This article was first featured in Issue 5 of the Box To Box magazine on the 2002 World Cup with words by Charlie Carmichael and accompanying illustration from Christopher Nash (Nash Draws).
It’s the 12th April 2000 and Rome’s iconic Stadio Olimpico is being lit up by a partisan crowd. Different shades of blue adorn the grounds stand’s – from the sky blue of regional outfit S.S. Lazio, to the deep blue and black strip of their northern adversaries, Internazionale. I Biancocelesti have had the better of the opening exchanges and lead the Coppa Italia final first leg by two goals to one.
In reaction to Diego Simeone’s level-breaking header, Inter manager Marcello Lippi turned to his bench and summoned his own South American jewel to the fore. Kitted out and warmed up, on came a fresh-faced Ronaldo. A few minutes went by before horrifically, the antithesis of Lippi’s plan unfolded.
Bearing down on the Lazio defence – with his customary pace and trickery – Ronaldo feinted to the right before crumpling in a heap. His right knee had buckled under his own weight. Writhing in agony, the Brazilian’s painful screams rang round the stadium and deep into the Roman night. This was the striker’s first appearance in over 5 months, having just recovered from a snapped tendon back in November.
It was an ugly sight, one which is no doubt etched harrowingly into the memories of spectators and players alike that were present that night. I Nerazzurri would lose the final but more than that, fears began to grow that they had lost something much more valuable, their enigma, O Fenômeno. The diagnosis was a ruptured tendon, and the future looked bleak to say the least.
Ronaldo’s career of mesmerising, almost supernatural brilliance was becoming markedly punctuated by a myriad of soul-destroying injuries and the circumstances of such embittered the taste buds of everyone connected to the game. From the most diehard Boy San, to your casual Calcio admirer.
Winner of FIFA’s world player of the year in 1996 and ’97 consecutively, O Fenômeno’s early career blessed some of football’s grandest arenas with goal after goal. 44 in 47 saw Ronaldo move from his native Cruzeiro to continental Europe courtesy of PSV. 54 in 57 then took him to Catalonia via Spanish behemoth Barcelona with a subsequent 47 in 49 ensuring a world-record transfer to Inter Milan. In keeping with his meteoric trajectory, life in Lombardy started in a similar same vein to the rest of his fledgling career – with goals, and plenty of them.
Ronaldo laughed in the face of the defensive rigors Serie A had to offer. Gliding elegantly past all oncoming challenges before exuding equanimity whilst rolling, chipping, or leathering the ball past the poor keepers tasked with keeping him at bay. His wry, buck-toothed smile and wagging finger celebration was becoming synonymous with the end result of Inter’s deadly counter-attacks.
Unfortunately, the higher one’s career rises, the further they have to fall and in Ronaldo’s case, he had reached his apex. The aforementioned injury in Rome would keep the striker out for no fewer than 15 months. In his absence, Brazil struggled and nearly missed out on qualification for the 2002 World Cup with coach Luiz Felipe Scolari appointed for the final five games to salvage a dismal qualifying campaign.
O Fenômeno’s recuperation was now fully complete, and Scolari had a decision to make. He had not played a single qualifier and those spine-chilling shrieks of pain from that night in Rome still echoed round the manager’s head. Eventually, after much thought, Scolari’s initial trepidation was overruled by the sumptuous ideal of an attacking trident boasting Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, speared by Ronaldo himself.
O Canarinho’s start to the World Cup mirrored their pre-tournament jitters as they fell behind to Turkey in the first match of Group C. Trailing one-nothing at the break, Brazil came out with a point to prove and it wasn’t long before an ebullient sea of Seleção yellow descended into rapturous jubilation. Ronaldo had netted the equaliser from close range demonstrating the kind of hunger and desire that had never left him. Rivaldo added a late penalty to ensure Brazil’s victory and set the tone for what was to come.
Perhaps Ronaldo was no longer at his incalculable, entrancing best, but he was still proving to be a damn fine goalscorer. His stocky frame carried some extra timber and his formative fleet footed brilliance had been slightly quelled, however, Ronaldo was still every bit of the potent predator he once was. The Brazilian went on to score in all but one game throughout the tournament, firmly putting to bed all questions marks – besides his choice of haircut.
Having seen off Denmark and Turkey (again) either side of their 2-1 victory against England, Brazil had set up a meeting with Germany in Yokohama. Die Mannschaft may not have been as electrifying as their opponents en route to the final, they however, did possess a near-impenetrable defence. Only conceding one goal so far in the whole tournament, Oliver Kahn was in inspired form. Needless to say, with Ronaldo accumulating six goals thus far, the game was billed as an immovable force meeting an unstoppable object.
Early signs indicated the former was to be crowned victorious as Kahn thwarted shot after shot from Brazil’s glistening frontline, the future player of the tournament looking indomitable in the process. With the game deadlocked at halftime, the pundit’s prognostication was for a German win on penalties. King Kahn simply could not be beaten. That was, until the 67th minute.
In a single action that humanised the ostensibly unconquerable colossus, Kahn uncharacteristically spilled the ball following a Rivaldo shot into the grateful path of the onrushing Ronaldo. Composed as ever, the striker made no mistake, brushing the ball past the helpless German and from there on, Rudi Völler’s men looked disconcerted. Lacking the class and leadership of Michael Ballack through suspension was bad enough, but now 1-0 down, the team began to succumb to a Brazilian onslaught.
Ronaldo would add a second before full-time in a manner more typical of the nation’s samba roots. An inward pass from the right flank saw Rivaldo perform a lovely piece of improvisation, stepping over the ball to afford a now rampant Ronaldo another opportunity. He made no mistake, stroking the ball into the far-right corner of the net, concluded the game as a contest.
Although nothing can truly redeem being robbed of his peak years, holding the beautiful game’s most prized trophy aloft having scored a staggering eight goals would have gone some way to abate the horrific injury struggles Ronaldo had endured. He would end the summer of 2002 a Galáctico having signed for Real Madrid and with his demons fully exercised, He would once again go on to become FIFA’s World Player of the Year. The phenomenon, had truly been reborn.