Ronaldo’s knee injury in 1999 was the start of his redemption. It began with him on the ground and ended with him flying through the air. In 1999, he shredded his knee, cried in front of the whole world, screamed for his mommy and daddy (honestly), and had to be rolled off the field on a stretcher. This all at his own welcome back party.
Three years later, he won the World Cup and was the best player in the world again. That’s a hell of a swing.
After his knee shredded, a doctor had to make him a new one, and there was real concern that Ronaldo would be a bright star who burned too bright. It took him a while to get himself right again, and when you’re not right, not regularly playing, your confidence escapes; it goes quietly, slipping with the tide when you’ve loosened your hold on the ropes. The foot forgets how to cushion and you clunk and you clatter, the ball goes, you trip. Feet gone dumb. Then something else hurts, something that has been compensating, working overtime, still had to keep the machine going, working double time since ’99, but that’s it now. That piece goes, you’re injured, and, for you, it’s back to the training room, back on your ass.
After his injury in ’99, Ronaldo didn’t play seriously again until the lead-up to the World Cup in 2002. After surgery and rehab, he remained on the brink of recovery at Inter Milan. His coach, the Argentine Héctor Cúper, refused to play him, saying he wasn’t fit, and not necessary for his plans. How was Ronaldo supposed to become fit when he wasn’t allowed to play? The team finished third in the league, got eliminated in the semifinals of the UEFA Cup (not the Champions League), didn’t come close to the Coppa Italia — and Ronaldo couldn’t fit in the plan? If that’s the case, you have a shitty plan.
The more conspiratorial amongst us say Cúper kept Ronaldo on the bench so he wouldn’t be match-fit for the World Cup, and Cúper's home country, Argentina, would get a leg-up on Brazil. It’s true that the Argentines are South America’s Hatfields if the Brazilians are the McCoys, but if you believe that Cúper cares more about his country than his job, take a look at where he’s coached. He’s been all over the world, between its toes, coaching in countries like Georgia, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. It seems unlikely that he’s so devoted to his home country that he would commit employment suicide, that is benching Ronaldo and losing, just to give the Argentine national team a slightly better chance at victory. Cúper seems more like a man who simply wants to work. He has given himself to the sport, not to his country. But Cúper is a crummy villain in this story. He was telling Ronaldo he wasn’t good enough, which was not insulting because it was just plain wrong.
What was it then?
Why did Cúper refuse to play him?
Mom didn’t hug enough?
Some Brazilian banged his girlfriend?
Hatfield and McCoy shit.
Ronaldo was in his prime and on the verge of a full recovery. He needed to be on the field. He needed to get minutes, to regain match-fitness, so he could avoid petty injuries. The Brazilians wanted him out there too. The World Cup was coming and they wanted him sharp. Cúper may have been strong enough to keep him on the bench, but he wasn’t strong enough to keep him in the country.
Enter Brazilian national team coach, Big Phil Scolari.
Big Phil would go on to become a legendary Seleção (Brazilian national team) coach, but when he called Héctor Cúper, he was just starting out. He’d inherited a team that was skidding off the rails and he was getting grief for how defensive he had them playing. He was hearing it from the media, Pelé, even Brazil’s president. He had 90 percent of a complete attack; he had Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, enough to take you pretty far, but Brazilian expectations are not “pretty far”, they are “win”. The debacle in ’98 left the general public and the media skittish. A missing 10% was reason for panic.
Everyone said take Romario. He was scoring for his club, playing well, but he’d lied when Phil first took over. Phil had called him up for national team duty, and Romario said he was injured and couldn’t report. He turned up at a tournament in Mexico, playing with his club team. Rightly so, that put him on Big Phil’s shit list. Still, Phil was missing his 10 percent. A coach’s job is to take the best team possible to the competition. He needed completion, and he found it sitting on a bench in Italy.
Big Phil called Cúper in Milan and said, “Hey, that star you have on your bench? Ronaldo? The best player in the world who you’re refusing to play? If you aren’t going to use him, send him back to Brazil.” Cúper and Inter put up a fight, but Ronaldo was ready to go. Sit on a bench with some little Argentine bully? No, thank you. Ronaldo hopped a jet and returned to Rio. Inter couldn’t do anything about it.
Leading up to the World Cup, the Seleção staff created a fitness program for Ronaldo that not only strengthened his knee, but got him in phenomenal shape, razor thin. By the time he showed up in Korea for the tournament’s opening game against Turkey, he was cutting like a sling blade, back at his old fighting weight.
Brazil did not enter the tournament as the bookies’ favorite though. They had not impressed during qualification, and there were still skeptics waiting for Ronaldo to fold up and fall down. It was hard to blame them. The run-up to the tournament was not auspicious: France ’98 was a meltdown, coaching changes, Ronaldo was terribly injured, the team barely qualified for 2002, Romario was unceremoniously dropped, and at the WC pre-tournament camp, the team captain and central midfielder, Emerson, was ruled out for the tournament after he suffered an injury playing goalie in practice, just goofing around. You could see a soft toxic glow in the foundation of the squad.
If you want to follow the money, Brazil’s hype-man, Nike, didn’t give the Brazilians a win in their big TV AD. FIFA frontman, Sepp Blatter, seemed to seal the curse. Before the opening game, while the starting eleven from each team lined up on the field, Blatter moved down the line, shaking players’ hands. When he reached Ronaldo, the unholy Swiss, gave him two kisses on the cheek.
While all this bad juju lingered, surely, none of it made the Turkish players feel any better. Fear lives down a deep pit in the psyche, and as far as it had heard, this was still Brazil they were playing against.
They were still wearing that yellow.
He was still Ronaldo.
At kickoff, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho waited over the ball.
They clapped hands.
The game kicked off and Ronaldo was a bull right out of the gates, eager to run and looking to gore. The three attackers — Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo — rotated between playing high and dropping into the midfield to get the ball. They clicked like gears in a fine watch. The Turks could only stay in their spots — careful — and watch.
In the third minute, Ronaldo received the ball at his feet for the first time, about 40 yards out. The Korean crowd stood up.
They said his name in a 10,000 person murmur, and for the player, that turns to pure energy. When you feel a crowd on your side, anticipating you, you feel weightless, like your adversaries, your fears, have no hope against you. It’s a surge, but here that surge overloaded Ronaldo’s muscles. He fired a shot at goal, but it sizzled over and cut wide.
Ronaldo looked ready physically, no problem with his knee, but he was forcing his play. Greatness is serene. The push comes naturally. A player needs to get his mind out of the way, to bite into the main nerve, and give himself up.
On a quick free kick, Ronaldo checked to the ball. Ease, simplicity — one touch, he cut the ball across his body, up the field, to Rivaldo who was now in and running at the last defender. He fired from range, the goalkeeper got in front of it, but the ball popped out. Ronaldo, at full-speed, went for the rebound, but the Turk jumped on it first.
Let the moment come.
Ronaldinho won the ball, on the right touchline, midfield.
Ronaldo showed, high and in the middle.
Ronaldinho wouldn’t give it though. He chipped the ball to Rivaldo.
Let the moment come.
Rivaldo was closed down by a Turk, and Ronaldo was on for a quick slip through — give it! — but Rivaldo wouldn’t do it.
He passed the ball to Roberto Carlos, who was coming up on the left side.
Why do they not pass to me?
Who do they see running at them?
It’s not that they don’t trust you.
They trust you.
You trust you.
Ronaldo found space wide, where his defender wouldn’t closely follow. He waited there for Carlos to pass to him. Carlos wouldn’t.
Portuguese Translations by P.C. Solér.
Rivaldo heard it.
Ronaldinho’s brows popped up.
Carlos gave him the ball.
It was time to erase doubts.
A Turk ran up on Ronaldo’s back. Ronaldo stepped over to the right then turned left and shook him. He faced the goal, saw all the space he had, then ran at the defender like a mother going after her boy to whoop him. That’s the hallmark of a confident attacker. They dribble at defenders. Ronaldo got to the endline, crossed it, and Rivaldo rose up, headed the ball down, but the goalkeeper made an incredible save, reaching back to stop it.
All doubts were put to rest.
They couldn’t before halftime, but the Turks did. In stoppage time, Hasan Şaş got behind the last defender and put the ball around the keeper.
The halftime whistle blew.
He walked to the tunnel.
Big Phil found him and put his around him.
Let it come to you.
You are so blessed that you only have to play to your ability.
For the whole break, he sat on the bench in front of his locker.
The others paced, changed cleats, talked to trainers — something pulled, something needed to be stretched. Ronaldo didn’t talk to anybody. Hours spent alone while rehabilitating his knee, while recovering from France ‘98, had taught him how to center himself, to get out of the way of his greatness and allow it through.
Ronaldo watched the red glow of the digital clock as it counted down to the start of the second half.
He got up.
Rivaldo hit him on the chest once.
Ronaldinho bro-signed him.
Ronaldo kept looking forward.
The second half kicked off.
Ronaldo went hyper-aware.
He watched the guys move and knew beforehand where they’d go.
He saw their future selves pulling the present and the phosphorescent that it washed up.
Rivaldo got the ball about 25 yards out, wide to the left.
Ronaldo saw that the Turks’ defensive line was high up, leaving space between the goalkeeper and the line of defenders.
Ronaldo did what he’d been told to do since he was a kid. It’s what a good center-forward does: if there’s open space in front of the goal, you run to it and call for the ball. The genius comes in the path chosen and the ability to finish.
The Turkish defender saw Ronaldo run, so he took a few steps with him.
Ronaldo changed his path, running behind the defender in order stay
unseen and unmarked.
Rivaldo, a sniper, whipped the ball in.
Let it come.
Let greatness through.
And then he flew.