All set for the final hurrah

Right from that eventful day in Paris, the final of the 1998 World Cup, the lives of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo have intersected far too often. If, as Real Madrid Galacticos and ambassadors of the United Nations Development Programme, these two extraordinary players have existed on the same canvas performing complementary functions for the last few years, for one month every four years one of them has found his identity in terms of what the other is not. Lovers of the `Beautiful Game' will hope that Germany 2006 is different, writes N. U. Abilash.

In Germany, at some point of time later this month, some painter with a strong sense of symbolism is bound to silhouette two extraordinary men against the setting sun that has had a long shining sojourn through the northern summer skies. There would be nothing unnatural if both the human subject matters of that still-unborn work of art — Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane — have to share the same space on canvas even though they will not be wearing the same Real Madrid shirt in Germany. No, you cannot blame the creator-to-be even if Brazil and France were not to face each other in World Cup 2006.

Right from that eventful day in Paris, the final of the 1998 World Cup tournament, when France defeated Brazil 3-0 thanks to two headed goals by Zidane, the lives and careers of these outstanding footballers have intersected far too often. If Zidane and Ronaldo — as Real Madrid Galacticos and ambassadors of the United Nations Development Programme — have existed on the same canvas performing complementary functions for the last few years, for one month every four years one of them has found his identity in terms of what the other is not.

In Paris, the stage was set for the Brazilian striker to carry forward his club form into the World Cup and become the world's most valuable footballer. Instead, he sleepwalked the final, which he was mysteriously asked to start even though he was rushed to the hospital the previous day after suffering from convulsions. The stage was open for the French midfield general — with his astounding vision, imaginative passing, sublime dribbling, awesome control and perfect balance — to become the world's best footballer, which he duly did after a near perfect 90 minutes when he scored two headed goals and set up the third in front of his delirious countrymen.

Four years later, the action shifted to the other side of the world, South Korea and Japan. By then, the Frenchman of Algerian origin had won a European Championship title in 2000 — he was named FIFA's Footballer of the Year for the effort, the second time he won the prestigious award after 1998. And `Zizou', as he is fondly called, had bagged his first and only Champions League title with Real Madrid — which was clinched after his blinding long-range left-footed volley had screamed into the Bayer Leverkeusen net to be remembered as one of the all-time great goals. The sheer enormity of numbers involved in his transfer from Juventus to Real Madrid in 2001 had corroborated the intelligence and instinct of every football lover indulging away a few minutes in the task of picking the best player in the world.

Ronaldo was nowhere to be seen. Not because the creative spark — that had seen him score heavily for Ajax, Barcelona and then Inter Milan — had disappeared. Tragically, like on that fateful World Cup final day, he was dogged by fitness problems.

In between the 1998 and 2002 World Cup tournaments, the Brazilian striker spent his time moving in and out of injuries, operation theatres, convalescences and aborted comebacks. A shudder collectively went across the world in April 2000 when visual images of his knee giving way as if it were a pack of cards were beamed far and wide. That incident — during Inter Milan's Italian Cup semifinal against Lazio — happened when he was just seven minutes into his comeback game; injuries to the same knee had meant that he played very little between November 1998 and then.

The Brazilian was out of action again for almost another two years, and finally when he scored his first competitive goal in two years in December 2001, the world, Argentinians included, rejoiced. The World Cup was looming on the horizon, and football lovers wanted to see the skills of the man who was hailed in the mid-1990s as the game's biggest talent after his Barca exploits during 1996-97 and 1997-98, for which he was successively named FIFA World Player of the Year.

"I am very happy," said Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta, then playing for Serie `A' club Roma, on hearing the news. "Ronaldo is football and the world needs him in Korea and Japan."

In Korea and Japan, Ronaldo finally achieved what he was always tipped to do right from the time he won his first World Cup in 1994 as the young understudy to Romario and Bebeto; take Brazil to a World Cup triumph on the strength of his scoring abilities. He scored eight goals in the tournament, including two in the final against Germany thereby emulating the double of Zidane four years earlier in the final of the biggest sporting event on earth.

In Asia, though, Zidane was the one who wished the earth would cave in to save him from humiliation; he was injured in France's last warm-up game before the big event. Though he played in France's last group match, he was clearly not match-fit and was a shadow of his majestic self as France crashed out of the tournament in the first round without scoring a goal.

The Brazilian had joined the Frenchman as the world's best footballer. Almost as if to celebrate this elevation, Ronaldo joined Zidane at Real Madrid and the duo led the club to the La Liga title in 2002-03. The Brazilian scored a variety of goals; he poached some in the area beating the off-side trap, and scored some after brilliant solos during which he characteristically ran at defences with sudden bursts of speed and enormous strength. Zidane engineered the club's moves; winning tackles, dribbling past rival midfielders and defenders, creating space for the Brazilian with his precise passes that split the rival defence aided by his multi-focal vision that helps him control a game. The duo may not have won another title for Madrid, but the inability to win silverware is more to do with the club's record of managerial instability after Vicente Del Bosque left in the summer of 2003.

The two friends — the tradition of brilliant Frenchmen and Brazilians finding best friends from each other's ranks has been carried forward by Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho — enter Germany 2006, their last appearance in the showpiece tournament, well past their prime but with the old magic bursting out now and then like hot springs.

Zidane, typically, has planned his exit from the international and club stage. Ronaldo, four years younger but with a shorter striker's shelf life, is unlikely to play in the 2010 World Cup.

Another great Brazilian striker Romario refused to recognise his genius and skills as a function of youth and battled on in the delusion that he would be preferred over exciting youngsters who were dime a dozen in his country. But he never got to play in 1998 and 2002. Ronaldo could face a similar fate.

Zidane's relationship with his manager, Raymond Domenech, is precarious to say the least; Ronaldo has the trust of Carlos Alberto Parreira, who has even said that the great striker's lack of form this year is more to do with a lack of rhythm than with the natural process of ageing and slowing.

Whatever happens, football lovers will be hoping that France and Brazil face each other at some stage over the course of the next month. And, also that, for once, the two greatest footballers of the late 1990s and the early part of this decade find form and fitness together in the tournament that has made them all-time greats of the `Beautiful Game' irrespective of whether they play each other in Germany or whether their countries win. The muse, anyway, will enter the artist-to-be. And the world will be richer in memories.