How Brazil Sold Its Soul – Nike, Luis Ronaldo and a Deal With The Devil

Explore the extraordinary story of Luis Ronaldo as Football Paradise blows wide open the depths of Brazil’s den of corruption.

A few hours after Carlos Alberto had unleashed a trademark howitzer into Enrico Albertosi’s net to finish off football’s greatest nod to art, music and poetry, Brazilian newspaper Jornal do Brasil ran a byline which placed their 1970 World Cup victory on the same pedestal as NASA catapulting Neil Armstrong to the moon. Some eyebrows might have been raised by that parallel, but this was just as incredible an achievement. In the day and age of Helenio Herrera and catenaccio, Mario Zagallo’s men produced a display of fluid, attacking football so staggering, it continues be the reference for everything Brazilian football has ever achieved and everything it hasn’t. For the nation, it was a feat of engineering that trumped Heitor da Silva Costa’s Christ the Redeemer. Following the crucifixion of Maracanazo, Joga Bonito (the beautiful game) was Brazil’s second coming.

“We jumped together, but when I landed, I could see Pelé was still floating in the air.”

– Tarcisio Burgnich, Italian defender from the 1970 final.

Handed the last Jules Rimet trophy, the country would have to wait twenty-four years to bask in the reflected glory of the newer edition. Briefly, for a few weeks in 1982, they would flirt with artistry again, but heaven and the left foot of Rivelino knows it wasn’t the same. Beautiful as it was while it lasted, like a romance with a parting lover, it was over too soon.

Roberto Baggio let one sail and Dunga lifted the golden statuette, but a World Cup won playing emotionless football, without channelling any capoeira (Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts combining dance, music and acrobatics), was just another trophy. Nevertheless, it was a success at long last, but only after paying a price too hefty. A deal with the devil, if you will – a pact of expediency that set Faust, Mephistopheles and Brazil’s narrative on course with a moralising end, usually one of damnation. The canary jersey of Seleção, synonymous for Joga Bonito not too long back, had crept down to rouba, mas faz – it’s okay to steal if you get things done. For a country so used to an aggressive and stylish approach from their football team, seeing this was akin to watching a new, slower sport. Their shining star at the tournament, Romario, marked himself out as one honourable exception. Fast, slippery and flamboyant, watching him play evoked joy and nostalgia in equal amounts. He believed in rouba, mas faz alright, but not at a staid display of the sport, instead at leaving defenders gasping for thin air a microsecond after they were secure in their possession of the ball.

Saint Wolfgang and the Devil, by Michael Pacher.

Romario’s understudy at the World Cup was a buck-toothed, lanky 17-year-old striker called Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima. Leaving out the label ‘wet-behind-the-ears’, a phrase oft used for footballers that age comes with the 44 goals he had already scored for his club Cruzeiro in 47 appearances. Following in the steps of his mentor, Luis Ronaldo too signed for PSV Eindhoven and then Barcelona, beginning a journey where he routinely induced said moisture in certain others parts of the human anatomy, on defenders across Europe and South America.

Luis Ronaldo vs Compostela: One of the greatest goals ever scored in La Liga
Luis Ronaldo vs Compostela: One of the greatest goals ever scored in La Liga

The next four years passed in a blitz, just like him running at jelly-legged defenders. Goals, nutmegs, titles and individual honours landed at his doorstep as if the sport was paying homage to a prodigious talent, his ilk not seen since the heady days of a short, stocky lad turning up in the red of Argentinos Juniors. By the time France ‘98 rolled in, Ronaldo had conquered all and sundry. At 21, an age where most people spend sleepless nights in anticipation of the beginning of their independent lives and carving a niche, the boy born under the sun and the shadow of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, was christened ‘Il Fenomeno’. He was at the cusp of glory, tiptoeing around its outskirts, waiting to barge in and take what was rightfully his. Bergkamp and Batistuta, Desailly and Del Piero, Laudrup and Leonardo, were all in attendance, but the world, nevermind Brazil, had prepared itself to applaud Ronaldo. This World Cup was supposed to be his banquet.

The man duly obliged, scoring and setting up goals with equal aplomb as Brazil reached the finals, skipping, slipping, but rarely obliterating opponents like a lineup of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Denilson should have. Four goals already in bag, he was an agonising ninety minutes away from the stream of confetti his feet deserved to stride on.

Life, football, and Brazil, have a way of levelling things whenever one casts their eyes too far into the horizon. Forty-eight years earlier, with newspapers and politicians publicly and prematurely celebrating their players as champions even before they had stepped onto the Maracana pitch for the finals, Brazil would experience an afternoon, whose shadow they are yet to emerge out from, as a nation, culture or a football team. Lightning and tragedy can both strike twice, and the lineup sheets first circulated to the media an hour before the Paris final had one gaping hole: none of the eleven players starting for Brazil went by the name Ronaldo.

The Maracanazo. Uruguay defeated Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final at Brazil’s football Mecca and Medina, the Maracana. The nation’s collective spirit and identity crumbled in its wake.

The evening would get murkier, as Brazil strode out hand-in-hand, this time with Ronaldo. The team played those ninety minutes with an intensity not fit for a Sunday League training session, and their centre-forward ambled around Stade de France like a mannequin with cleats.

The match was lost before it had even started, almost in a homage to that afternoon at the Maracana all those years back. As Dunga watched Didier Deschamps lift the cup, news filtered into the stands about an illness that caused Ronaldo to have a seizure in the afternoon before the game. Some reports mentioned that he had been taken to a hospital in Paris who gave him a clean chit and green light to play ninety minutes in a World Cup final against the home side.

“I also hope that my truth pleases you, because there are many truths, many truths. It’s upto you to decide which is the true truth and analyze it afterwards.”

– Ronaldo

As the world revelled in the power and laser-guided accuracy of Zinedine Zidane’s shining forehead, Brazil grieved another World Cup taken away from under their noses. The grifters who abandoned a legacy of Joga Bonito were mugged of a glory that was rightfully theirs. The circumstances of a World Cup final, a 21-year-old phenomenon, and the most romanticised team in the land, put together made up a lip-smacking recipe for conspiracy theories. Football was again life’s great leveller.

One of the first fingers were pointed at Nike’s ten-year deal worth $160 million with Brazil’s national team as kit manufacturers. As reports would later reveal, their contract had several dodgy clauses, such as fifty ‘Nike’ friendlies, while starting at least eight first team regulars. 90s Brazil was a country proudly swaddled in poverty, inflation and pessimism. The prospect of the men-who-matter selling their soul to the devil for obese bank-accounts was neither surreal nor implausible. Few months from the final, in early 1999, a little known congressman from Brasilia, Aldo Rebelo, entered a petition in the House of Deputies to start an inquiry into the Nike-CBF contract. With the cumulative cunning present inside the head office of the CBF, they sensed danger and kept the petition from implementation for 18 good months, before they lost all grip on the situation, funnily enough, due to the performances of the national team.

Brazil won the Copa America of 1999, but Matt Damon could spot the declining standard of football from Mars. The volcano was simmering and every single person invested in any way into Brazilian football knew. The first smoke-signal came from their two consecutive losses to Paraguay and Chile in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. It was around the same time that the police started investigating national team coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s private bank accounts for suspicion of tax evasion. The situation was still within CBF’s control and the ability of suppression.

The second and the most telling tremor came during the Summer Olympics in 2000. For all its glory at the World Cups, Brazil were yet to win the Olympic Gold, a last item on the checklist they ought to have ticked off. Nine-man Cameroon hurled them out of Sydney in the quarter-finals, and the coach was sacked a week later. Back in Brasilia, it was beginning to look cloudier than ever, as the investigations into CBF, Luxemburgo and Nike were granted the status of Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI), the highest form of congressional hearing. By this time, Luxemburgo’s ex-fling Renata Alves was suing him for half a million dollars, and decided to spill the beans on all his transgressions, financial and legal. The fissures were now showing, and the ground upon which the foundations of Brazilian football stood was slowly but surely giving away.

As Aldo Rebelo went on his inquest about the events in Paris on the afternoon of 12th July, Mario Zagallo, Edmundo and then Ronaldo appeared before court to recite their accounts. For a team well known for their familial atmosphere, the three versions differed beyond the threshold of suspicion.

Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Mario Zagallo is a man who oozes success and glory as a Brazilian footballer. Winner of the 1958 and 1962 World Cups as a player, he was the coach during their 1970 apex and an assistant to Carlos Alberto Pereira in 1994, before taking up the job again in 1997. He entered the courtroom all guns blazing and prepared to take down this farcical investigation into his role in the events of that afternoon. Alex Bellos, in his book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, recounts Zagallo’s statement in court.

“We all had lunch together and then everyone went back to their rooms. I heard a commotion outside, but reckoned it was French fans, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up at 5 pm, I was informed of Ronaldo’s medical condition and his seizure, three full hours after it had happened. Ronaldo was sent to a clinic and I went towards Stade de France with the rest of the team. About forty minutes prior to the game, he turns up at the stadium and says, ‘Zagallo, I can play. I have to play.’ So I selected him. Now, was it his being chosen that caused the team to lose? Absolutely not. I think it was from the collective trauma from everything that had happened. Imagine if I didn’t put Ronaldo and we lost 3-0. I checked on him at half-time too. You must remember, the green light for him came from a French clinic.

Edmundo, who replaced Ronaldo on the first team sheet that went out before the final, had occupied the room next to the one Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos were sharing at the Château de Grande Romaine.

“I was in the hotel just after lunch. It was usual for players to go into their rooms and rest. Some like to sleep, some read, while others listen to music. About 3pm, I can’t remember the exact time, I was watching TV and Roberto Carlos came into the room.. ‘Edmundo, Edmundo! Doriva, Doriva! Quick! Ronaldo’s feeling unwell.’ When I saw what it was, I despaired because it was a really strong and shocking scene. And I ran through the whole hotel, hitting all doors, hoping a doctor would turn up. Cesar Sampaio and me helped unroll Ronaldo’s tongue. After that, he slept off. The doctors gathered us and told, ‘Look, he will wake up in a few hours and not remember what happened. We have an important match, so let us keep it absolutely normal.’ At 6pm, everyone gathered for snack. Ronaldo was the last to arrive and barely touched his food. He sat with his head down and spoke to nobody. That was when Leonardo insisted that he be taken to a hospital and get some checks done.”

Faust und Mephisto; one trying to outwit the other. 19th century.

Edmundo then told the investigators that when he entered Ronaldo’s room, the 21-year-old was hitting himself while in seizure, and with a body that strong, two players had to hold him from each side to prevent any harm. It was at that point, when Deputy Jose Rocha, like a hawk waiting to tear down on his prey, asked Edmundo, “What time did Mario Zagallo arrive?”

“I can’t be precise, but since the coaching staff had a separate building to the players, he took about 15 minutes. Not more than that.”

Fifteen minutes, claimed Edmundo. Zagallo mentioned being told about that incident at around 5pm, three hours after it had happened. The reputation of the Grand Ol’ Man of Brazilian football was going up in smokes.

A month and a half later, it was time for Ronaldo to enter the room. Imagine being 24, already the best player of your generation, having a World Cup snatched from you by the dance of fate, and having to justify losing a football match to your own compatriots. Surreal didn’t even begin to cut it.

“The higher a player goes in professional soccer, the greater are his obligations, always more numerous than his rights. He must live by the decisions of others, suffer military discipline, exhausting training, and incessant travel, and play day after day after day, always in top form, producing ever more.”

– Eduardo Galeano, Soccer In The Sun & Shadow

He started with a poise befitting his athletic capabilities, and recounted Leonardo telling him about more important things in life right before the final. When asked about Zagallo, Ronaldo said, “I think at this time there are more important things to know than if Zagallo had come to see me or not.” Attorneys are usually fantastic judges of the temperature of a room, and after Ronaldo’s firm answer regarding his coach, they swiftly went for the bizarre and asked him about the team tactics when led to him marking Zidane for corners.

“Ahh, I don’t remember. Well, whoever marked him didn’t do a very good job, did he. Two went in.”

He chuckled, they laughed, but the nervousness was palpable. The questions moved to Nike and their alleged role in forcing him on the pitch that evening. His opinions about the company, their contract with Brazil and him in particular were extremely strong.

“The amount of work Nike have done towards developing football in Brazil, I don’t think this has ever happened in our history. My personal relationship with them is excellent, because they never demand anything from me. All they ask of me is to wear their boots and maybe score a few goals, not a thing more.”

Before he could leave the room to a flurry of reporters, photographers and autograph seekers tripping over themselves to get a single moment with him, he was put one more question. “Why did we not win the final, Ronaldo?”

“Why did we not win?

Because we let in three goals. Because we lost.”

The investigation about the events of 12th July 1998 raged for a few months more, before the court unanimously decided to call quits, citing lack of concrete evidence. The average man in Rio, disgruntled, continues to speculate to this day. French newspaper, Lance! took their own stab too. According to their report, Ronaldo took an anesthetic xylocaine injection into his knee, which accidentally entered a vein, causing him to have a violent fit. He apparently chose to keep it out of his entire team’s knowledge to protect the doctor. Both Ronaldo and the doctor, Toledo, declared the report grossly inaccurate.

Aldo Renato’s CPI investigation, on CBF and its board members, was gaining steam with every passing day, and new accusations poured in by the truckload. The national team, in an almost fitting tribute to Faust, continued on their freefall. Luis Felipe Scolari took over as coach, and proceeded to get knocked out by Honduras in Copa America 2001. A country which hadn’t missed a single World Cup, made the finals of the last two, was in grave danger of missing the next one. Under the shadow of CBF’s piling accounts of corruption and criminality, the fingers pointed towards Scolari’s team were more out of pity and sympathy than blame.

The amusing led to the bizarre, and the bizarre routinely led to the surreal in the soap opera known as the CBF  inquisitions. In one hearing alone, Renata Alves brought out the details to a secret hideout in Rio and Luxemburgo’s tryst with cocaine-smuggling. In a Rio house called ‘embassy’, agents, club directors and members of the CBF met frequently to indulge in dubious dealings, commission transfers and match fixing. Luxemburgo knew of this and raised them coke-filled-footballs while taking international flights. The CBF was never an exemplary organization, having for long failed to put together as much as a sustainable domestic league format, with the number of teams in the top division changing every year to protect bigger clubs from relegation. The condescension towards ex-players mirrored the lack of soul inside their offices too. Garrincha was left to die and Barbosa was denied wishing the 1994 World Cup team luck, as a token of continued punishment for a goal he conceded forty-four years back.

An inheritance of abject decadence and privilege is required to sit at the top at CBF. President Ricardo Teixeira, had taken over the helm in 1989. In a turn of events not even surprising anymore, he was the son-in-law of Joao Havelange, president of the CBF between 1958 and 1974, and FIFA president since then, up till 1998. It was popular knowledge that Teixeira had won the elections after placing money in the hands of poorer states and federations with the precision of a Juninho Pernambucano free-kick. As Dunga’s team landed at the Rio airport from the 1994 World Cup, Teixeira hand-twisted the government to waive duty off 15 tonnes of ‘package’. When the CBF was forced to pay the taxes owing to public outrage, their list of items accounted for 1 tonne. The other 14 vanished into thin air, as the football administrative body of the country attempted to play tug-of-war with mathematics and public memory.

The Nike contract, central to the investigation, was signed by Ricardo himself, swiftly wrapped and hidden out of the public sight. Signed in 1996, the deal should have ideally transformed Brazil football in ways that would’ve empowered them to dominate world football for at least the next decade or two, allowing for grassroots development. But idealism is as real in South America as people with no ball-skills. In the 3 years between 1997 and 2000, CBF’s revenues quadrupled, and so did Teixeira and his directors’ salaries, yet the debts the federation was under hadn’t reduced. The investment on domestic football plummeted from 55% of the budget to 37%. The milk Juninho drank at the CBF training facilities, came from Teixeira’s ranch. Official events and parties were hosted at properties owned by the CBF president. In the year 2000, CBF spent $16 million on travel.

A political cartoon showing William Gladstone as Dr. Faust making a pact with the devil in order to satisfy his political ambitions “The temptation of Faust”

Aldo Rebelo’s investigation into the CBF ran on full throttle till 2001, after which he presented a 686-page report, incriminating Ricardo Teixeira with unbridled abandon fit for sinners at purgatory. Neither the court, nor Aldo, were able to pin any accusation on Nike. The paper trail to Nike was as much as a lost cause as the search for the Holy Grail. The CPI panel of twenty-five, had six people directly linked with a domestic football federation, and it was fair to say the report had chances bleaker than Italy in the ‘70 final. Aldo could only sigh in despair and he called close on the investigation, refusing to go into vote whether the commission’s final report be approved. The panel’s ‘alternative report’ cleared the CBF, and Ricardo Teixeira and his cronies celebrated. But then again, football plays jury and executioner in its own inconceivable ways.

Rebelo’s wasn’t the only CPI investigation running on Teixeira and CBF. Globo Sport, the primary football broadcaster in the country, prepares a report pointing accusations of fraud and money-laundering on the CBF president. The Senate were running their own case, and the panel that had so successfully curtailed Aldo’s investigation, had no influence on this one. By December 2001, the Senate prepared a 1129-page report, including almost all of Aldo’s discoveries. The senator aptly summarised CBF as ‘a den of crime, revealing disorganization, anarchy, incompetence and dishonesty’. The CBF’s directors, true to their nature, refused to cave in without a fight, spending their last dollar on advertising and campaigns. The voting day came soon and the CPI report won by a crushing 12-0 margin.

“Magical realism comes from the reality of Latin America.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And I will spare not thee, Theatrum Mortis, by Johann Weichard Valvasor.

Between September 1999 and December 2001, eerily spanning the exact length of the investigations, Ronaldo played a grand total of seven minutes of football for Inter Milan, as his knee buckled twice. The devil and whatever powers may be, were exacting their price. From a point of no return, and without their talisman, Brazil somehow managed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002. In a fitting tribute to the great Colombian author, Ronaldo then strapped on his jacket, took centre-stage and began the manifestation of magic into reality. He recovered just in time for the tournament, and like the last edition, guided his team to the final, this time scoring five goals en route. As the world once again focussed its collective gaze on the Brazil number 9, Ronaldo conquered the ghosts of Paris and put two past his adversary Oliver Kahn, lifting a trophy he should’ve laid hands on four years back.

Football, the world over, underwent a tremendous metamorphosis in the last decade of the 20th century, and most of it could be routed to greater financial inflow. The Premier League took over the Football League, and the European Cup became the Champions League. The sport had travelled through Stábile and Ghiggia’s dribbles, through the mind-bending trickery of Sir Stanley Matthews and Alfredo di Stefano, and through Pele, Garrincha, Platini and Maradona. It was now ready for the razor-blade and shaving gel glitz and glamour of Cristiano and the 21st century. The ways of the cloak and dagger has been phased out. However, somewhere along the road, it made the switch from a sport and expression of joy, to  the dark alleys of  hooded businesses run by the richest owners and oligarchs.

The sphere gave away to the thin-rectangle as its governing shape. Greed was never more than a stone’s throw away from the world’s most popular sport, but the events at Château de Grande Romaine on 12th July 1998, left debris much deeper than a lost World Cup final. It left a trail of its crumbling soul – drawn, quartered and auctioned.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.