World Cup Flashback: Brazil 2002
Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho... Revisited
This is the fourth World Cup Flashback, a series looking at the tactics and approach of every World Cup winner since 1990.
I wonder if anyone’s ever wanted to deliver at a World Cup more than Ronaldo Nazário in 2002.
At age 21, he was already the biggest star going into the tournament in 1998. He was having a good World Cup, scoring four goals on the way to the final and, in the words of Tim Vickery, “carrying a side that really weren’t that great”. Then he suffers freak seizures just before the final and plays a game in a situation where he’s clearly not right. The opportunity to write his name in the history books had been snatched from him.
He goes back to Inter and keeps scoring goals, albeit with some injury issues, until November 1999, when he suffers a complete rupture of his knee-cap tendons. It’s hard to describe just how brutal this injury was. He doesn’t start a competitive game for two years, half a season out from the next World Cup. He does impressively well in front of goal considering his time out, scoring seven times in 643 minutes in Serie A, but everyone can see that his lightning speed had gone. Ronaldo was still an excellent goalscorer, but he didn’t look like The Phenomenon, the single most exciting player on the planet.
Ronaldo went into the World Cup in Japan and South Korea needing to show everyone what he could still do. He had to prove that he hadn’t missed his one big chance to lift the World Cup. He had to fix the one bad day he had four years ago while also showing the planet that injuries hadn’t ended his prowess. There’s more to being the phenomenon than just being incredibly gifted. You have to do it when nothing has been going your way.
Brazil certainly needed Ronaldo. The injury caused him to miss the entire qualification campaign, and Vickery claims that “without him, Brazil were a shambles, fortunate even to get to the tournament”. They were in serious danger of failing to qualify, before manager Luiz Felipe Scolari came in with five games to go and just about squeaked them over the line. Brazil needed to get their act together.
The first game against Turkey posed a credible threat. No one knew it at the time, but Turkey would prove to have an excellent World Cup, so Brazil needed to be at it. Marcos of Palmeiras was in goal. Scolari opted for a back three this time, unlike his predecessors’ love of a 4-2-2-2 in the last two World Cups. 25-year-old Roque Júnior of AC Milan started as a centre back, alongside Lúcio (24) of Bayer Leverkusen and Edmílson (25) of Lyon. This meant more emphasis on letting Cafu (32, Roma) and Roberto Carlos (29, Real Madrid) get forward from wing-back. Brazilian football loves an industrious defensive midfielder, and Gilberto Silva (25, Atlético Mineiro) fit exactly that mould. Alongside him was someone very different in Juninho Paulista (29, owned by Atlético Madrid, but loaned out to various places). They were not a natural partnership, but had been forced together after Emerson (26, Roma) picked up an injury. Juninho would surely have preferred to play higher up the pitch, as more of a classic number ten.
He was never going to get a look-in, though, because the attacking options were so good. Rivaldo (30, Barcelona) had been one of the best attacking midfielders in the world for a number of years by now, even if his best years were arguably behind him. At the other end of the age spectrum was Ronaldinho (22, Paris-Saint Germain), who was just full of tricks and imagination. In Brazil, he often went by “Ronaldinho Gaúcho” to distinguish him from a certain other “little Ronaldo”.
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