Ronaldo's 2002 World Cup redemption... according to him: "In that moment, I felt complete"
I had a small muscular injury in my right thigh, and that’s probably the reason why I scored the winning goal with a toe-poke. I was in pain and didn’t feel my muscles could cope with me hitting the ball hard with the laces or inside of my foot. When you do a toe-poke, the power comes more from the hips, so I could spare my thigh a little by kicking the ball in this way.
This kind of technique is used in futsal, which I played a lot during my childhood. I actually took quite a few tricks from that time into my professional career, but this one was definitely the most famous. It was a World Cup semi-final, after all.
In the moments after the final whistle, when we'd secured our spot in the final, I felt a mixture of joy and relief. But soon I was hit by a feeling of insecurity, because of everything that had happened in the hours before the final four years earlier. Suddenly, everything that happened in the hotel in France came back to me.
On that occasion I’d decided to get some rest after our team lunch. The last thing I remember is getting into bed. That’s when I suffered the convulsions that ended up affecting pretty much every member of the team before the France game.
I was told I couldn’t play, but I wouldn’t surrender. I went to talk to the doctors and to our coach, Mario Zagallo. I talked to anyone and everyone because I wanted to hear an alternative answer. I wanted to be told that I could play. I knew I deserved to be playing in that final. I convinced the medical team that we should do some fitness tests to guarantee my wellbeing. I did the tests, and none of them showed anything abnormal. It was like nothing had happened. Still, as we prepared to travel to the stadium, the message from Zagallo was loud and clear – I wouldn’t be playing.
I was holding the results of all those tests in my hand and I had Dr Toledo giving me the green light. So I approached Zagallo at the stadium and said: ‘I’m fine. Here are the results of the tests – they show I am fine. I want to play.’
I played, but perhaps everything that had happened had affected the whole team, because those convulsions must have been a very scary thing to witness. It’s not something you see everyday, and the whole experience was traumatic for all involved.
Fighting the past
This time around, because of those bad memories, I was actually afraid of going to sleep after our team lunch on the day of the final.
I purposefully avoided it, and didn’t get any rest at all. I tried to find some of my team-mates to talk to, but everyone was in the habit of getting some sleep after lunch, especially before such a big game.
Eventually I discovered that our substitute goalkeeper, Dida, was awake, and we ended up chatting for an hour or so. He was really kind to me. He distracted me, because he knew every time I thought back to the 1998 final, I would remember the convulsions. The idea of that happening again was my biggest fear.
When we got on the coach to travel to the stadium, I was finally able to focus on the game. I left all of those things behind and could play the final with freedom.
And what a wonderful final it was for us. We faced a very strong German side, but thankfully I was able to score twice to secure the title and bury traumas of the previous four years once and for all. Everything that I’d been through was running through my mind before the final whistle had even gone. I was substituted about five minutes before the end, and when I got back to the bench I hugged Rodrigo Paiva, Brazil’s media officer, who had always been by my side during that long journey back. I started to cry and kept saying, "We did it. It was so hard but we won it."
I almost collapsed, overpowered by the emotion. You could say I was the happiest man on earth. We were playing so well that the referee could have added 100 minutes of injury time and Germany wouldn’t have been able to stop us. I was intently watching those final minutes with tears in my eyes at the thought of not only Brazil winning another title, but also my own personal victory.
In that moment, I felt complete. I hadn’t just won the World Cup, I’d also won a battle with my body that lasted more than two years. That was the biggest victory of my career – and of my life.
Now, if I stand still I don’t feel pain. I think my body was desperately begging for a rest after so many years playing football, so I had to give it that rest. These days I do get the chance to enjoy some other sports: I go to the gym, and also play a bit of tennis.
But the fact is that whenever I play football, I still feel pain. Getting my body ready for football is far more complex than it is with other sports. Football demands speed, sudden movement and explosive acceleration. All of these things put different kinds of pressures on different parts of your body. When I go out onto the pitch, my mind wants to do one thing but my body can’t keep up with it anymore.
I always say football was my university. I didn’t have time to go to college but football taught me more than any masters or doctorate. No course could ever have offered me what I’ve got from my life as a footballer. I’ll always be grateful to football and all it gave me to become the person I am today. Being in a collective sport teaches you how to deal with people and to always give everything you’ve got for your collective cause, every single day.
Perhaps the biggest thing football has taught me is exactly how strong I am. Until I suffered those injuries, I had no idea. I won a lot in my career and scored a lot of goals, but I can honestly say that football gave me so much more than I gave football.
Illustration: Adam Forster
The original version of this feature appeared in the May 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!