Ronaldo was a terrified man on 14 November 2001. That was when Brazil went into the final round of South American Zone qualifiers for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ as one of four teams fighting for two tickets to the Far East. The 25-year-old striker, who was suffering from another career-threatening knee injury and had already been told that, should A Seleção qualify, he would be unable to participate in the tournament, was powerless to prevent his country losing its proud, unique record of having appeared at every edition of sport’s showpiece event.
Fortunately for Brazil, a Luizao double propelled them to a 3-0 win over Venezuela, and other results went their way. Fortunately for Ronaldo, he made an extraordinary recovery and, despite having barely kicked a ball for two-and-a-half years, was included in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad for 17th edition of the FIFA World Cup.
The general feeling was, nevertheless, that Brazil wouldn’t be able to legitimately challenge the likes of defending champions France, a star-studded Argentina and a formidable Italy team for the Trophy. The overwhelming consensus was that Ronaldo would struggle to make an impact.
The team in the canary-yellow shirts and the man in their No9 were unperturbed by those hypotheses. Indeed, Ronaldo hit four goals in three games as Brazil beat Turkey 2-1, China PR 4-0 and Costa Rica 5-2 to advance as Group C winners, and he was on target again as they overcame Belgium 2-0 in the Round of 16. Heavily marked by England in the last eight, Ronaldo didn’t make the score-sheet as Brazil won 2-1, but he was the solitary marksman as the Turks were eliminated in the semis.
And so, ten years ago to this Saturday, Brazil lined up against Germany in the Final. Rudi Voller’s men dominated possession for the first hour, but the deadlock remained intact. On 67 minutes, Ronaldo tripped over under the challenge of two opponents down the left. Instantly, he sprang to his feet to chase what seemed a lost cause. It wasn’t. The Rio de Janeiro native sprinted in behind Dietmar Hamman and muscled him off the ball, before cleverly flicking it to Rivaldo, whose 25-yard drive was parried by Oliver Kahn. Ronaldo had been level with two German defenders, and four yards behind Carsten Ramelow, when Rivaldo shot, but he was easily first to the loose ball, which he slid home to put Brazil ahead.
Die Nationalelf looked to respond, but 12 minutes from time their hopes were ended. Kleberson broke down the right and cut the ball inside for Rivaldo, whose dummy let the ball fall into the path of Ronaldo. O Fenômeno controlled it to perfection, before curling a low shot beyond the fingertips of the diving Kahn and just inside his post from just inside the box.
“They said I shouldn’t take him [to Korea/Japan 2002], that there was no chance he would be match-fit and find his form,” reflected Scolari. “But Ronaldo could score goals with his eyes closed. He produced an extraordinary World Cup, and he was decisive when it mattered most as the pressure increased in the Final.”
Mario Zagallo added: “They’d written Ronaldo off, said he wouldn’t play again. But he proved them wrong in the most exceptional fashion. I was fortunate to play alongside Pele in ’58 and coach him in ’70, and play alongside Garrincha in ’62. But Ronaldo's performance in 2002 was right up there with the very best individual World Cups in history.”