The hosts reach the final at the Stade de France and face a country whose star player, named Ronaldo, suffers an injury on the day of the final. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
The Panenka looks at the rumors surrounding another non-performer in the final of a major competition at Saint Denis.
As Cristiano Ronaldo left the field with injury only 25 minutes into the first half of the 2016 European Championships final between Portugal and France, it conjured memories of the last Ronaldo to play in an international final in the French capital.
The Real Madrid star leaving the field in tears produced a parenthesis between a moment 18 years ago where rumors continue to transpire regarding the performance of a certain Brazilian, also by the name of Ronaldo.
While the injury to Portugal’s star man seemed to have a galvanizing effect on Fernando Santos’ men, the opposite occurred for the Brazilian Ronaldo’s teammates who where promptly dismissed 3-0.
When the initial team sheet was published before the 1998 World Cup final between hosts France and reigning World Champions Brazil, commentators were stunned to find Brazil’s top scorer and talisman was not in the starting eleven.
However, a revised team sheet was subsequently issued, including the then Inter Milan striker. The striker did play in the final where he appeared lost and hopeless. His non-performance that night continues to leave lingering questions that have not been fully answered to this day. Brazil’s capitulation at the 1998 World Cup was so shocking the country’s government opened an official investigation.
Ahead of the final, Brazil were expected to continue their World Cup legacy with a fifth triumph. In Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima, they boasted a player who was attracting comparisons with Pele and had won successive World Player of the Year awards in 1996 and 1997. He was truly, as his nickname suggested, O Fenomeno (The Phenomenon).
When Ronaldo was omitted from the starting line up “The scenes in the commentary box have been absolute mayhem and chaos,” said the BBC’s John Motson. With the world waiting in anticipation for a classic showdown, what seems murkier now is why the player who had scored four goals at the competition was left out and so promptly reinstated?
The two-time World Player of the Year at just 21-years of age was now 22-years-old and was carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, it is now nearly completely unsurprising that the young man fell to pieces in the heat of the moment.
On the day of the 1998 World Cup final, the Brazilian squad had lunch just outside Paris. Shortly after arriving back at the team hotel Ronaldo, who was sharing a room with Roberto Carlos, broke down and cried. “Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead,” Roberto Carlos later told the BBC. “The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying.” However, things got even worse when the striker became very ill.
Amid the Brazilian investigation after the tournament midfielder Leonardo gave evidence where it transpired that the Inter striker had suffered a fit while sleeping on the day of the game. The details that emerged over the following days and weeks made for grim reading.
Defender Goncalves revealed: “Ronaldo was foaming at the mouth, struggling, breathing with a lot of difficulty and very pale”. Hotel director Paul Chevalier told the committee that he heard people crying: “he’s dead, he’s dead.” As Roberto Carlos called for help teammates Cesar Sampaio and Edmundo arriving quickly at the scene, the latter preventing Ronaldo from swallowing his tongue.
After the incident there was reportedly a discussion, with the final in mind, over whether Ronaldo should even be told what had happened to him while he was napping, they did.
The forward recovered and underwent tests in hospital. The findings showed that the priceless player did not have any respiratory, neurological or cardiac related symptoms, just that he had been prescribed Voalren to help with the pain of a knee injury aggravated in the Group stages against Morocco.
While Ronaldo was receiving these tests Brazil coach Mario Zagallo removed his star player from the starting line up. He also spoke passionately to his players, trying to rouse them from a morale sapping incident, reminding them of the 1962 World Cup final where Selecao triumphed despite an injury to Pele.
Then things got a little complicated and this is where many of the conspiracy theories come into play. One of the most underlining factors of the internal debate between coaches and players, as well as the external ones between sponsors and even FIFA, lie in the insinuation that it seemed poor Ronaldo had no say whosoever in the decision over his selection.
When the squad departed their hotel for the central Parisian suburb of Saint Denis, there was silence instead of the usual dancing, singing and Samba that the Brazil national team are famed for whenever travelling. This fact brought accusations of a heated feud and split within the camp. Technical coordinator Zico reportedly opposed fielding Ronaldo while a group of players led by captain Dunga backed Ronaldo’s presence, Leonardo reportedly led a group of players who opposed it.
The most logical explanation for Ronaldo’s non-performance is a mixture of fatigue, injury and pressure causing a slight breakdown, all exacerbated by more internal pressure of the squad and coaches as well as external pressure from sponsors and fans. There are however some other slightly left-field ideas.
Some sources say Ronaldo’s breakdown was caused by news of an affair between his girlfriend, Susana Werner and a well-known TV journalist. Others say the fit was caused by an allergic reaction to an injection from knee doctor Lidio Toledo. After Ronaldo’s fit, Toledo was reportedly seen weeping at Ronaldo’s bedside.
Many fingers point toward the medical staff that accompanied Brazil at France 98. Some say that in the aftermath of Ronaldo’s episode he was given a tranquilizer to keep him clam, one that ultimately produced a particularly sluggish performance after kick off in the final.
The conspiracies that will just not go away are ones that do not concern how or why Ronaldo had a breakdown, they concern why he was forced to play. One suggests that sports manufacturing behemoth Nike were complicit in the events on that night in the summer of 1998.
Leonardo, the player who fished Ronaldo’s tongue out from the back of his throat during the famous fit, had been promoted to the starting line up but demoted back to a substitute when the striker was reinstated.
Benched, ‘The Animal’ later suggested Nike influenced Ronaldo’s return to the team. “Nike’s people were there 24 hours a day, as if they were member of the technical staff. It’s a huge power. That’s all I can say.”
The theory is completely farfetched but the signs do add up with Leonardo’s comments with supporting evidence provided by the fact that the ‘R9’ football boot had been released concurrently with the tournament. It is also alleged that Ronaldo was coaxed into playing by the Brazilian Football Federation, their desire to win at all costs an overriding factor to the wellbeing of the players.
One of the most bizarre ideas, born from a journalist at state owned Brazilian TV Company O Globo, is that Brazil threw the game for a cash fee of $24 million at the request of FIFA. Sacrificing their greatest talent and allowing France to win the tournament just to please new president Sepp Blatter seems a bit of a long shot, but with recent events there is no way of knowing the depths that football’s organization committee would sink to.
Along the same lines there are accusations that the host nation conspired to take down the hottest talent in world soccer in order to improve their chances by way of poisoning and espionage.
Regardless of how or why Ronaldo was named in the starting eleven that night there is still a feeling that the events of that day have not been satisfactorily explained. The tale is a sad one but enlightened by the fact that four years later, Ronaldo’s brace in the 2-0 2002 World Cup final victory against Germany gave Brazil their fifth championship.