This is arguably the most high-profile mystery in professional sport. It involves the division of socialism, political upheaval and a shocking example of the corruption caused by remuneration. The story involves two protagonist nations- one which solved their countries epidemic through football, and another where the beautiful game acted as a catalyst, providing the bewildering prelude for this epic tale. It all started the morning of the 12th July 1998 when the football world was shaken.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was widely considered the greatest player of his era. Winner of the 1997 Ballon d’Or the previous year, the F.C. Internazionale forward possessed a ferocious mixture of skill, pace, and exquisite finishing. Naturally, as the world’s best player, the striker was put on a pedestal by his native Brazil and heralded as the man to help O Canarinho win back to back World Cups following their ’94 triumph.
Brazil’s journey to consecutive finals was a relatively straightforward one. After finishing top of Group A they overcame South American compatriots Chile before seeing off European contenders in the form of Denmark and the Netherlands to set up a meeting with the hosts, France. Ronaldo meanwhile was living up to his nickname- O Fenômeno ‘The Phenomenon’ scoring 3 goals and providing a further 4 assists en route to the final at the State de France.
Ostensibly dealing with the immense pressure of carrying a nations weight on his shoulders, Ronaldo had his teammates and supporters alike brimming with confidence going into the match. Holding footballers in near demi-god status is nothing new for Brazil. The countries yellow kit has always been the embodiment of sporting excellence and Pelé, Brazil’s figurehead, was often heralded as a genius throughout the 60’s and early 70’s. Since then, many others have attempted to sit on his lofty throne-Ronaldo included-with Neymar becoming the latest poster-boy to fill the void.
This leads us to the day of the final, where, hours before kick-off, Ronaldo suffered a ‘convulsive fit’ in his hotel room. Found struggling for breath and foaming at the mouth, medics were called and the star was quickly rushed to hospital. The news was not made public knowledge at first leading to a media frenzy when his name was omitted from the original team sheet. Moreover, just as everyone was coming to terms with the revelation, there was another shocking announcement. Minutes before the match was due to start word filtered through that Ronaldo had in fact been reinstated in the first XI and would start the final.
What followed was both astounding and unbearable for Brazilians in equal measure. The striker looked a shadow of himself, wandering around the pitch aimlessly without a shred of his usual swagger or panache. France stormed into a two-goal lead at the break courtesy of Zidane’s headed brace and in a game billed as two of the world’s finest athletes going toe to toe, it seemed only one had shown up. Desailly’s dismissal in the 68th minute did little to quell Les Bleus onslaught and Petit made it three following a Vieira led counter-attack late on thus concluded the game as a contest.
Since then many have tried to decipher exactly happened to Ronaldo that day. Unfortunately, the truth seems to be as elusive now as it was 19 years ago. One reoccurring factor in the debacle centres around Brazil’s shady sponsorship deal with global sports brand Nike. In 1996, the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) signed a $150 million contract with Nike and in the process, afford the company unprecedented power. Clauses in the agreement meant Nike could dictate the location and opposition of up to five international fixtures per year, alongside selecting eight of the starting personnel.
Nike’s sovereignty appeared to reach its pinnacle when representatives entered the Brazilian dressing room following the announcement of Ronaldo’s omission. After they left, the striker had been reinstated in the team so as you can imagine, much has been made of Nike’s influence in the decision. The financial magnitude of not having the world’s best player on the pitch for the world’s biggest sporting event was unfathomable. It seems Nike acted swiftly to ensure their prize asset would be wearing the iconic tick in front of a global audience.
It’s a theory indirectly echoed by the misfortunate Edmundo, who saw his dream of staring in a World Cup final realised then subsequently shattered in a matter of minutes. The man who was due to start in place of O Fenômeno for all of 42 minutes stated “Nike’s people were there 24hrs a day as if they were a member of the technical staff. It’s a huge power, that’s all I can say.” Strong words from a man at the centre of the controversy.
The other major conspiracy was first broken by TV station Globo. They reported that Brazil had traded their chance at glory in an agreement with FIFA to throw the game, suggesting that Ronaldo was simply ‘playing his part’. It was alleged that FIFA had offered O Canarinho; £23 million, an easy route to the 2002 World Cup final, and the promise that Brazil could host the tournament themselves in the upcoming decade. Seems farfetched although given FIFA’s corruption, the fact they won the ‘02 title- and then hosted in 2014, who knows.
It was suggested that Sepp Blatter and co. wanted to ease socio-political tension by gifting France glory and thus facilitating a sense of unity amidst ongoing civil unrest. With arguments rife over the nation’s immigration policy at the time, many thought Les Bleus glory on home soil would help subside feuds and unite the people. Especially as ten of the players had heritage from outside of France. This polarised culture was epitomised by Nationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Riding on the wave of anti-multiculturalism, he branded the team ‘unworthy’ of representing France on the basis that the lack of ‘white faces’ in the side misrepresented the countries identity.
Now onto the infamous ‘convulsive fit’ itself. Numerous opinions have been offered- from the seemingly plausible, to the outright crazy. Brazilian paper Folha de S Paulo suggested Ronaldo had suffered a nervous breakdown due to pressure, citing an incident where he smashed a bicycle against a wall one week prior to the final and linked his behaviour to symptoms of depression. Other sources conveyed that Ronaldo’s mental state was hampered by the news that his then-girlfriend Susan Werner was allegedly having an affair with a Brazilian journalist.
Perhaps a sounder opinion is that of Ronaldo’s roommate at the tournament, Roberto Carlos, who stated he believed the ‘fit’ to be nothing more than a panic-attack due to immense expectation consuming the forward. “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.”
One of the only men to know for sure is Ronaldo himself, and whether you believe him or not, the striker only subscribes to one explanation. After being grilled in court following an investigation into the CBF’s and Nike’s relationship, the ’98 Golden Ball winner simply reiterated that he was medically cleared to play and just put in a sub-par performance.
“We lost because we didn’t win.”