They have a lot to smile about

Paris: World Cup 1998: Shock. Disbelief. Raised eyebrows. Hand-wringing. Ronaldo's name is not on the original team list for the final against France. Then the superstar does claim his place but following a mysterious night of "seizure" and "convulsions", is a parody of his former self. So indeed is Brazil as Zinedine Zidane's France outplays the four-time champion 3-0. For the good part of the next three seasons, Ronaldo is sidelined by injuries. And the question ahead of the 2002 event is: Will he, or won't he?

St.Etienne (France), World Cup 1998: It is the mother of all rivalries in the context of English football: Argentina versus England. And just when the English fans are hoping that their team would finally solve the jig saw puzzle, a handsome blond midfielder retaliates petulantly following a foul on him by Diego Siemone. Out comes the referee's red card and David Beckham becomes the single biggest villain in English sport. Over the next two years, he would be booed and cursed and spat upon in English stadiums. And even after the arduous transformation from villain to hero over the last season or two, a broken metatarsal in Beckham's left foot a few weeks before the 2002 event brings up the big question: Will he, or won't he?

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IN the event, even fairytales would not look any fairer than the script enacted by Ronaldo and Beckham in the league phase of the ongoing World Cup in Korea and Japan. Both men have proved over three games that they have not only recovered sufficiently from their injuries to assert themselves on the big stage but also have the ability to score when it matters.

Indeed, both Beckham and Ronaldo, after all the fears and worries, had a lot to smile about over the first two weeks of the competition. Growing into his role as a leader, Beckham believes he came of age as a captain in the team's historic 1-0 win over Argentina.

"There were certain points when we were under an enormous amount of pressure and players were looking at me when I was saying things," Beckham says. "At that point, I realised how important a captain is in a team."

After wearing the captain's armband for the first time against Italy in November 2000, the naturally quiet Beckham mainly let his boots do the talking as England qualified for the World Cup.

But in the last minutes of the match in Sapporo, he could be seen constantly shouting his team mates on as they repelled a succession of last-ditch Argentine attacks.

"For the players to listen to me and take note of what I'm saying is of course important, but we had 11 captains out there that night and a few on the bench," he said.

Beckham weathered intense pressure to score the game's only goal from the penalty spot, and has already said the win was a symbolic redemption after being sent off against the Argentines when England were knocked out of the 1998 finals in France.

The authoritative performance by the 27-year-old was in marked contrast to that last game against Argentina, when he was sent off for an impetuous kick at midfielder Diego Simeone.

Beckham was then vilified for weeks by both media and fans who blamed him for ruining England's World Cup chances.

He says that history and his responsibility as captain had weighed heavily when he stepped up to take the penalty at the end of the first half in Sapporo, calling it the most nerve-wracking moment of his career.

The nerves had been so great, Beckham said, that he had literally found it difficult to breathe in the few minutes between the referee's decision and the penalty kick.

"I've always said that I never get nervous in football games, taking free-kicks and penalties, but I was definitely nervous with this one.

"There was a little bit of pressure on me to score, especially after what had happened in a few of the other games," he said with deliberate understatement.

In another sign of his growing maturity, Beckham made it clear there was no lingering bad feeling between him and Simeone, although of their two handshakes during the game he said the one after the final whistle had been the most satisfying.

"At halftime, Diego Simeone came up to me and shook my hand and grinned." And then after the game, obviously, I shook his hand and grinned.

Brazilian striker Ronaldo too could be seen grinning on and off the field. Things have come along nicely for him in this World Cup.

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He is finally back in the groove after a four-year injury nightmare and has his eye firmly fixed on the World Cup's golden boot.

His career has been in the doldrums since Brazil's 1998 World Cup final defeat against France, when he was played in the final just hours after suffering a fit in his hotel room.

Recurring knee injuries since then have decimated his playing career. But the Inter Milan star has now snatched four goals in three games for an incredible strike rate of 41 goals in 60 internationals.

And he says he can score in every game. Before the World Cup his last goal in a competitive international was against Uruguay in the Copa America in 1999 but his injury problems seem to be over.

Rather than suffering setbacks in the fight to be fit, his first three matches in Korea have proved his physical condition is improving.

The battered legs have so far withstood collisions with opposing defenders and the explosive running and lightening changes of direction are returning.

"The Phenomenon," as he is known, managed a full 90 minutes against Costa Rica after two successive games of 70 minutes.

After being pulled off in their opening game against Turkey, Ronaldo admitted he was exhausted. He was clearly not fully fit then, lacking the extra yard of pace that characterised his game at his peak.

But muscle toning in the gym and pool at their training camp in Ulsan and lengthy run-outs on the practice pitch have paid dividends.

"It was great fun to run the entire 90 minutes," he said after Brazil's 5-2 beating of Costa Rica.

"There are many things we need to work on but in the game, we, and myself, were in top physical condition and it was a fun match to play. I am satisfied now with my condition."

With his goal poaching prowess back and Brazil returning to the flowing football of old, Ronaldo is in the race for the golden boot.

He may claim, as he did that being winning the boot is secondary to winning the cup, but a natural born goalscorer only has one thing on his mind.

He has made it clear he wants to silence those who doubted he would ever be the same player again, and winning the boot is the way to do it.