Did he mean it or didn’t he? The argument will rage on for all eternity, and no matter how much we listen to the protagonists, look at the photographs or watch the footage from each and every angle, it is impossible to arrive at a conclusion.

Did Ronaldinho shoot for goal or was it an intended cross? Should David Seaman have prevented the killer blow? If the ball had gone one foot higher or a few centimetres to the left and sailed wide, how would this match have been remembered? The questions are never-ending.

What goes down in the annals is an improbable “wonder goal” scored by a young rising star, which decided a classic match. The game pitted together two nations devoted to football, involved a dramatic comeback and left onlookers with an unmistakable sensation of “what if?” It was a perfect example of why the beautiful game is so much more than simply 22 players running after a ball.

The stakes
Brazil and England were facing each other for the first time at a FIFA World Cup™ since the equally memorable encounter at the Mexico 1970 tournament, which merits its own entry in this “Classic World Cup Matches” series. It is no surprise that these games are remembered as historical occasions. After all, it brings into confrontation the creators of the game and the nation that has come to be know as “the country of football”.

At the 2002 World Cup Korea/Japan, the two powerhouses were playing each other in the quarter-finals. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s charges had made hard work of seeing off Belgium in the previous round, as Belgium forward Marc Wilmots, who had a goal ruled out when the game was scoreless, will tell you. England had knocked out Denmark after scraping through as runners-up in a tough group comprising Argentina, Nigeria and Sweden, which the Scandinavians topped.

The match
Over 47,000 lucky fans packed the stadium in Shizuoka, Japan, to see global stars on both teams go face to face in a do-or-die match.

England took the lead. Emile Heskey received a short pass, controlled it first-time and quickly played a through-ball towards the box. Brazilian centre-back Lucio got himself in a tangle leaving the ball at the mercy of England No10 Michael Owen. The 22-year-old made the most of the chance, advancing into the area and lifting the ball past Marcos into the net. The Three Lions were on top, albeit far from dominating the game.

Brazil’s equaliser came from a lethal counter-attack – something this Seleção specialised in – in first-half stoppage time. Roque Junior won the ball on the left channel and passed into the middle where Kleberson got the better of Paul Scholes, his future team-mate at Manchester United, with the ball falling at the feet of Ronaldinho on the halfway line. The attacking midfielder set off on a high-speed run.

A couple of stepovers sufficed to scuttle past Ashley Cole, and suddenly he was on the edge of the box, with Ronaldo completely unmarked on the left. But Ronaldinho also had Rivaldo on the right. The three Rs were at their pomp. Ronaldinho opted to play in Rivaldo, with Sol Campbell powerless to stop the pass. The Barcelona superstar’s firm and accurate left-footed cross-shot nestled into the corner of the net.

In the second half the legs of the English players began to tire. At least that was how England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson saw it. He said his team lost its energy in midfield because of the weariness of its Manchester United-based players, captain David Beckham, Scholes and Nicky Butt.

Whether or not tiredness was a factor, it is impossible to legislate for what proved to be the knockout blow. Scholes brought down Kleberson 35 yards from goal five minutes into the second period. Ronaldinho took a short run-up, hit the ball high towards the cluster of players in the box, and watched on as it accelerated in the air and flew into the top-right hand corner of Seaman’s goal. The goalkeeper had taken a few steps forwards in anticipation of a cross, and there was no getting back. Was it a cross? Was it a shot? No consensus has ever been reached.

Despite the blow, England’s chances of getting back into the match received a boost when Ronaldinho was sent off seven minutes later for leaving his foot in while clashing with Danny Mills. The come-back did not materialise, however. Right-back Mills admitted to The Guardian that England’s problem was a failure to keep hold of the ball. “There was enough time to salvage the game and the fact that we failed to stamp our authority still rankles with us,” he said. “Ultimately, we struggled to carry through the orders handed out at half-time and it cost us dear.”

The star
An assist, a wonder goal (intentional or not) and a red card. Ronaldinho takes this prize, undoubtedly.

What they said
“I’ve been asked this question so many times I’ve lost count. My answer is always the same: it was a shot. Cafu and I had spoken about how their goalkeeper was often off his line, so I went for goal. Of course, I can’t say I intended the ball to go in precisely that spot, but I was trying to score,” Brazil attacking midfielder Ronaldinho.

“He was in bits afterwards. I spoke to him in the dressing room, or at least I tried to. It was a tough moment. I don’t think he heard much of what I said. I tried again at the hotel telling him, ‘If you don’t get that goal out of your head you’ll be finished. Stop thinking about it, it’s over. You saved us against Germany, you saved us plenty of times here, and you shouldn’t dwell on it,’” England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, on goalkeeper David Seaman.