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Feb 9, 2011

Ronaldo's darkest day

On Wednesday night, France play Brazil at the Stade de France, 13 years after the World Cup final of 1998. A controversial night in Paris witnessed a media storm surrounding the non-selection, and subsequent selection of Ronaldo, before football's biggest game was marked, not for the last time, by what Zinedine Zidane did with his head.

Pandemonium in the press box. Seventy-two minutes before kick-off at the Stade de France and seven little characters have sent the global press into collective meltdown. Ronaldo has been omitted from Brazil's starting line-up. As reporters scramble to ascertain just why the greatest player in the world will not be playing, and rumours fly freely, further bedlam ensues when Brazil coach Mario Zagallo submits a second team-sheet just 30 minutes before the teams are due to walk onto the field, with Ronaldo now in place instead of Edmundo. "I've never seen anything like this in my career," the BBC's John Motson says. "The scenes in the commentary box have been absolute mayhem and chaos."

They were repeated in television studios, bars and houses across the globe. Why Ronaldo was left out would become clear later, but 13 years on, the means by which he was then restored are still murky. What is certain is that during the 90 minutes he was on show to the world, Ronaldo cut a sad figure, his usual vigour absent as he somnambulated through the biggest match of his career. As France celebrated a victory that was hailed as a triumph of social unity, Brazil was plunged into a period of schism and introspection. On one simple printed name does so much hang.

Ahead of the final on July 12, Brazil were expected to continue their legacy with a fifth World Cup triumph. In Ronaldo, 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 O Fenomeno suggested, a football phenomenon, as well as a marketing dream and Nike's big star. He scored four goals as Brazil made their way past Chile, Denmark and Netherlands in the knockout stages, in a talented side that included Rivaldo, the suddenly prolific Cesar Sampaio, Cafu and Dunga.

In contrast, France had no history of success in the competition, and boasted as their leading striker Stephane Guivarc'h, who would not score in the competition and would later be named by the Daily Mail as the worst striker in the history of Premier League following an ill-fated spell with Newcastle. However, under the astute guidance of Aime Jacquet, France possessed a talented team, centred around Zinedine Zidane, the man who would succeed Ronaldo as World Player of the Year and assume the title of the globe's best during his contemporary's subsequent physical decline.

Though a son of Marseille, Zidane's Algerian roots also lent his excellence further meaning, as France's progression through the competition began to take on political and social significance. Prior to the finals, the leader of far-right Front National party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had described the national team as "unworthy" representatives of the country, but a squad with strong roots in regions as diverse as North Africa (Zidane), the Caribbean (Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram), South America (Bernard Lama), West Africa (Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly), the Pacific Islands (Christian Karembeu), Armenia (Youri Djorkaeff) and the Basque country (Bixente Lizarazu) were united under Jacquet in what appeared a vibrant vindication of multiculturalism. Le Monde even described them as a "symbol of the diversity and of the unity of the country".

After taking maximum points from a group including Denmark, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, football's first Golden Goal, scored by Laurent Blanc, saw les Bleus sneak past Paraguay before they defeated Italy on penalties in the quarter-final. A Croatia side spearheaded by Golden Boot winner Davor Suker awaited in the semi-finals, but Thuram incredibly scored the only two goals of his 142-cap international career, while Laurent Blanc was dismissed following a scandalous piece of play-acting by Slaven Bilic. On home soil, France were within 90 minutes of their first ever World Cup triumph.

The stage was set for a thrilling final act: Brazil's wonderful entertainers, heirs to a glorious history, against a France team that represented the ideal of a nation. At least, that was how it was billed. The truth, as ever, was a touch more complex, as the world was not treated to a glorious performance from Brazil, nor their leading man following the bedlam surrounding his selection. In fact, while some guessed Ronaldo had initially been ruled out due to an ankle or knee injury, the truth behind his strangely listless demeanour during the game was far more serious. As Richard Williams wrote in The Guardian: "The anonymity of Ronaldo's performance will take some explaining."

It later transpired that the Inter striker had suffered a fit while sleeping on the day of the game. Details emerged over the following days and weeks that 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 heard people crying "he's dead, he's dead", while room-mate Roberto Carlos blamed the pressure of holding the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, as well as the dreams of marketing men. "Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead," he said. "The pressure had got to him and he couldn't stop crying ... here was a 21-year-old player, the best player in the world, surrounded by contracts and pressure. Something had to give. And when it did, it happened to be the day of the World Cup final."

Nothing untoward was discovered in the neurological and cardiac tests he underwent in hospital, ensuring the exact cause of his convulsions were a mystery and leaving the incident conveniently open to conspiracy theories - including allegations of mystery injections or problems in his private life. What mattered was that a young man's life had been in danger. Coach Zagallo addressed his players in the team hotel and retold the story of how Brazil won the 1962 World Cup without the injured Pele. But then, at Stade de France, Ronaldo returned and declared himself fit. He was back in the team, but how? And why?

This is where the story goes cold, with a form of omerta in place. Various parties have been blamed for the decision to field a player who only hours previously had led his colleagues to fear he had died. It was said that Nike put pressure on Brazil to ensure its most marketable asset - the star of its pre-tournament advert - was on the pitch, though the company strongly refuted the accusations. Fingers were pointed at the Brazilian Football Federation, as well as Zagallo and team doctor Lidio Toledo, but the truth is that no one outside of a tight circle knows the events that resulted in the most famous footballer on the planet taking the field as a shadow of his usual self.

But take the field he did. On the evening of July 12, Brazil emerged from the tunnel hand-in-hand and the last to do so, the lenses of the world's press training to snatch a glimpse of him, was Ronaldo.

His impact on the game was predictably minimal, one decent shot being saved at a tight angle by Fabien Barthez, and instead it was Zidane who took the plaudits when heading home twice from corners in the first half. Zagallo said after the game: "I kept thinking about taking him off. But he said he felt well enough to play and if I had not played Ronaldo after he said he was fit, I'd have been under even more criticism".

Following a red card shown to Marcel Desailly for two poor tackles, France secured their first World Cup triumph when Patrick Vieira fed Arsenal team-mate Emmanuel Petit for the third goal. Two days before Bastille Day, France's cosmopolitan squad had given the country an early reason to celebrate. Images of Zidane were beamed onto the Arc de Triomphe and over a million people partied in the streets of Paris.

But for one boy from Brazil, a football player who had become the subject of one of sport's great mysteries, the date represented nothing but hurt, even if the result on the pitch was put into perspective by the events leading up to it. As Ronaldo put it: "We lost the World Cup but I won another cup - my life."

What happened next? Ronaldo suffered from extensive injury problems at Inter but returned to fitness in time for the 2002 World Cup, where he would dominate the competition, scoring twice in the final and claiming eight goals overall. At the 2006 finals, he broke Gerd Muller's record when scoring his 15th goal at a World Cup finals. Zidane also returned to the final in 2006 and was sent off for an infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi as France lost to Italy in Berlin.

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