Rio de Janeiro— Brazil’s youngest football superstar had been playing a background role to the national team’s uneven performance in FIFA’s 2002 World Cup. Although providing Rivaldo with a textbook perfect pass that led to the first of the Selection’s two goals, and eliminating Belgium in the process, Ronaldinho Gaucho still lay in the shadows. He had yet to demonstrate the dashing dribbles with which he has been thrilling the fans of the Paris Saint-Germain this year. Only true football diehards would have seen these highlights re-transmitted on Brazilian T.V. For the rest of the country, the promising Ronaldinho had vanished.
Back in 1999, Ronaldo De Assis Moreira was part of the champion Gremio team from the southern Gaucho state of Rio Grande do Sul before being transferred to Manchester United. After suffering knee problems, his ties to the dream of European club success started to flounder. Parting paths with Manchester, he ended being barred from playing as his future wove its way from negotiation to rejection with a handful of interested teams. When at last rid of the red tape, the 22-year-old striker who first came to prominence during the Brazil’s 1999 Copa America victory, and leading striker in the Confederations Cup of the same year, Ronaldinho reappeared and reemerged in Paris, France. In the meantime, his muscle density had been pumped prominently to provide flying buttresses to his spiraling attacks.
Brazil entered its semi-final confrontation with England almost with its collective head bowed. Following a truly pitiful performance against Belgium but for the last ten minutes when victory was sealed, the world’s sports press went on to declare Brazil to be unworthy of beating Beckham’s boys. In the vindictive verses of France’s L’Equipe, and Italy, Spain and Argentina’s press, Brazil won their match in the Round of 16 along with the referee’s help. When Belgian captain Wilmots went up for a header at late in dying minutes of the first half and sunk the ball past Marcos, the referee ruled out the goal due to a discreet hold committed against defenseman Roque Junior, only to later admit that the call was wrong.
As much as the Brazilian "Selection" have recognized the many problems afflicting the team, it has only transformed them psychologically into underdogs. Uncharacteristically lined with the finest set of strikers in the world— the "Three R’s" of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho—, with midfield charged up by the dervish Roberto Carlos, the team is capped by a keeper as famous for the kiss that converts his cross-signing as for the spider-like grip he uses to immobilize the ball. All Brazil lacked was to play like a team.
Some would add that what they needed was to confront a team that mattered. England, flying high from the massacre of the Danish court, had everything it took to frame Brazil in a mock comedy. Indeed, at times they appeared to be stricken by Hamlet’s doubt. Judging by the look on keeper Seaman’s face, the King’s ghost itself was guiding Ronaldinho’s 39-yard free-kick as it stretched into a gravity defying curve to seek out the upper heights of the net. Not that the kick left team England asking the perennial Shakespearean question. It was Hamlet beckoning instead to Horatio, as if bowing to their masters: "Speak to us, Ronaldinho, for thou art a scholar!"
As if to correct the well-publicized issue of overly sympathetic referees to Brazil’s team, Felipe Ramos Rizo sought neutrality, which actually provided Beckham with some touch proof whistle blowing. After having dashed France’s hopes in the qualifying round by dismissing Thierry Henry 15 minutes into their second match, Mexican referee Rizo now decided to send the Gaucho star off for a walk. The fancy footer from the PSG had just confused Danny Mill’s foot with the ball in what was clearly an unintentional foul.
A yellow card would have slapped the appropriate hand. But in dismissing Ronaldinho to the amazement and panic of his teammates the referee converted the red into a green card for Brazil to tighten up their failing group dynamic into claustrophobic cohesion against which England’s clamoring charge came to nil.
Midfielder Kleberson, replacing Juninho following the latter’s confused performance against Belgium, not only aligned Brazil’s defense in a block formation the team has hallucinated about achieving. He also pushed the reduced 10-man squad up into the opponent’s end for at least half of the 30 minutes of grace England was bestowed.
Brazil’s coach "Big Phil" then made the key change to performance in this Cup. In a move to relieve Ronaldo from the suffocating 3-man mark that paralyzed him for most of the game, he sent in Edilson. Drawing arabesques around the stumbling English defense and midfielders, the former Flamengo striker had them wondering whether he would be sprinting forward or back, and kept the ball at safety’s distance from the penalty area.
Much earlier in a seemingly different game, Michael Owen managed England’s only goal on what was a backfield error committed by the otherwise impeccable Lucio. As the ball was shot forward from midfield, the Bayer Leverkusen defenseman lost control of it as it bounced from his chest— with Owen crawling up his back. As Marcos sprinted out of the zone to slam Owen’s range, the Liverpool striker clipped one just over the tips of his miscalculating fingers.
As for the living link between England’s football culture and pop trends, Beckham’s passing was measured astutely with balls cutting through the air in beautiful geometric patterns. Still, the perfection of the Imperial system wilted with the fuzzy logic of the samba strikers as Ronaldinho burst through England’s defense at 39 minutes, passing to Rivaldo only after having completely drawn four defensemen off balance. Rivaldo’s left foot tore Seamen’s arms beyond extension, hopping underneath and filling in the lower left corner of the net.
Ronaldinho’s free kick 5 minutes into the second half trumped the defending Englishmen, who were expecting a cross. As the ball tied Seaman’s limbs into a mariner’s knot, Brazil’s "beautiful game" turned into the world’s most exciting show.
Shades of the 1970 final, indeed. Captain Cafu, who had warned the weak-hearted to sleep through the game, could not temper the smile pasted on his face. "We won it for Ronaldinho," he said. The Gaucho’s wild ride brought the Selection the key rush and pass for the tying goal, and the free-kick winner. Yet for the fans back home, perhaps most important was the redemption he brought to the team in this victory. With punishing refereeing against the Selection, grounds for claiming favoritism were wiped clean.
Nor was there the shame of hyper-individualist brilliance at the expense of team cohesion. Big Phil’s greatest victory finally happened with the perfect oscillation of a team whose looseness he profoundly believes is the source of its creative explosions, but whose fabric had thus far fallen short of ideal tautness.
Still an underdog whose every step is chained to Promethean tasks? Big Phil would not have it any other way. History may have dribbled strange psychological reversals in this Cup. After all France had fanned in an inverse repetition to what Brazil had suffered in the 1998 final when their star player was reduced by injury. And now impermeable defense squads shifted sides under the dramatic strain of a 30-minute 11-to-10-man game.
By contrast, the results of 1970 when Brazil put England away at 1-0, and with 8lbs each dedicated to the Mexican afternoon sun, is a constant the whole country has joyously relived.
Norman Madarasz writes from Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org