Ronaldo awaits coronation

 

Brazil owe all lovers of the beautiful game a great symphony of a World Cup final. Tom Humphries profiles the one man who can orchestrate it

You've got to believe. You've got to believe that this World Cup, so brimming with novelty but so scant of class, has enough juice left to produce one epic match.

You have to have faith, have to pray that the Tournament of the Interlopers threw up a blue-blooded final because the best was to be served last.

You have to expect, to demand that the haves of world football will justify their whinging about that which was given to the have-nots and they will produce a final that sends us away smiling at the ways of the beautiful game.

If you do those things, your thoughts and hopes will reside in one man, the best story of this World Cup and possibly the best player. Ronaldo.

In Brazil, where they value their football more highly then they value their air or their water, they have loved one man above all others. Garrincha.

The Wren or The Little Bird. His is the archetypal story of the people. Born in Pau Grande with a pair of bent legs, he was never going to out-grow his nickname. Nor would he out-grow his background.

Garrincha's was the poignant torch song which lies under the carnival of samba cliché. For all the celebration and carnival which surrounds Brazilian football, it is the poor man's game, the opiate of the masses, and Garrincha, when he crossed the border of the touchline, became a wealthy and joyous man.

Once he beat three players and the goalkeeper, and instead of slotting into the goal took the ball back again and waited for a defender to recover so he could beat him again, before walking the ball into the goal, chipping it under his arm and walking back to the centre circle. When you learn that it is was an Italian defence, that of Fiorentina, you appreciate the deed a little more.

He was beautiful and free and inevitably his story had a sad end. He was exploited and died in 1983, broke and bloated by alcohol.

You've got to believe. In the cycles and the Fates and the yin and yang of life, Ronaldo Luiz Nazario da Lima seems born to live the life Garrincha should have had. He comes from the same background, plays with the same sense of insouciant joy and has suffered the same dark dreads.

Yet he stands. He always knew through the horrors of the last four years that he'd get back to this point. Even when the French surgeon opened up his right knee for the third time in as many years he had an idea that his destiny lay here, another World Cup final.

You watch him come through the World Cup with a green baseball cap on his head and his lips pursed as if to whistle lightly, and you see what The Wren might have been.

"Problems are sent to make you stronger," says Ronaldo, "and that's what I've done. I've had so many. I have got strong."

When Ronaldo arrived in Incheon airport outside Seoul a few weeks ago he was met by a lightning storm of popping flash bulbs. He reacted with curious indelicacy by squinting his eyes and holding up his eyebrows with his index fingers to give himself a comic-book version of the Oriental features of his hosts. Something about his buck-toothed grin and the light, joyful innocence permitted him to get away with it, however. Ronaldo was back in touch with his inner kid.

If you were to stage a play reflecting the dramas of Brazilian football this past decade, an airport lounge would be the first set you would require. In 1994, the football world in Brazil began to suspect there was something rotten at its core. The new World Champions, with their unused 17-year-old wonderkid Ronaldo in the vanguard, returned home and reluctantly submitted to customs only one tonne of the 14 tonnes worth of electrical goods and items they had purchased Stateside. It left a sour taste for many people.

Four years later, though, the selecao was grooving in an airport. Sponsored, some said possessed, by Nike, they produced a memorable, celebratory television ad with the stars swerving, dribbling and juggling balls around an airport departure lounge. It seemed to announce that the beautiful game was back. France 1998 ended in tears though.

When Brazil leave Japan to fly home early next week, a few of the players might take a look around the departures lounge in Narita airport, for it was precisely there that they lost another manager along the way to redemption.

Having been beaten by Australia in the Confederations Cup, former goalkeeper Emerson Leao (who had announced at his opening press conference without irony that he wanted his players to be the ballerinas of the beautiful game) was sacked before the team boarded the plane and Big Phil Scolari became the country's fourth coach in nine months.

It's been one heck of a long-haul flight to this fifth world title tilt, the penta as they call it back home, and Ronaldo has been essential to it all.

Still in the first half of his career, the chapters of Ronaldo's story are as sudsy and overwrought as a Latin soap opera. So many highs, so many lows.

All the operations, all the betrayals, the sense of isolation, the blighted love life (two girlfriends in succession who looked bizarrely alike ditched him to take advantage of their new celebrity by becoming a soft- porn duo called the Ronalditas).

He, though, has always known what he wanted. He was a small child, supporting the cross-city team of Flamengo, when the first Brazilian players began migrating to Europe. Ronaldo's alcoholic father had already migrated from the Bento Ribieor barrio in Rio, leaving his mother to sell home-made pizzas. But Ronaldo was going to be a footballer.

"I was six and I decided I'd come to Europe as soon as I could," he has said.

Famously, Flamengo rejected him, Ronaldo being unable to afford the bus fare to get across town to matches, the club being unwilling to give it to him. No deal.

Fate has eyes and ears though. The great Jairzinho spotted the kid playing on a beach. On his recommendation, Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte signed Ronaldo for a $40,000 signing-on fee.

He scored 58 goals in 60 matches for them before Europe called. He was a sensation: 30 goals in 33 league matches in his one full season for PSV Eindhoven. On to Barcelona for £13 million, where he became a sensation early on having beaten four men in a 30-yard burst against Compostella and having then scored at the end. Thirty-four goals in 37 games. He was the prince of the Catalans. World Player of the Year.

A complicated transfer to Inter Milan followed, the red tape and haggling making him a prisoner for a while, deprived of the opportunity to play football and reminded with cruel clarity that even the best of players are chattels of rich men. Barca's socios howled in disbelief that their Ronaldo could be sold. Admonitory fingers directed all to gaze at the bottom line and not the Liga classification.

Ronaldo was a little dazed by it all.

"I was already good when I was 16 - poor, but good nevertheless. I just get on with my work and try to do it the best I can. "

Then came that extraordinary night in the Stade de France. The Brazilian team had been staying in Lesigny near Paris in the run-up to the final.

Ronaldo, with four goals on his ledger already, was waiting for the final which would be his coronation.

AND THEN the infamous fit. The seizure. A buckling under from pressure or pain killers, depending on who you believed. He was dropped and replaced by Edmundo, then turned up at the stadium fresh from the hospital and walked into the team again, only to play like a ghost. He remained on the field for the entire 90 minutes and his selection and retention on the field despite his thorough ineffectiveness gave rise to rumours, never substantiated, that Nike were picking the team.

The Brazilian inquiry into the matter of the 1998 final carried many moments of high comedy and left many questions unanswered, but during his appearance there Ronaldo exhibited a maturity and wisdom which surprised many and put an end to several lines of questioning which politicians intended to ride until the bitter end.

"Listen," he told them at one stage, "we lost because we didn't win. We let in three goals. How many times has Brazil won? Nobody asked why?"

As for Nike and the famous $160 million deal? Again he put the issue to bed. "I'm not here to defend Nike . . . but I can't remember in the history of Brazilian football a contract to help Brazilian football grow."

On when the team manager, Mario Zagallo, had become aware of his health problem: "I think there are many more important things to know than if Zagallo had come to see me or not."

Each time he spoke he shut down a line of inquiry, a source of rumours and innuendo. It was the first sign of Ronaldo the man emerging.

What do we know now that we didn't know in the immediate and confused aftermath of that game? Just that he suffered a sort of seizure shortly after lunch on the day of the final, that he was given a tranquilliser by the team doctor, Lidio Toldeo, and was then taken to a French hospital to undergo tests.

Mario Zagallo, the coach, assumed Ronaldo was out of the game. The temperamental Edmundo was called up, but Zagallo was then persuaded to reinstate Ronaldo at the 11th hour. There was an eruption in the dressing-room, the source of which nobody will speak about, but were it a criminal matter one would say that Edmundo had previous and he had motivation.

It seems unlikely that (as has been rumoured) Ronaldo suffered an epileptic fit. Brazilian doctors point to a stress-related fit or panic attack.

Zico, who was working as an assistant to Zagallo and who is in Japan as a TV analyst, has said that Ronaldo went out onto the Stade de France turf "really sleepy or groggy".

There have been times since then when he has seemed utterly and profoundly lost. At one stage in Italy he was employing three separate agents but not playing. After the events of July 1998, he was dogged by reporters from the moment the final whistle went, and perhaps one of the more poignant footballing images of the past few years was that of Ronaldo, his hands locked around the bars of a security gate somewhere in Rio, his eyes welling up, imploring reporters to leave him alone. "What kind of life is this?" he cried.

And then the injuries came. At Inter's training ground, La Pinetina, near Appiano Gentile, 25 miles north of Milan, he has been through three years of lonely hell. Recoveries from a succession of knee injuries have been painstaking and frustrating. His personal physiotherapist, Nilton Petroni, was brought in from Rio on several occasions, and a special, sand running-strip was constructed so he could rebuild the strength in his knees.

The sand strip became his drill ground. In November 1998, playing for Inter against Lecce, he did his right knee ligament for the first time. One year later he was back in trouble. November 1999, Lecce once more. He tore the ligament badly this time. Went through it all again. The following April he came on as a sub in the Italian Cup final versus Lazio. Six minutes in he snapped the ligament.

It took until July 2001 for him to get back on a pitch. At that, it was a pre-season friendly against an amateur side. He scored two, hit the post once and was told immediately that he had lots more work to do. He has done it, and that he has done it is cause for celebration.

"I share Ronaldo's joy at being back," says Luiz Philippe Scolari, "he deserves praise for following detail by detail what the doctor told him to do. He also deserves praise for trusting himself to deal with these dramatic circumstances."

Since his comeback things have been calmer around Ronaldo. He took on a press agent, Rodrigo Daiva, from his beloved boyhood heroes Flamengo, and married Milene Domingues, the world "keepie-uppie" champion who once juggled a football for nine hours without dropping it. To Ronaldo was born a son, merely Ronald, this spring, and if the boy doesn't have the genes to make the selecao then everything we know about bloodlines is wrong.

He used the time out to get some perspective, travelling to Kosovo in the wake of the war there and financing the rebuilding of a school which had been destroyed by bombing.

This team he plays on tomorrow probably isn't the type of Brazilian side that Ronaldo dreamed of when he was a boy. His imagination would have danced to the tales of the teams of 1958 and 1962, to the perfection of 1970, even the adventure of 1982.

This Brazil is prosaic and sturdy by comparison. Lucio and Roque Junior are defensive sappers. Marcos is probably the first decent goalie Brazil have ever brought to a World Cup. Roberto Carlos, who before his goal against China had last scored from a free in international football in 1997 and was still living off it, is too arrogant and slightly overrated (the joke in Brazil in 1998 was that 53 days of sharing a room with Roberto Carlos was what had induced the fit in Ronaldo). Kleberson, in midfield, is an enforcer, while Gilberto Silva is a tireless hod carrier. But the three Rs up front, they hear a different music and devote themselves to the glorious vanity of great goals.

The Brazilians owe us a lot. They have besmirched their own sunflower-hued glory, letting the beautiful game descend into a chaos of sleaze and corruption back home; they have sullied their brand name by cranking up a slave trade of phony prodigies sold to dupe managers around the world as the next Ronaldo; and they have inflicted two deeply disappointing World Cup finals on us. They were appalling in 1994 and worse in 1998. We are owed something bold and something beautiful. In exchange for the love and affection all football people give to Brazil, we are owed a symphony tomorrow. And Ronaldo, whose own composition is as yet unfinished, owes himself an evening of light and joy. We look forward to the chance of celebrating with him.