The event's crowning moment was realisation of Ronaldo's dream

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

WHEN Brazil annexed its fifth World Cup, in the Korea-Japan 2002 edition, it was the realisation of a great dream for Ronaldo. Eight years ago, he watched from the bench as his country won the World Cup for the fourth time in USA. Ronaldo then had wanted to carve a niche for himself in France '98 and in the process confirm to the world that when it came to football there is none to beat Brazil. However it was a horror that he confronted in Paris. Touted as a modern day genius in the sport and one whose coronation was expected in Stade de France in Saint Denis, Ronaldo failed Brazil when it mattered most as a mysterious illness left him not just a non-performer but also an object of pain and embarrassment. France '98 came to be known not only for the triumph of the Les Blues but also the enduring image of Ronaldo's dazed face.

The bunch of Brazilians who played brilliantly as a team to claim the 2002 World Cup.

He kept his grievance to himself but wretched luck would not leave him with knee injuries bogging down his career further. Hackers on the football field wreaked havoc on his right knee, so much so it had to be opened up twice with a view to getting him back to his demanding standards.

Some doctors still predicted that Ronaldo's career was in jeopardy and that even if he gets to play, he may never be the same again. It speaks for his resilience and fierce faith in himself that he could bounce back from the horrendous moment in Paris to be at his sprightly best for the Korea-Japan edition. "I never had any doubt that I would be back. I have strong will-power and my passion for football is insatiable," he was to tell FIFA Magazine in a post-World Cup interview.

Insatiable he definitely was on that night in Yokohama International stadium as he ended the aspirations of an equally brilliant performer, Oliver Kahn, the gritty German goalkeeper and skipper. Two outstanding goals in the second half, through efforts only the class of Ronaldo could have done spoiled Kahn's near invincibility even as the Brazilian climbed to the top on the goal-scorers list with eight goals to earn the "Adidas Golden Shoe." The moment he had waited had finally come. "I used to visualise the trophy in front of my eyes and imagine what a wonderful feeling it must be to hold it up in the air. It was a fabulous feeling actually to hold it in my hand and kiss it," he was to state. Even in the hour of success, the man's humility has to be commended. "It wasn't Rivaldo, Ronaldinho or Ronaldo that became World Champion but a group of Brazilians who played brilliantly and harmoniously" he summed up.

Actually though it was this trio who ensured sanity remained in the Asian edition after the turbulence that had struck the early phase of the tournament to inflict heavy casualty on high-rated teams. What added lustre to Brazil's fifth Cup was also the fact that pundits had not placed the Latin Americans as the hot favourite to corner glory. Or for that matter even Germany, which despite its well-known doggedness was never thought of as good enough for being a title contender. And they were not to be blamed for such was the way France had ruled Europe, as not only the reigning World Champion but also the European champion while Argentina, FIFA Confederations Cup winner, with a collection of rich talent looked unbeatable in Latin America. Compared to that were the struggling Brazil in the pre-World Cup phase and the injury-ridden Germany, which even suffered a 1-5 loss to England in a friendly at home in Munich.

However fate has its way of mocking at the pundits. Nobody who had seen this 22-year-old in Paris then would have imagined that he would rise like a phoenix four years later to inspire Brazil's fifth Cup success and confirm it was South America's turn to keep the trophy (Interestingly that is what history had pointed to) once again. Surprisingly the two contenders had never met in a World Cup final competition though the two had between them accounted for seven titles before the Asian edition. Equally unbelievable in what was the first World Cup in the new millennium and hosted for once by two countries — Korea and Japan — was the way the heavyweights kept falling even before the tournament's decisive twists and turns came. Defending champion France led the way to despair. Miserable in their three Group matches, felled by newcomer Senegal on the opening day and striking the post five times but not once into the cage, Coach Roger Lemerre's star-studded squad had to pack their bags early.

Ronaldo with eight goals in the championship earned the Adidas Golden Shoe.

France's exit was the first tremor. Then it was Latin America powerhouse Argentina that crashed in the Group stage for the next shock. African champion Cameroon, equally rated Nigeria, Portugal and Poland (the first team to book its berth to Asia), followed and the list stretched to turn the tremors to a quake. Disbelief set in that such sensational pairs of football legs like Zinadine Zidane, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry, Juan Sebastian Veron, Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Emmanuel Olisadebe had no more roles to play in the World Cup. In fact before long, the Argentine spearhead Batistuta, who had understandably dreamt of ending his career with a World Cup triumph had to leave in tears. For most of these other players also, the Asian fiasco virtually meant curtains to blooming careers.

It was the turn of Italy next at the pre-quarter final stage and the Spaniards followed suit in the quarter-final. Everybody agreed that host Korea came up with sparkling display to make the Dutch Coach of the team Guus Hiddink a legend in the country. However it was the refereeing that came in for bitter references for this latest round of disasters.

Many experts who were as bewildered as the common fan on topsy-turvy course attributed the happenings to the over-kill of football. Most top players, who had contractual obligations with leading clubs had to serve the institutions which provide them the bread and butter and by the time the country's cause came, they had little left in them to keep going. Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German did not believe that his country would cross the quarter-final stage on the eve of the tournament, such was the way injuries plagued Rudi Voeller's squad. For once he must have felt happy to have been proved wrong.

German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn's near invincibility was blotted in the final.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo, despite going through an exhausting season prior to the World Cup, had managed to keep fatigue under control through daily physiotherapy and massage. But then the Brazilian ace had too many things to prove and in particular that nobody should write him off so early. His spectacular come back then was easily the most exciting story of Korea-Japan World Cup amidst the ruins that characterised the downfall of some of the big weights in the game.

The story of the Asian edition will not be complete without noting the meteoric rise of Senegal and the thrills and spills provided by teams like Korea, Japan and Turkey in particular. Senegal's win over France in the opening match of the competition was a stunner. Here were two contestants one with names that were familiar and the other with players whose names were not easy to spell out let alone pronounce. However by the time the match ended Poupa Bouba Diof and El-Hadji Diouf had become heroes, to be joined later by Henrii Camara, players who provided fresh evidence that Africa is a storehouse of some of the game's exceptional talents but yet to be given the stamp of recognition. The way Senegal cruised into the quarterfinal, yet another historical moment seemed imminent but Turkey, another team, which had come into the competition's final round after nearly half a century to put up a lively show baulked that. Frenchman Bruno Metsu's Senegalese thus missed the honour of becoming the first from Africa to reach the World Cup semi-final.

Turkey's was a refreshing display. It was Galatasaray, the leading Turkish club which put the country's football standards in the right perspective. Hasan Sukur was one big name the country had prided for long and this World Cup opened new vistas for players like Ilhas Mansiz and Hasan Sas to show their prowess. It is a different matter that Ronaldo ended Turkey's dream run after 48 minutes of touch and go game but the consolation was that it had lost to the eventual champion. When Turkey overcame upbeat Korean Red Army in front of a massive home crowd 3-2 for the third place a new chapter of recognition had been scripted for the country's football. What is more Sukur's opening strike in that match came in 11 seconds to go down in history as the fastest goal scored. Expectedly Senol Gunes' team received a tumultuous reception when it returned home.

England's idol David Beckham is ecstatic after scoring a goal in a first round match against Argentina.

Even more euphoric was South Korea's grand show. Not having won a single match in its five previous appearances in the World Cup, what happened to Korea in its own den was nothing short of a miracle. Tactically clever and daringly innovative, Hiddink had tuned his wards to a nicety. It was a sea of Red shirts during the tournament and by the end of its campaign at least an additional three lakh people had joined the national team's fan club. As Blatter was to observe later what the Asian edition had to convey was "that the so-called minnows have grown up, the football world has become smaller and there is no longer such a thing as a favourite among national teams."

Yet when it came to contesting for the place in the summit it was again tradition that mattered in the form of two most successful nations in football — a flamboyant Brazil and a dogged Germany. On the one side was Ronaldo wanting to correct his record and silence his detractors and on the other was a goalkeeper par excellence, Oliver Kahn, wanting to prove a point with a team that many had given up as among the worst coming from Germany in terms of flair. Two dreams but only one could materialise. Having inspired his teammates with near flawless goalkeeping, Kahn had helped players like Miloslav Klose, Carsten Ramelow, Oliver Neuville and Michael Ballack find a place in the sun. Pitted against a bunch of ball jugglers, some of whom could conjure up magic (recall Ronaldinho's out of the world free kick that sank England and sent out the idol of many fans, Beckham and his boys), Germany's odds were truly high.

As it happened the famous Brazilian trio, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, who had accounted for 13 of the 16 goals till then for the team's unbeaten run, knitted up the magic moment. Fittingly it was left to Ronaldo to provide the finishing touch with two spectacular goals. The goals completed the task he had set out for himself and the team and tears of pain and agony that lingered after the Paris debacle instantly changed to tears of joy now. Luiz Felipe Scolari's men had done it thanks to Ronaldo's brilliance. Sad for Kahn that the one mistake he did in seven games got brutally punished. Still the consolation for Voeller's boys was that the team had come up this far and also removed the stain that England had left on it after the 5-1 destruction in Munich. So essential since it is Germany, which will host the next World Cup.