Comebacks are one of the most endearing aspects about the struggles of life. Seldom does someone pass through time without falling, but the ones who possess the ability to stand back up after a blow make the biggest marks. Champions are driven on the pursuit of success, more so, when it has been taken away from under their noses. Hardly anyone embodied this more than Ronaldo Luis Nazares Da Lima between 1998 and 2002.
Summer of ‘98. A buck-toothed 21 year old has lit up the world cup and destroyed every defense out of sight. Leading Brazil’s charts with four goals and sights firmly set on the Golden Ball, his plans against France in the World Cup final were no different. On the eve of the final, Ronaldo got a convulsive-seizure while in his sleep and as a natural repercussion, coach Mario Zagallo replaced him with Edmundo in his team sheet. By the time the match kicked-off, Ronaldo was bizarrely back in the starting lineup. O Fenomeno ghost-walked through the 90 minutes, almost as if in oblivion to his surroundings. The Golden Ball served as little consolation to the World Cup medal being taken away by bad fortune.
Between November 1999 and May 2002, he played a grand total of 7 minutes of competitive football, having twice ruptured knee ligaments. He came back just in time for the tournament, and dear lord, what a comeback it was.
Elsewhere, England faced Argentina in their second group game. David Beckham had one thing on his mind: redemption. Red-carded for kicking Simeone in the ‘98 quarters, he scored a rather emotional penalty to get his country the victory in Japan. Argentina crashed out of the group stages and defending champs France, bereft of a fit Zidane, followed suit without scoring. Oh did I mention, a Netherlands team consisting of Kluivert, Nistelrooy, Davids, Overmars, Cocu and Bergkamp hadn’t even made it to the World Cup.
Guus Hiddink’s South Korea advanced through to the Round of 16, where they met Italy. While the young Asian team had never won a World Cup game before this tournament, the Europeans knew a thing or two about winning. Maldini, Totti, Del Piero and Vieri made up a more than decent lineup. Some quite astonishing refereeing and Christian Vieri’s excellent impression of Emile Heskey took the game into extra-time where Ahn-Jun Hwan scored the golden goal to take the Koreans through. As fate would have it, Ahn played professional football for Serie A club Perugia, who wasted no time in terminating his contract. The Italians, and then Spain in the quarters, screamed injustice, and the co-hosts were in the World Cup semi finals.
Like Croatia in 1998 and Bulgaria in 1994, Turkey and Senegal were dishing out the upsets this time around. Bruno Metsu’s Senegal had defeated France in the first match of the tournament, made it past the group stage, shocked Sweden, and ended up in the quarters. where they lost to a rather refreshingly brilliant Turkey.
Rudi Voller’s Germany squad, largely deemed as the weakest from the nation to go for a World Cup, reached the semi finals after having conceded just one goal. Why? Because they had Oliver Kahn in goal, that’s why. Miroslav Klose had helped himself to 5 goals, all but one of them in a 8-0 rout of Saudi Arabia. A young Micheal Ballack had been one of the very few attacking sparks in the team. In the semis, they were up against South Korea. The stadium resembled a red ocean, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was a fest more than a football match. The Germans went through 1-0, but ended up losing Ballack for the final.
The other semi-final had Brazil facing Turkey. Luis Felipe Scolari’s side had scored 11 goals in their group stages and two more against Belgium in the round of 16. Ronaldo and Rivaldo found the net on each of these matches. The 3rd R, you ask? He did this against England in the quarters.
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Though not nearly as entertaining as a Brazil team is supposed to be, this group was focussed a lot more on success than flair. Turkey were defeated 1-0 thanks to a glorious Ronaldo run and finish (okay fine, toe-poke). Third final in three world cups for the Selecao. Ronaldo’s shot at burying the ghosts from that fateful night in Paris four years back.
And boy, he did. Only three goals went past Oliver Kahn throughout the whole tournament, and two of them were by Ronaldo. One of them, an opportunistic chance after Kahn spilled a Rivaldo shot, and the second, a proper striker’s goal. With both goals coming in the second half, the match now looked past the Germans. The ghosts had been buried and the fifth World Cup had been won.
Slowly, but surely, defensive stability was overtaking attacking brilliance as the primary focus of most teams. The turn of the millennium was changing a few things in football. Greece won Euro 2004, after winning all but one of their matches 1-0.
Some of the better defensive teams in the world were taking note.