RIO DE JANEIRO Sporting a haircut to end all football haircuts, Ronaldo — a survivor — brought Brazil the victory that four years ago was stripped from its over-confident soul. After three spectacular breaks in the first, the Milan Inter striker took advantage of a loose rebound to put the Selection ahead. Shortly thereafter, he sealed Brazil’s victory when breaking free from a scramble just outside of the penalty zone.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, Felipao or Big Phil, had been criticized for stubbornly molding the Selection in the mode of an Italian-Brazilian agrarian patriarch. Brushing aside national pressure with the agility of one of the 4Rs, including President Cardoso’s own, he doggedly left out of this year’s Selection the saving grace of Brazil’s leading scorer Romario, star of the 1994 championship team.
With an ironsmith’s impassibility, he hammered together a team made up of mainly poor kids turned into international stars in high-paying European clubs, but who, in the process, had forgotten the collective principles of the Beautiful Game. In doing so effectively, Big Phil welded back a nation and their team in the aftermath of the mysterious fit Ronaldo had suffered in Paris. The ensuing investigation of his relationship with Nike led to a debacle in Brazil’s professional football associations, clearing him, but exposing a field below the pitch of secret bank accounts, tax fraud and illegal commissions.
Yet by June 30, Brazil had become the favorites to win the final of the 2002 World Cup. It saw the Selection meet Germany for the first time in World Cup history at Japan’s Yokohama International Stadium in front of 69, 029 fans. Having charmed the Japanese, a majority of them donning the green-and-yellow for the match, Brazil went on to stun Germany through a solid stream of creative offensive tactics. Apart from grinding the only game their opponents seemed to know how to set up — the technically perfect cross kick and header act they had been using to effect — every successive wave of whirling forwards ground at the gut of the German technical mind.
The belly of the defensive wall was pierced, individual players forced to pivot out of position, and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn made to bend into positions his body now had trouble predicting. Then a spinning midair twirl from a superb kick by Kleberson in the closing minutes of the first beat Kahn over his right shoulder only to batter against the bar for a thirty-yard rebound that landed in empty space. It was then that Kahn seemed to lose his self-assurance. If for no other reason, Brazil won the game out of patience, returning in play after different play to challenge the over-hyped top keeper of the tournament. As it were, there were more, many more reasons behind their unequivocal victory.
Pentacampeao! Brasil, Parabens!!
At 67 minutes, Rivaldo wound up for a long shot from center position just outside of the penalty area. Kahn dove ahead to trap it, but as he fell onto the ball, its spin bounced it brutally against his upper chest and it fled like a swordfish drawn too quickly to boat. Ronaldo, whose relentless ball chasing had grown frenetic as the game drove on, did not lose the opportunity. Swooping in on the rebound, he caught Kahn still sprawled on the field from the save. The goalie had no chance to recover as Ronaldo barreled the ball into the lower left hand side of the net. Brazil 1-0. Back home, it seemed like the South American country had vanished momentarily in a blur of explosions, fireworks and smoke.
Then at 79 minutes, following a scramble outside of the penalty zone, Ronaldo dug at a turnover controlled by Kleberson and shuttled center toward Rivaldo, who let it roll into the legs of three defensemen. With the desperate Gerald Asamoah trying to fall over the ball in lost control, Ronaldo stubbed it ahead, pivoted and snuck the ball past Kahn’s left hand side again. In the wake of the second goal, the Germans were scrambling like a line of ants after seeing their scouts get murdered. Their team had been psychologically wounded. For the rest of the game, Brazil’s defense merely acted like a mirror to conjure the Germans’ panic into a flipped image.
Heavily marked, both Rivaldo and Ronaldinho were suffocating for most of the game – unfairly stripping the former of most valuable player status. The claustrophobic treatment only left Kleberson to perfect his art, in full bloom since the brilliant victory against England in the quarterfinal. At the outset of the tournament, Felipao had desperately tried to replace Emerson, the team captain injured on the eve of the opener against Turkey. But he stumbled upon his discovery of splitting the atom into Kleberson and Gilberto Silva only by accident. The two midfielders were instrumental in coalescing the tightest team playing Brazil had seen when Ronaldinho was unfairly sent off in the second of the quarterfinal thriller. Ever since then, as captain Cafu and Roberto Carlos shuttled the ball up on the sides, the two midfielders spun concentric circles in the center, turning rival strikers into harried defensemen.
On Germany’s side, leading scorer Miroslave Klose was held to a fourth straight shutout, after having lead the tournament with Ronaldo and Rivaldo for most goals scored. Worse, he seemed to shift his attention away from the net and toward players like Cafu, whom he kneed in the back without mention from the otherwise superb referee, Pierluigi Collina. But when he elbowed Edmilson in the face in a mid-air collision a few minutes later, Germany’s roughneck tactics were swiftly silenced with a yellow card. To which Klose reacted two minutes later in front of a disbelieving Collina by getting into some Rivaldo-inspired theatrics, as he fell to the field on a pseudo-trip from Edmilson.
The opportunity of catching Klose’s maneuvering red-handed finally relieved the camera from its relentless tracking of Rivaldo as if in expectation of more of his alleged cheating. Rivaldo’s self-justification of his misplace reaction after being hit in the thigh by Hakan Unsal’s unsportsmanly shot while waiting to kick a corner in the opener against Turkey was met by the anger only addressed to a magician who reveals the secret of his tricks.
In a similar vein, David Beckham acted out two spectacular falls in the penalty zone during the quarterfinal against Brazil, which only the English press seemed to recognize as worthy of the yellow card. It only proved that play-acting is not the art in which Rivaldo excels, his antics standing out more for their eccentricity than frequency. His detractors should learn to recognized deception more acutely, especially when remaining at the mercy of what only the cameras pick up and highlight in replays.
"It is natural in Brazil that to be second is to be last," Scolari lamented passionately in the post-match press conference. In his brief but thoughtful comments, he may have succeeded better than most in drawing the ties between football, nationhood and international political relations. This manifold is determined not by the justice of who deserves to win over who does not. "The image of this Selection is one of players’ courage, care, love and friendship. I’m not a politician, I don’t like politics, but, by acting this way, we will always make Brazil grow," he emotionally explained. Football is not political because of the names of participating nations and their victorious triumphs – these are minimal elements of which only war is based. This game of football exceeds the stupidity of human militarism by the group energy and psychological coherence a team manages to create in the hopes that each side gets its proper due with fortune’s love and blessings.
Perhaps the most moving sight, perfectly locked into Ronaldo’s elated tear shedding after leaving the field in the second, was Mario Zagalo’s message to him on Brazil’s TV Globo post-match show. A futebol institution on his septuagenarian feet, Zagalo was himself a scorer and key player in Brazil’s first World Cup victory in 1958, and notably went on to coach the selection in their 1998 French campaign. Caught up in the controversy surrounding Ronaldo’s nervous convulsion on the eve of the final, Zagalo spoke with the wisdom of history’s corrective brush.
Ronaldo, the ‘fenomeno’, spent two-and-a-half years out, recuperating from a damaged knee ligament that required surgery. He had barely recovered his level of fitness by the time of the Selection’s last friendly against Malaysia in May. But Ronaldo seemed to react to Felipao’s conviction that he would be the key player once again, and surged forth to blaze the fifth star on the Selection’s tropical jersey. His eight goals were the most scored by a World Cup tournament player since 1970, and his total number of 12 has tied Pele’s record. The ex-coach gazing into the survivor’s eyes through the television lens assured him that 1998 had been corrected, and a long personal struggle vanquished.
In what was hyped as a goalkeeper’s dream encounter, it would be sad to part on the note of Kahn’s error and failings. No sweetheart himself, Kahn does not deserve the blame for his team’s loss as much as Brazil’s Marcos does for its victory. For Brazil’s outstanding offensive drive, played out with the grace of curved patterns, would hardly have obtained its style and distinction without the defense triangle’s solid summit. Marcos may have been less active since Lucio, Edmilson and Roque Junior sealed the defensive cracks. By spectacularly stopping two key German shots from Oliver Neuville and Oliver Bierhoff, the keeper has been dubbed Sao Marcos in acknowledgement that Brazilians especially know how to confer. In the end, the five-time world champion team had no need for a savior like Romario, just vastly talented and creative improvisers. In a brilliant victory, the Green-and-Yellow has given the world again some of the tropical flavor of a country named BRAZZZZILLLLLL.
Norman Madarasz writes from Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at email@example.com