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Part 2: Redemption
Sunday, 12th July 1998
It must be said that the Château de Grande Romaine has seen better days. Having recently been stripped of it’s three star resort status, the Lesigny-based manor house-cum-hotel now sells itself as a not-so-cheap residence for holiday makers sampling the unadulterated wonder of nearby Disneyland Paris. When Mickey, Goofy and co. are not in season and a ticket into Disneyland is heavily discounted, the hotel sees much of it’s business come from seasonal school visits, for the kids love to unwind and take advantage of their ageing sports and recreation facilities. Don’t get me wrong, the hotel in it’s current state sounds perfectly acceptable, but one can’t help but feel it cuts a sorry sight in comparison to the summer of 1998 where it was practically the centre of the world.
Brazil were in town, and the Nike-fueled marketing of their most famous export – samba football – ensured that they received more media coverage than any other team in France. The sportswear megabrand had sold Mario Zagallo’s men to the world. It didn’t take much, we were already entranced by their instantly recognisable blue and gold, and all it took was simply backheel or stepover to seduce us into pure obedience. Nike just repackaged it and force fed it to us. To be fair, it was a product we were more than happy to consume. We never tired of watching those cheeky, fun-loving samba stars host an impromptu game of football at their airport as they waited for a delayed flight – this would be the first of many successful TV advertisements for a country and company perfectly suited to each other.
The CBF (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol) had pinpointed Paul Chevalier’s resort as the centre of operations for their bid to conquer the world. It lay a comfortable distance outside of Paris – far enough to avoid distractions but close enough for convenience – and it’s facilities provided the perfect atmosphere for the players to relax. Having secured their place in the final of a tournament they had taken their time to grow into, it was while these players were indeed relaxing that something happened. What that something was is still to this day shrouded in mystery and cover-ups, but what we can be certain of is this – on that Sunday behind closed doors, the Château de Grande Romaine played host to the most infamous and controversial off-field World Cup incident of all time.
With a World Cup final against the hosts France just hours away and a hefty dinner minutes past consumed, the Brazilian squad relaxed in their rooms ahead of their behemoth tie. Rooming together were good friends Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. So often a young superstar alienates his elder peers with a cockiness they feel he has yet to earn, but such was the contrast between Ronaldo’s on-field confidence and his off-field meekness, that the senior members of the squad could not help but warm to him. The two always roomed together whenever they shared international duty, and the World Cup finals in France were no exception. As Roberto Carlos lay on his bed, the music from his headphones was suddenly diluted by a muffled choking noise coming from beyond his walkman. When he opened his eyes, he saw his friend and team mate suffering a convulsion on his own bed, foaming at the mouth. Carlos sprang out to the hallway with the speed we have so often seen from him bombing down the left wing, and called for help. The first to respond was Ronaldo’s fellow striker Edmundo, who immediately prised open the 21 year old’s mouth to make sure he had not swallowed his tongue.
Hotel manager Paul Chevalier was never far away, always ensuring he was at the teams’ every beck and call should he be able to facilitate a thoroughly comfortable stay on his premises. He recalls the initial fear as dozens of personnel scurried throughout the hallways and the dreaded yells and screams of worried team mates. He specifically remembers the cries of one unidentified individual echoing through the hallway – “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead!”
Ronaldo was not dead, but he had suffered a serious convulsion for between 30 and 40 seconds – the cause of which is unknown to this day. The official story is that an unprecedented weight of stress, pressure and personal problems had pushed the young striker too far, but there are rumblings of a botched xylocaine injection – a painkiller with a not-to-be-exceeded dosage of 4 or 5 times in a players career. Ronaldo had been administered this powerful injection eight times during the World Cup finals that year alone. He was still only 21 years old.
Having fallen into a deep sleep straight after his convulsion, Ronaldo awoke with no recollection of what had happened. He was taken for extensive tests which he completed with just 3 hours until the World Cup final would kick off. A team sheet would have to be submitted 1 hour before kick off, and Mario Zagallo made what appeared to be an easy initial decision – Ronaldo would take no part in the game. However, his young striker was brought to the stadium with a clean bill of health, and no apparent cause for his earlier convulsion. Zagallo was somewhat naive to give in to the pleas of a 21 year old desperate to play in a World Cup final. Having sat on the bench for every single minute of Brazil’s successful 1994 campaign, there was no way Ronaldo would miss this final if he had a say in the matter. The team sheet was resubmitted, the cover story being that Zagallo had simply made a mistake. Sighs of relief were exhaled in TV studios worldwide – the showpiece finale had it’s superstar back in action.
The game itself is well documented – France were vastly superior to a Brazil side that looked sapped of confidence and drained of self-belief. The pre-match sufferings of their talisman proved an unwelcome distraction, and Ronaldo himself was reduced to a mere spectators role. He was clearly not 100%, and was a shadow of his previous reigning two-time World Player of the Year self. The media would eventually turn on their 0nce-revered darling as the post-mortem got underway, as would his friend and room mate Roberto Carlos, who publicly criticized Ronaldo’s performance in the final. For sinister reasons that we may never understand, the player who had battled through the tournament with excessive courses of painkillers swimming through him, who had suffered a serious, life-threatening convulsion hours before the game, was being made a very public scapegoat. Not happy with robbing from Ronaldo his fairytale happy ending, fate had somehow conspired to turn him into the villain. It was a cruel, undeserved punishment for a young man who had given so much for his country and wanted nothing more than to lift high above his head the same trophy as the immortal Pelé.
Sunday, 30th June 2002
It has been four of the longest and most difficult years of his life since that tragic day in the Château de Grande Romaine. Many, many tears have been shed as the most promising of careers looked to have succumbed to injury. Only 36 competitive games of football had featured Ronaldo over the previos 48 months, as a snapped patella tendon had deprived the player of doing what he loved best – playing football. Yet here he stood, not one of 75,000+ pairs of eyes looking anywhere other than in his direction, with tears welling up in the corner of his instantly recognisable eyes. But these are not the same tears we had so painfully witnessed at the snapping of a ligament, as a mother’s son – what we so often forget these athletes are – called out his parents’ names to make the pain go away. These are not the same tears that seeped into Ronaldo’s mouth as his shrill cries of “Why me?” pierced the crisp air as medics attempted to numb his agony.
No, these were tears to be savoured. Tears of sheer joy and hard-earned jubilation, tears of a frustrated relief and an overdue redemption. They were the tears of a man who had come out on top in a long, arduous battle with adversity – a battle so many lose. They were the tears of a phoenix who had risen from the ashes of agony and despair, a player who had reclaimed his crown as the best in the world and who could now bask in the deserved adulation of his fans and his peers – something he had been so cruelly and unjustly robbed of 4 years earlier.
These were tears that could only be dried by the warm embrace of an ex-professional, a player Ronaldo had so often been compared to and could only dream of embracing.
“Congratulations,” Pelé beamed. “You are a world champion!”