The 1998 World Cup semifinal, between Brazil and the Netherlands, went to penalty kicks and that is always a terrible thing. The tension of the 1 v 1 battles ties you into knots, you find yourself with your legs crossed, your core clenched, and all you’re doing is watching.
However, in these tight situations, you find the rocks that don't crumble. Take the Brazilian midfielder, Dunga, the captain of the ‘98 team, its heart beat. He knocked in his PK in like he was hammering a nail.
The Dutch midfielder Ronald de Boer could not do the same. He missed and the Brazilians were on to the final. The whole team went into rapture. Brazil’s coach, Mário Zagallo, was mobbed by his assistants, only to tear himself away, and go weep alone. Crying players grabbed their goalkeeper, Claudio Taffarel, by the face and thanked him for the save. When stakes get this high and victory is in peril, win or lose, a release has to happen.
Brazil had endured a sluggish World Cup campaign, but they were a team who knew how to win. They had entered the tournament as favorites mostly because Ronaldo, FIFA World Player of the Year twice in a row, was playing like a goal-scoring assault rifle. For Inter Milan, he'd been mowing Italian defenses.
For him, the awards were nice, the money better, the love of the people the best.
But with love, money, and awards come contracts.
This is the exact situation Romario had warned 17 year-old Ronaldo about four years earlier — poolside in LA. Romario told him, see the sport as just a profession — not your life, not your master. Approach the sport like a plumber does his pipes.
At France ’98, Ronaldo was 21 and had no intention of being a fucking plumber. He signed the contracts, cashed the checks, put the clothes on, and marched. They put him in the spotlight and he sang their song. Did he kick ass on the field while doing it? Of course, and his work as a UN ambassador in conflict zones like Kosovo and Israel/Palestine, tell us he saw (and likely still sees) his powers of persuasion to be useful beyond hawking merchandise. He graciously supports the greater good, and seems to have a desire to heal.
Healers must endure pain though. A unique pain. If you’re a star athlete, you have massed enough support to climb up your people and stand a thousand feet tall. You receive a large amount of material wealth and immense appreciation. This is a euphoric sensation — but standing on top can turn dizzying. Especially when the people below keep wanting more and more. They’ll give you more money for it. You’ll be compensated, wonderfully. Pretty good for a poor kid from Rio. But there’s a tipping point. There’s a number that is too high because it causes a pressure too great. For each person, the number is likely a little different, but for everyone, it is impossible to know where your number is until you’ve fallen over it.
Before the '98 World Cup, Nike decided to make a move on the soccer market. As World Cup hosts in ’94, the American people had been bludgeoned with the sport and now, four years later, their youth eagerly consumed it. Of course, there was also the rest of the world, the gigantic, already established, futbol market, which around this time period, conveniently enough, was being wired up by the Internet. That connection granted companies valuable access to consumers in every country and allowed for the sport to beam worldwide.
You needed an athlete to sell it though.
And what’s the best thing an athlete can do?
Win. So you go find a winner.
When Nike went from running to basketball, they got Michael Jordan.
For golf, it was Tiger Woods.
With soccer in the late 90s, it could only be Ronaldo.
Nike filled his pockets with cash, painted him in swooshes, even branded him, R9.
The Anna Kournikova Incident
(Pre-Tournament camp, World Cup ‘98)
On a day off from training, Ronaldo took in some tennis, the French Open, at Roland Garros. The World Cup didn’t start for another nine days and Nike called and said they had tickets.
Nike: Wear your R9 shirt.
Nike: And the hat too.
Ronaldo: I will!
The seats were in a private box, some Nike guys were there, and so were a few other Nike-endorsed Brazilian players. The day was sunny and warm, and the tennis was watched leisurely.
Somebody tapped Ronaldo’s shoulder.
Nike: Take a look.
Ronaldo: That’s Anna Kournikova.
Brazilian Teammates: Holy shit.
Blonde and tennis-bronzed.
Anna Kournikova: Ronaldo! Ronaldo! I’m a huge fan. May I come sit with you?
Ronaldo looked behind him.
Nike: Not us.
A flash bulb in the photographer’s pit started to sparkle.
Coach Zagallo had instituted a “no WAGS” policy for the whole tournament. Ronaldo knew that, all his teammates around him did, but this young lady was no girlfriend or wife. She was a fan. More than that, she was a young athlete with a dream. Part of Ronaldo responsibility is to inspire the youth. His job is also to sign autographs, to indulge the customer. The poor get to touch his hands, the dreamers get to approach him, and the beautiful women will kiss his cheek.
And what is a kiss?
Portuguese Translations by P.C. Solér.
The photo made the tabloids. Ronaldo’s famous actress girlfriend back home went into a frenzy. The Brazilian press loved that, and Ronaldo had to deal with the media slobbering over his personal life. Coach Zagallo was not impressed. But a healer cannot expect anonymity. By nature, the healer must be known, and in today’s world being known invites invasive forces.
On the field, Ronaldo’s main stressor was his knee. He reported to Brazil’s doctors that the pain would come and go. The knee was not yet snapped, it would be in a few months, but it was already on the fritz, and in Zagallo’s system, Ronaldo had to run a lot. The situation was built to blow.
Life seemed about as tough as it gets for a rich phenom.
Back to the semifinal. After Ronald de Boer’s miss, Brazil was through to possibly the most stress-filled game there is: the World Cup Final, and there the hometown French waited for them.
Throughout the tournament, the Brazilian team was not beating opponents as soundly as expected. They lost to Norway, barely beat Scotland. Ronaldo’s knee was bothering him, but he reportedly took injections and kept playing. He did everything he could to ignore his body’s cries and play on. He knew how important his role on the team was. He was not at his best, but with Rivaldo and Bebeto helping, the trio were putting in enough goals to keep the team alive.
They’d survived this far, and now needed to do it one more time. Ronaldo needed his knee just for 90 more minutes. He needed the media to shut the fuck up for just one day. He needed the people to change their cries to silent prayers, to not put their weight on him, but to take it off, let him breathe, let him get light, and he would glide again, take them through this one last time.
The day of the final, after lunch at the hotel, Ronaldo left his teammates and went to his room, saying he needed to rest. His roommate, Roberto Carlos, was on the bed, bopping between his headphones. Carlos would later say that Ronaldo had confided in him about the toll of the pressure. He reported that Ronaldo cried throughout the tournament, overwhelmed by the attention. He thought he’d been made into a vessel for people to pour their hopes into, for the suits to make their bonuses off of. Everybody gets rich, everybody gets to be happy. But the whole thing was dependent on him. Everybody else could fuck up, get fired, get replaced, and the show would go on. Ronaldo couldn't.
He’d been cracking, and now he was, even medicaly speaking, cracked. After coming into his room after lunch, passing Roberto Carlos and laying on is bed, Ronaldo went into a seizure.
Roberto Carlos: Ronaldo?
Carlos shot out of the room and into the hall.
Roberto Carlos: Ele está morto! Ele está morto!
He ran to get the team doctor.
The only diagnoses that was ever made public said Ronaldo had a “fit”. He shook and drooled for about two minutes, then suddenly awoke. The room was filled with his teammates, doctors, coaches, and he was spooked.
Ronaldo: What happened?
Coach Zagallo: Everybody out.
Ronaldo was rushed to a hospital. He went through scans, but doctors found nothing wrong with thim. Again, they called it a fit. Most likely, Ronaldo suffered a panic attack, so within hours he was feeling fine, dazed but physically ready to go.
The doctors said there was nothing wrong with him, but the world found out there was when Ronaldo’s name wasn’t in the starting eleven.
Coach Zagallo had made the call.
Brazil's soccer federation wanted him to play.
Nike wanted him to play.
FIFA wanted him to play.
Besides the French, the whole damn world wanted him to play.
But Zagallo had witnessed Ronaldo's so called "fit". He knew, you go see the other side, it fucks with your focus, rewires priorities, even if only temporarily. He needed players with their heads right.
When Ronaldo heard he was out of the line-up, he went straight for Zagallo. The coach was in a small office at the corner of the locker room, looking over plans on a whiteboard with an assistant.
Ronaldo came straight in.
Ronaldo: We’ll play with 12 if you put a person in my place. I’m going out there, Coach. I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I thought I could handle it. All of it. After lunch today, I felt a burn behind my eyes. I was out of breath…but I’m under control now and I have to play.
Zagallo looked at his assistant. They knew he'd come. Zagallo had known Ronaldo since he was a boy. He took him to the US back in ’94. He’d watched him grow into a sweet young man who always meant well, but the same volatility that made him a dynamic attacker, made him erratic and unpredictable off the field.
Zagallo: This is not just about you, Ronaldo. When you woke up, the team looked at you as if you were a ghost.
Ronaldo: They can come touch me now, I'm no ghost. I need to be out there and not because of money, contracts, or any other person, but for me, for my duty to the team. Don’t make me feel that shame. I have to help.
Zagallo was an ex-player, he knew the bond Ronaldo was talking about. To force a player to break it, one who is your star, who has already sacrificed to get you here, who has been given a clean bill of health by doctors, to force him to break the bond would be unconscionable.
The other coach had stopped with the dots on the board and he was rubbing the felt on one of them.
Ronaldo: I dropped the load. Let me pick it up again.
The starting eleven was scratched and Ronaldo’s name was added. He played like shit the whole game, like a ghost, like Zagallo thought he would.
But it's hard to blame a desperate man who wants to play and the humane coach who relents and plays him. The facts are the French won, 3-0, and the aftermath for Ronaldo went into full-gear. The cynics bent him over the barrel. The Brazilian government even carried out an investigation into what happened with Ronaldo’s “fit”. Was Nike to blame? Had they forced him to play? If you could see the man’s intentions, his need to carry others, the weight of it all, the crush of failure, you just wished him a little anonymity. A second to disappear.
But over at FIFA, from their Zürich headquarters, it was announced that Ronaldo had been named the player of the tournament, and he would receive the Golden Ball, his name now forever linked to this World Cup. At Nike, in the forests of Oregon, the executives commissioned an artist to build them a statue of the Brazilian for their grounds. But in Rio, there were only tears.
Next time, the end.