Be­tween The Lines: Ron­aldo

A seizure de­nied Ron­aldo the 1998 World Cup win­ner’s medal he and many oth­ers felt he de­served. Then a string of ca­reer-threat­en­ing in­juries left him fac­ing a long and painful bat­tle against his own body for a shot at re­demp­tion

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS -

The Brazil­ian No.9 re­lives the day his World Cup dream died and how the tears flowed af­ter his ‘mir­a­cle’ re­turn in 2002

Ivividly re­mem­ber wak­ing up in my ho­tel room and re­al­is­ing I was sur­rounded by lots of play­ers and our team doc­tor, Lidio Toledo. They wouldn’t tell me what was hap­pen­ing or why they were there. I asked them to go and have their discussions some­where else. I just wanted to go back to sleep. In­stead, I was taken for a walk through the gar­dens of the ho­tel. I was told I had been un­con­scious for two min­utes, and for that rea­son wouldn’t play in the World Cup fi­nal against France that night. I wouldn’t ac­cept it. I had a duty to my na­tion and didn’t want to let any­body down. I thought I could still help the team, so didn’t give the coach any op­tion. I had to play in that match. Even now, 18 years later, I can’t cope watch­ing the scenes from the first leg of the Coppa Italia fi­nal against Lazio. Ev­ery time I know it’s about to be shown on tele­vi­sion, I make sure I look away. When I see those im­ages, it’s like the pain is run­ning through me all over again.

Fun­nily enough, that mo­ment prob­a­bly shaped my char­ac­ter and made me a bet­ter man more than any other. Ev­ery­thing I had been through in or­der to get back on the pitch was a test I knew I would have to bat­tle to pass.

It was my first game back af­ter spend­ing the pre­vi­ous six months re­cov­er­ing from mi­nor surgery, and the last thing I was ex­pect­ing was to get in­jured again so soon. But in April 2000 I was forced to have more com­pli­cated surgery, and the re­cov­ery process was far more lengthy. Dur­ing that mo­ment, it felt like my whole world was fall­ing apart. I couldn’t be­lieve it.

The World Cup in South Korea and Ja­pan was still a cou­ple of years away, so it had only re­ally been some­thing that was at the back of my mind. But sud­denly I started to feel like my chances of be­ing fit for the tour­na­ment were at risk.

There was no guar­an­tee that my re­cov­ery would be suc­cess­ful, let alone quick enough. There had been no sim­i­lar cases in the past, so we didn’t know how well or how quickly it would heal. There was no

his­tory for me to an­a­lyse to re­as­sure my­self. I was fac­ing an in­jury that no one in foot­ball had suf­fered be­fore.

To be hon­est, that just meant we were all more patient – there was no set time­frame, and no rush. We had to re­spect that the heal­ing process would take time, and that it may be quite a long time.

Even­tu­ally we started the phys­i­cal ex­er­cises. I can re­mem­ber that eight months through the re­cov­ery, I still could not bend my knee back over 90 de­grees. It was a huge bar­rier to do­ing any ex­er­cise.

That was the most dif­fi­cult pe­riod of my life. We were half­way through the re­cov­ery process and I couldn’t even bend my knee to 100 de­grees. There was no flex in my knee. That was such a hor­ri­ble re­al­i­sa­tion. I felt de­pressed. I was shocked. The only op­tion I had was to keep work­ing, even though I had no idea if I’d ever see the re­sults I des­per­ately wanted. Yet I never, ever thought about giv­ing up. At that stage, the only thing I knew for cer­tain was that if I didn’t give all I had in or­der to get fit, I would never play foot­ball again. The only guar­an­tee I had was that if I failed, I would have to re­tire. I was ready to put the work in. Even though the pain was some­times ex­treme, the thought of not be­ing able to play foot­ball again hurt even more.

So I tried not to think about it. I had tun­nel vi­sion. I could only see my daily re­cov­ery ses­sions, my treat­ment schedule, the phys­io­ther­apy, the ex­er­cises, all of those rep­e­ti­tions – ev­ery el­e­ment of this mas­ter­plan to save my ca­reer.

Eight months af­ter the first in­jury, I de­cided it made sense to hear some dif­fer­ent opin­ions from doc­tors all around the world. Could they ex­plain why my knee was bend­ing so lit­tle? I trav­elled to the United States, and a well-known spe­cial­ist said there was no chance that I’d play foot­ball again. The best he could rec­om­mend was try­ing a new surgery that would ‘un­block’ my knee and hope­fully al­low me to bend it that ex­tra 30 de­grees once again.

I never ques­tioned my own will or de­sire to get fit again as soon as pos­si­ble. I never doubted I would be able to do what was nec­es­sary to come back. Not for one mo­ment. The thing I doubted was science. I wasn’t sure if there were ac­tu­ally treat­ments avail­able that could help me to play again.

I am not a doc­tor. I am not a phys­io­ther­a­pist. I haven’t stud­ied any of these com­pli­cated things. So I learned a lot from all of my in­juries. The re­al­ity was that this kind of scar­ring – af­ter so many screws and stitches – didn’t re­ally match the im­age you’d ex­pect of a foot­baller. In some ways it was prac­ti­cally a mir­a­cle that I made it back again. Per­haps it was a re­ward for my hard work.

Quite a lot was said and writ­ten about me dur­ing this time. Peo­ple judged me and that al­ways made me re­ally up­set. Es­pe­cially when there were mis­con­cep­tions not based on any med­i­cal information or science. My in­jury was pre­vi­ously un­heard of, and I had to lis­ten to so many doc­tors in Brazil, and across the globe, telling me I wouldn’t be able to play again. One even told me there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to walk again.

I was al­ways in a bad mood be­cause I wasn’t able to play foot­ball. I couldn’t think of any­thing other than get­ting fit again. It was a long, long pe­riod of sac­ri­fice.

Even­tu­ally, I could see some slow progress. I could see the World Cup com­ing around the corner, though I still couldn’t pic­ture my­self hold­ing the tro­phy. I was still weighed down by fear and doubt. My re­cov­ery had taken so long that I was un­cer­tain about what would hap­pen. I al­most felt haunted by it.

I’ve al­ways loved the World Cup fi­nals be­cause not only is it the most im­por­tant sport­ing event in the world, it is also a unique fes­ti­val of dif­fer­ent cul­tures. Every­one who has won the World Cup for Brazil is a hero of mine: Pele and all of those who were in Swe­den in 1958, then Gar­rin­cha and the team of ’62, Rivelino, Ger­son and Tostao in 1970, Ro­mario, Bebeto and the rest in 1994, and then Ri­valdo, Ronald­inho and my team-mates in 2002. For­tu­nately, as that tour­na­ment came around, lit­tle by lit­tle my knee had got bet­ter. Slowly, I was able to start some phys­i­cal and mus­cu­lar ex­er­cises. My fu­ture was still very un­cer­tain, and I still couldn’t see my­self play­ing at the World Cup. Af­ter all, it was very un­likely that the coach, Luiz Fe­lipe Sco­lari, would call up a player who’d played so lit­tle in the past cou­ple of sea­sons. But even­tu­ally, af­ter al­most two years of strug­gle, I felt fit again. I slowly and steadily re­turned to ac­tion with In­ter. Then, in March 2002, Big Phil called me into the squad for a friendly at


home to Yu­goslavia in For­taleza. I only played 45 min­utes – my first Brazil ap­pear­ance in nearly three years – but it was enough to se­cure my spot at the World Cup. This was a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment for me, be­cause look­ing back to the time when I first got in­jured, it seemed like there was no hope of me go­ing to this tour­na­ment. The only thing that kept me go­ing was the im­mense love I feel for foot­ball. That was what helped me over­come the dif­fi­cul­ties I had faced. It trans­formed me as a per­son. I’m so grate­ful for the con­fi­dence that Big Phil showed in me. The easy op­tion would have been to call up an­other striker who had been play­ing reg­u­larly over the course of the sea­son, and a player in bet­ter shape, but he placed his faith in me. I told him at the time that I’d do what­ever it took to be in his team. I’d do what­ever was nec­es­sary to get fit and re­pay him dur­ing the World Cup. It made me even more mo­ti­vated than be­fore. Our first match of the tour­na­ment, against Turkey, was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for me in terms of re­dis­cov­er­ing some of the con­fi­dence I’d lost, and things didn’t look par­tic­u­larly good when, in the very last minute of the first half, Turkey took the lead. There was great ten­sion. Then, five min­utes into the second half, Ri­valdo re­ceived the ball on the left wing and crossed it with speed into the penalty area. I knew the only chance I had to score was by throw­ing my­self at the ball. So that’s what I did. I threw my­self at that ball, got the cru­cial touch with the very tip of my right boot, and scored the equaliser. It wasn’t the most beau­ti­ful goal I have ever scored, but it didn’t mat­ter. It was a goal, and a goal for my coun­try at the World Cup. Dur­ing that game, I didn’t feel pain and was able to play al­most the en­tire match. But the day af­ter was agony. I was in so much pain, be­cause I had not played a full match for such a long time. I felt con­fi­dent again, es­pe­cially be­cause Turkey were a phys­i­cal and ag­gres­sive team. They had been pretty rough with me through­out the game, but I’d come through it.

We ended up fac­ing them again in the semi-fi­nal, and by that stage I had also scored against China, Costa Rica and Bel­gium. Once again, we started slowly – in fact, we weren’t play­ing well at all.

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 had 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.

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.


Anti-clock­wise from be­low Big Phil backed his man de­spite a lack of game time in 2002; Ron­aldo’s re­demp­tion was com­plete thanks to a dou­ble in the fi­nal; savour­ing Brazil’s fifth World Cup vic­tory with Gil­berto Silva and (top) Ri­valdo, who’d set up...

Above The Brazil­ian No.9 gets wiped out by Fa­bien Barthez dur­ing the France 98 fi­nal – only hours af­ter suf­fer­ing con­vul­sions Top Ron­aldo wrecked his knee in a 2000 Coppa Italia tie for In­ter and feared he’d never play foot­ball again

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