1998 World Cup Final
Stade de France, Saint-Denis
As far as World Cup finals go, the one played out in 1998 between Brazil and France couldn’t have had a better script. While Brazil were looking to defend the crown they won 4 years ago in 1994, France were playing at home, looking to win the Golden trophy for the first time. The game also saw two legends take on each other, with Zinedine Zidane overshadowing the Brazilian Ronaldo, who himself was embroiled in a fantastic controversy that left the whole of Brazil agitated and in a frenzy.
Consider this- Ronaldo, Brazil’s golden boy, who was expected to lead the side against a resurgent France fell sick just hours before the game. He was dropped from the first team and whisked away to the hospital only to make a dramatic return to the team minutes before kick-off. However there was another twist in the tale. Instead of heroically leading Brazil to World Cup glory, Ronaldo was unable to shake off his sickness and a below par performance from the striker allowed a certain Zinedine Zidane to score twice leading France to a famous 3-0 win over Brazil.
It doesn’t get more dramatic than this in football.
“When I saw what it was, I despaired,” Edmundo told congress. “Because it was a really strong and shocking scene.” He ran through the hotel hitting on all the doors and shouting for everyone to come.
A congressmen asked the striker for more details. “Was Ronaldo hitting out or shaking?”
“Hitting out a lot,” replied Edmundo.
“Lying down and hitting himself with his hands like this, with his teeth . . . “
“Locked together and with his mouth foaming.”
“His whole body hitting itself?”
“The whole body, yes.”
Hours before the game, Ronaldo finished his lunch with the team at the Chateau de Grande Romaine in Lésigny and returned to his room with Roberto Carlos. According to Carlos, Ronaldo suddenly started convulsing and frothing at his mouth as he descended into a fit. It was Edmundo and Cesar Sampaio who rushed to the striker and administered first-aid. Before the doctors could arrive at the scene, it was this duo who prevented Ronaldo from fatally swallowing his own tongue.
Having recovered from the fit, the striker fell deep asleep and woke up to not remember anything. The dressing room was under a lot of stress and rumours were flying thick. While the rest of the team boarded the bus and left for the stadium to play the biggest game of their career, Ronaldo was whisked away to a hospital to conduct neurological tests. Declared completely fit, the striker arrived 40 minutes before the game and though his name was missing from the initial team-list, he made his way to the starting eleven.
To bill the 1998 final as a Ronaldo vs Zidane finale would be a tad bit unfair. Though Ronaldo and Zidane were both charismatic and important players to the team, Brazil and France were by no means a one-man army.
Led by Leornado and Rivaldo in the midfield, with Dunga sitting as the holding midfielder, the 1998 Brazil squad was a fine balance of talent, youth and experience. Cafu and Roberto Carlos provided the team with width on the wings with Ronaldo and Bebeto leading the attack upfront.
France on the other hand was orchestrated by Zidane, Petit and Deschamps in the midfield and played infront of an adoring stadium that egged them on for a historic victory.
Zidane looked like a man on a mission in the finals and was brilliant for France in the midfield. The French maestro showed his worth on the biggest stage as he rose to head in twice in the first half, giving the hosts a comfortable lead going into the second half.
Ronaldo on other hand looked subdued, much like his other team-mates and wasted the few opportunities he had in front of a brave and competent Barthez.
In the end France won 3-0 as Petit scored a late counter-attacking goal and Zinedine Zidane was awarded the Man of the Match.
Ronaldo though returned to Brazil with his team-mates and the national football team was soon embroiled in a controversy that stained the fabric of the Brazil football jersey in the years to come.
“Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead. The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying. If anything, it got worse because at about 4 o’clock, he started being sick. That’s when I called the team doctor and told him to get over to our room as fast as he could.” (Roberto Carlos)
Following Brazil’s dramatic loss in the World Cup finale, the details surrounding Ronaldo’s sickness was made public. Such was the public reaction to the news that an official enquiry was made to find out what exactly happened to the Brazil national team before the finals.
What happened to Ronaldo before the game? Was he poisoned or drugged and was there a major conspiracy behind his ‘timely’ fit? And if Ronaldo was so sick, why was he allowed to play in the finals? Who allowed him to play? Was he forced by Nike or were the medics irresponsible enough to play with the striker’s life?
Questions were flying thick in Brazil and people wanted some answers.
“Imagine if I stopped him playing and Brazil lost. At that moment I’d have to go and live on the North Pole.”
This is what Lidio Toledo, the team doctor, had to say when asked why he didn’t prevent Ronaldo from playing in the finals despite him suffering a fit hours before the game. Was he under pressure to give the green signal to Ronaldo? To say that the team officials weren’t under tremendous pressure to let Brazil’s golden boy play would be a laughable suggestion.
When manager Zagallo was quizzed regarding his decision to field Ronaldo, he replied that the striker was deemed fit by the medical authorities and hence allowed him to start the game. His answer however betrayed that he too was under pressure to allow the striker to start the game.
“I kept thinking about taking him off. But he said he felt well wnough to play and if I had played Ronaldo after he said he was fit, I’d have been under even more criticism.”
“Faced with this reaction, I chose Ronaldo. Now was it his being chosen that caused Brazil to lose? Absolutely not. I think it was the collective trauma, created by the atmosphere of what had happened.”
Speaking to the Congress in Brazil, Zagallo insisted that he had to put Ronaldo on.
“If you invert the situation and I didn’t put Ronaldo on and then Brazil lost 3-0, people would say ‘Zagallo is stubborn, he had to put him on, Ronaldo was the best player in the world’. So I think I would do the same again.”
There were also rumours doing the round which suggested that it was Nike who forced Ronaldo to start the game. Ronaldo was Nike’s leading football superstar at the time and somehow this rumour stuck and allegations and inquiries were made. Some much so that an official enquiry was done by the Government to investigate the details of the new contract signed between Nike and the Brazilian Football Federation.
Edmundo who was benched following Ronaldo’s miraculous return an hour before the final suggested that Nike had a role to play in the team selection. He revealed that Nike officials were present 24×7 and had a commanding presence in 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.”
Ronaldo was even called down as a witness in the investigation. The Brazilian star was subjected to a series of questions and was eventually asked as to which player was responsible for marking Zidane?
The striker could not remember the team-mate who was responsible but swiftly added that whoever was responsible did not quite do a good job on the Frenchman.
No conclusion has been reached as to what exactly happened to Ronaldo that caused the fit. Though there were several rumours doing the rounds and strong suspicion persisted in the Brazil regarding some wrong-doing, no concrete evidence surfaced in the aftermath of the 1998 finals. Later however, a rumour suggested that Ronaldo was administered an injection of xylocaine, a common anaesthetic for his ailing knee. It was explained that the drug had entered a vein accidentally, which caused his ‘fit’.
Though this argument made a lot of sense, rumours and conspiracy theories have a habit of not dying down easily, especially one surrounding Brazil and a World Cup final defeat.
Ranging from plausible to downright absurd, these are the some of the best rumours that were strongly backed by the Press during the time, some of which still finds vocal support with the fans.
1.FIFA Convinced Brazil To ‘Sell’ The World Cup
A ‘source’ at TV Globo revealed that Brazil had sold the World Cup to France with FIFA and Nike playing a part in the negotiaitions.
According to the source, Brazil was paid a figure of $23m (£15m) in bribes to help France win the trophy which in turn would satisfy the French and European fans. In return, Brazil were promised a ‘safe passage’ in the 2002 World Cup (Hang on…) and would be awarded the right to host a World Cup in the coming decade (What??) The ‘source’ alleged that Ronaldo refused to be a part of this negotiation and hence was dropped from the team. However when threatened by Nike, the striker caved in and lined-up to gift France the World Cup.
2. Nike and CBF Forced a Sick Ronaldo To Play
Other conspiracy theories suggest that ronaldo was indeed sick but was forced by CBF and Nike to play in the finals as he was the poster boy for both the federation and the sports company, with millions on the line. Having spent a fortune on advertisements and marketing, Nike couldn’t afford to have their star player sit out the finals.
3. The French Drugged Ronaldo
Plain and simple. Hours before the match, the French somehow got their way to poison Ronaldo in order to ensure that Brazil would lose their champion goal-scorer. Though the poisoning was only partially successful, it was enough to subdue the striker and dampen the spirit in the dressing room, allowing Zidane to fly high and guide France to World Cup glory.
Here’s the classic Nike advertisement on the Brazil from 1998, with Ronaldo clearly stealing the limelight and being the centre of attraction. And yes, he does miss the final shot in the advertisement. Quite suspicious some would say.