chance that was fairly simple to stop – it wasn’t supposed to be that easy for France. But the investigation into what happened in that final started with what happened earlier in the day, at lunchtime.
Ronaldo, along with the rest of his team, had lunch at their hotel before heading off for a rest. There, it was Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo’s room-mate, that discovered the forward having a fit. Panicked by what was happening, he called for help from his team-mates. Edmundo, César Sampaio and others nearby rushed to him, coach Zagallo was unaware of what was happening and there was an awful atmosphere created in the room.
The team was stunned, and at about 5 p.m. on the day of the final, he was rushed to the Lilas Clinic for tests. Paul Chevalier, the manager of the residence where the Brazilian squad were staying, said about their departure to the Stade de France before the final:
“When the Brazilian squad usually left for a match, there was a great party atmosphere with singing and music, but this time, the mood was very different. When they left, there was complete silence on the bus and we, who had got to know them personally, knew at that moment that there was no cohesion and the Cup was already lost.”
With hours left before kick-off, Zagallo had already made his decision to not start Ronaldo – he had to submit a team-sheet. However, soon after, the clinic had passed him fit to play. Dr. Lídio Toledo, the team doctor, spoke to author James Mosley for his book Ronaldo: The Journey of a Genius about the decision to reinstate Ronaldo in the team to start the game:
“The tests had thrown up nothing. He’d had tests from a neurologist, a cardiologist, and taken a full electrogram. Many, many tests, but none of them presented anything. Ronaldo wanted to play, but we told him to hang on while we [the CBF medical staff] went off to discuss the situation. He pleaded with us, saying, ‘Lidio, I’m OK. Brazilians need me and I need to play this game, it’s important to me, it’s important to everyone. I have to play.’
Ronaldo then turned around to Zagallo and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to play, even if we have to play with 12, I’m going to play. I’m going on that on that field no matter what.’ He seemed fine. He was coherent, forthright and he seemed fine. We decided to let him play and that’s when he was reinstated on the team sheet.”
Ronaldo played, Brazil lost, the forward had next to no impact. Then came the aftermath. After the team’s return to Brazil, conspiracies were rife. What could possibly have happened to the forward and to the team?
One theory was that they were asked to throw the game away in favour of receiving a comfortable draw for the next World Cup and then a chance to host the tournament later in the future. That theory suggested that the team were offered $2m, something Ronaldo was uncomfortable with, which made him pull out of the squad before Nike intervened with the threat of withdrawing their sponsorship money. The claim is denied.
Another theory that Ronaldo had a secret medical condition which was covered-up by the player and something the medical staff were unaware of – them prescribing pain-killers would’ve only made matters worse. The painkilling injection of the anesthetic, xylocaine, administered to Ronaldo for the final, accidentally entered a vein due to an incorrect procedure.
Brazilian sports daily Lance! suggested that he had been given eight xylocaine injections during the tournament while any sportsperson should not take more than five of those throughout their careers. This was denied by the staff later on.
Perhaps the most striking theory, and one that forced actual change, was that of Nike’s involvement. The 1998 World Cup was the biggest in history at the time, the most popular and the most publicized. The big companies, Nike and Adidas, had spent millions on marketing campaigns and Nike had worked closely with Brazil over the years, with the focus on Ronaldo, the most prominent footballer contracted to them.
Before the tournament, Nike released a brilliant advert with the Brazilian team, idle at the airport, enjoying a kickabout. Players like Roberto Carlos, Denilson and more were involved and in the middle of it, Ronaldo popped up, skilled his way through barriers and security before shooting at a makeshift goal.
Nike wowed the world with this simple idea, and it was the norm for the sportswear company. Ronaldo was their most marketable athlete, but a day after the final, Nike were under fire themselves, and were forced to release a statement to deny any wrongdoing:
“With regard to rumours circulating about presumed pressures Nike put on the Brazilian national soccer team so that Ronaldo would play, Nike wants to emphasize that the report of such involvement is absolutely false. Ronaldo and Zagallo decided together to crown this dream which the Brazilian player, probably, deserved to live. In all of this Nike did not interfere in any way. And besides, why should it have?”
The investigation didn’t stop there. Nike’s deal with the Brazilian national team was signed in 1996 for a lucrative $160m over a 10-year period. It was later revealed that the contract had a few strange clauses, most notably, playing friendlies with at least eight first-team regulars.
In 1999, a congressman from Brazil’s capital of Brasilia, Aldo Rebelo, entered a petition for the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) to look into the contract. A year after that, the case went to court, and three members from that squad were asked to recite their version of the events that transpired on 12 July 1998: Zagallo, Edmundo and Ronaldo.
According to Alex Bellos’ book, Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Zagallo was quizzed about what had happened in the three hours between Ronaldo’s fit and him finding out. The coach said: “We all had lunch together and then everyone went back to their rooms. I heard a commotion outside, but reckoned it was French fans, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up at 5 p.m., I was informed of Ronaldo’s medical condition and his seizure, three full hours after it had happened.”
“Ronaldo was sent to a clinic and I went towards Stade de France with the rest of the team. About 40 minutes prior to the game, he turns up at the stadium and says, ‘Zagallo, I can play. I have to play.’ So I selected him. Now, was it his being chosen that caused the team to lose? Absolutely not. I think it was from the collective trauma from everything that had happened. Imagine if I didn’t put Ronaldo and we lost 3-0. I checked on him at half-time too. You must remember, the green light for him came from a French clinic.”
A month-and-a-half after Zagallo, it was time for Ronaldo to make his statement in court. He was asked about Nike’s involvement, to which he responded:
“The amount of work Nike have done towards developing football in Brazil, I don’t think this has ever happened in our history. My personal relationship with them is excellent, because they never demand anything from me. All they ask of me is to wear their boots and maybe score a few goals, not a thing more.”
“As he left, he was asked why Brazil lost the final, for which, about two years after the defeat, there was only one possible response: “Why did we not win? Because we let in three goals. Because we lost.”
By the end of the trial, Nike were cleared of any wrongdoing. This despite signs of corruption in the CBF and its president, Ricardo Teixeira. In the early years of Nike’s contract, 1997 to 2000, the CBF’s revenues went up four times and so did Teixeira and his directors’ salaries. The budget to invest in domestic football went from 55 percent to 37 percent, which meant that the Nike money, much of which was supposed to be dedicated to improving grassroots football in Brazil, was going elsewhere.
In December 2001, the Brazilian senate – different to the CPI that had rejected the Nike claims – prepared a 1,129-page report containing much of congressman Rebelo’s findings related to corruption. The senator described the CBF as ‘a den of crime, revealing disorganization, anarchy, incompetence and dishonesty,’ but the CBF were unrelenting. They were still proven to be clean.
In that time, Ronaldo’s own career was taking a downward spiral. After the World Cup, he was hounded by press at home and on holiday, which forced him to make a desperate plea to the media. He was scapegoated by much of the press, but he wanted freedom: “I think there’s been a big exaggeration in all this. I want more respect. I’m not a fugitive and I don’t want to be chased every time I go to my mother’s house. I’m trying to lead a normal life as far as possible. I don’t want to be chased anymore.”
Soon after, Inter president Massimo Moratti blamed the CBF for harming his prized asset: “The CBF acted in an absurd manner. It was a serious mistake to play Ronaldo in those conditions. Even though he expressed a desire to play which is inevitable, I think someone should have looked at him more as a person than as a player. In general, he handles everything in an intelligent and balanced manner. This time, evidently, he wasn’t able to do so.” Inter’s doctor criticized the decision as well, making it clear that the 24 hours after a fit are the most likely for a recurrence.
While it was all kicking off between CBF and Brazilian courts, Ronaldo was struggling on the pitch. Between September 1999 and December 2001, he played just seven minutes of football for Inter, with his knee failing him on two occasions. He was a force of nature, undoubtedly the world’s best when fit, but that was on too few occasions.
Brazil were stuttering in their qualification bid for the 2002 World Cup as well. Fortunately for them, Ronaldo was fit for the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was prepared to gamble on a player that had hardly played for the country since the last finals. In the Far East, Ronaldo made it seem as though he was never gone. Six goals on the way to the final and a partnership of the three Rs – himself along with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, struck fear into their opponents.
As they reached the final, many were fearful of another chaotic episode, but Ronaldo was adamant that he could pull it off: “Everyone keeps on reminding me of 1998 but I don’t know why. I keep on forgetting it and have no problem with it. I am just finding tranquility to play a good game, and to bring the title to Brazil.”
And pull it off he did. Against an Oliver Kahn-inspired Germany, the Brazilians were authoritative and Ronaldo struck twice to take his overall tally to eight goals that summer. Throughout the World Cup, he seemed unfazed and four years after the pain in Paris, his redemption was complete. A buckled knee, turmoil with Nike, multiple surgeries and questions over his fitness were all put aside – now, once again, he was the finest footballer on the planet and he finally had the biggest prize in the game to back it.
By: Karan Tejwani / @karan_tejwani26
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Antonio Scorza – AFP / Alexander Hassenstein – Bongarts