The year was 1997. Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero, Luis Figo, Emmanuel Petit, Fernando Redondo, Sonny Anderson and Juan Sebastian Veron were all among the best players in their respective positions in the world. All were graduates of the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
There was, therefore, intense interest in the seventh edition of the tournament. And, following a deal with French broadcasting giants TF1 Group that ensured the matches would be transmitted all over the world via Eurosport, considerably more fans than ever before were hoping to see the stars of tomorrow.
And stars they would see. There was Argentina’s classy centre-back Gabriel Milito and intuitive striker Luciano Galletti; Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas and his creative outfield team-mates Xavi and Sergio; the jet-heeled Ghanaian Owusu Afriyie; and Germany’s playmaker-in-chief Sebastian Deisler. Yet it instantly became apparent that the brightest star in the glittering galaxy wore the No10 of Brazil.
In his country’s first outing, Ronaldo - a namesake of the then Brazil striker - wowed onlookers with an outrageous arsenal of tricks and wreaked havoc on Austria by being involved in five goals in a 7-0 trashing. The attacking midfielder was in similarly exhilarating mood as A Seleção cruised to a 3-0 reverse of USA and a 3-1 win over Oman. Argentina were Ronaldo’s next victims, falling to a 2-0 quarter-final defeat, while Germany found him unplayable in a 4-0 defeat which earned their conquerors a final date with Ghana.
The Brazilians had never won the competition, and arresting that statistic was a big deal to them. So much so that even the legendary Pele flew over to Cairo to cheer them on 15 years ago to this day. Ghana were the two-time champions and had beaten Brazil in the previous edition’s final two years earlier, and the west Africans certainly looked confident of a repeat result in the tunnel before kick-off, indulging in an eye-catching dance routine their current hip-shaking specialist Asamoah Gyan would have been proud of.
Once the referee’s whistle had sounded, however, it was Ronaldo who was doing all the hip-shaking. One dummy rendered two opponents tackling thin air, while a breathtaking elastic dribble down the right enabled him to waltz past two defenders and create a chance for Fabio Pinto, who shot narrowly wide.
Overall, though, it was Ghana who had the better of the opening half, and just before it ended Afriyie finally buried one of their opportunities to make it 1-0.
Brazil came out fighting and thrilling in the second half, and on 63 minutes they were level. Ronaldo produced an exceptional dink to bewilder two Ghanaians, before unleashing a powerful, low shot which was headed towards the bottom corner. Osei Boateng outstretched his left arm to repel the effort, but Matuzalem was on hand to tap home the loose ball. The current Lazio player deserved credit for being in the right place at the right time, but the fact that four Brazilians sprinted to congratulate creator rather than scorer said it all.
The South American fans’ optimism didn’t last long. With 15 minutes remaining, Fabio Pinto, Brazil’s leading marksman, was sent off.
Ghana immediately laid siege to their adversaries’ goal, but present Cruzeiro goalkeeper Fabio made two fine saves to maintain the deadlock. And when that deadlock was broken, three minutes from time, it was against the run of play. Ronaldo produced an exquisite touch the bring the ball down, before unlocking the defence with a delightful curling pass into the path of right-wingback Andrey, who cutely dinked it over the keeper to snatch a 2-1 victory.
“In Brazil, everybody had been amazed by his extraordinary skills [in the previous matches],” said Pele of Ronaldo after the final. “But the really great players produce in the really important matches, the finals, when the pressure is much greater.
"A lot was expected of Ronaldo today and he was phenomenal. Brazil were up against it, but he made two goals out of nothing. This boy has huge potential.”
Yet the name of Ronaldo – that Ronaldo, at least – rapidly became irrelevant. For within two years, the attacking midfielder has been fast-tracked into the senior Brazil squad, which comprised another Ronaldo. The junior of the two became Ronaldinho. We all know the rest of his story.