Congressman: “Was Ronaldo hitting out or shaking?”
Edmundo: “Hitting out a lot.”
Congressman: “Lying down?”
Edmundo: “Lying down and hitting himself with his hands like this (demonstrates), with his teeth...”
Congressman: (interrupts) “Together?”
Edmundo: “Locked together and with his mouth foaming.”
Congressman: “His whole body hitting itself?”
Edmundo: “The whole body, yes.”
Brazil’s capitulation at the 1998 World Cup was so shocking the country’s government opened an official investigation. (The above exchange was published by The Guardian in 2002, ahead of that year’s final in Yokohama.)
Just five days before that fateful night in Saint-Denis A Selecao, the reigning world champions, had eliminated The Netherlands on penalties in what was, to that point, their most difficult encounter of an otherwise irresistible tournament.
Ronaldo, already a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year at just 21-years of age, had opened the scoring just after the restart and also converted Brazil’s first penalty. And despite progressing into a final against host-nation France, it seemed there would be no stopping the South American juggernaut lifting the trophy a record-extending fifth time.
But then it all fell to pieces—the narrative blown to bits just hours before what should have been one of the most compelling matches in football history.
What We Think We Know
Here’s what we think we know.
On July 12—the day of the 1998 World Cup final—the Brazilian squad had lunch in Lesigny, just outside Paris.
Shortly after arriving back at the team hotel Ronaldo, who was sharing a room with Roberto Carlos, broke down and cried.
“Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead,” Roberto Carlos later told the BBC. “The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying.”
Then, at around four-o’clock in the afternoon, the Inter Milan striker began to convulse uncontrollably, eventually foaming at the mouth.
As journalist Alex Bellos described the incident in The Guardian, Roberto Carlos shouted for help, with teammates Cesar Sampaio and Edmundo arriving quickly at the scene, the latter preventing Ronaldo from swallowing his tongue.
Then Ronaldo went to sleep, and the team doctors agreed to avoid telling him what had happened.
One of those doctors—Joaquia Da Mata—later admitted to The Independent that he had never seen a player experiencing convulsions. He also revealed that Ronaldo had been taking the painkiller Volaren since re-aggravating a knee injury against Morocco on June 16.
“You see, we look after him,” said Dr. Da Mata, adding, “He has pain in between matches—we give him tablets.”
When Ronaldo woke up he had a cup of tea, and thanks to the intervention of teammate Leonardo he was told of his fit by Brazil’s medical staff.
It was while he was at the Lilas clinic that his name was omitted from the team sheet by manager Mario Zagallo. Edmundo, the Fiorentina marksman who had reached into Ronaldo’s mouth and held his tongue, was in the starting XI instead.
Then things got complicated.
According to The Independent, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ricardo Texeira—he of the £80 million sponsorship negotiation with Nike—walked into the team’s dressing room about an hour before kick-off. Twenty minutes later Ronaldo arrived, and Zagallo stroked Edmundo’s name from the line-up.
“If you invert the situation and I didn’t put Ronaldo on and then Brazil lost 3-0, people would say ‘Zagallo is stubborn’,” the former manager told the congressional enquiry. “So I think I would do the same again.”
The official line from the CBF and the few players who have ever discussed what happened in the hours leading up to the 1998 World Cup final is that Ronaldo, feeling considerable pressure, got sick and, just 40 minutes prior to kick-off, pronounced himself fit to play.
But there have been unanswered questions—loose strings, difficult explanations and a public that, for perfectly good reasons, simply can’t digest what it’s been fed have combined to make room for conspiracy theories.
Following are three of them.
Theory 1: Ronaldo Was Hiding a Secret Medical Condition
This is less a conspiracy theory than an attempt to pin the blame for Brazil’s failure against France on a single individual, and the doctors that treated him.
As far as we know, the July 12 seizure was the only one ever suffered by Ronaldo, and given a grooming process that took him to the 1994 World Cup as a 17-year-old (nevermind the four years of top-flight European football he played in the run-up to the 1998 competition) the idea that he suddenly broke down under pressure is curious to say the least.
Various reports, including this one by ESPN, have hotel director Paul Chevalier hearing shouts of, “He’s dead, he’s dead,” so it’s verifiable that a medical emergency did, in fact, transpire that afternoon.
But what if Ronaldo had covered up a pre-existing condition? And what if the team doctors, unaware of his situation, only made things worse by prescribing pain-killers?
Theory 2: Brazil’s Players Accepted Bribes to Throw the Match
This theory has the Brazil squad being offered £15 million, according to The Guardian, as well as the right to host a future World Cup in exchange for throwing the match against France. Part of the agreement is also said to have included the guarantee of a favourable draw in 2002.
Ronaldo, uncomfortable with the arrangement, pulled out of the squad but changed his mind after Nike told him he was risking his sponsorship money.
Four years later, Brazil eased through a group that included China, Costa Rica and Turkey, and five years after that they were awarded the 2014 World Cup.
Theory 3: Nike Forced Ronaldo to Play
If any of the 1998 conspiracy theories passes muster, it’s this one.
On July 13—the day after the World Cup final—Nike released the following statement: “With regard to rumours circulating about presumed pressures Nike put on the Brazilian national soccer team so that Ronaldo would play, Nike wants to emphasize that the report of such involvement is absolutely false.” (Via Sports Illustrated)
It continued: “Ronaldo and Zagallo decided together to crown this dream which the Brazilian player, probably, deserved to live. In all of this Nike did not interfere in any way. And besides, why should it have?”
Odd language, and the inclusion of a rhetorical question odder still.
But the clothier had 80 million reasons to demand Ronaldo, who it sponsored, be included in Zagallo’s lineup.
The company had invested significant resources in its agreement with Texeira and the CBF, and as per The Independent it was already common practice for them to request the full turnout of Brazil’s best squad at international friendlies.
Financially, Nike had a lot riding on the 1998 World Cup, and the majority of their pre-tournament marketing was based around Brazil, and Ronaldo in particular.
What if Nike, via Texeira, had demanded Ronaldo’s name on the team sheet?
“In my time it was the army generals running Brazil who tried to pick the team,” remarked 1970 World Cup-winner Tostao in conversation with The Independent’s David Smith in August 1998. “Today it’s the sponsors, the businessmen, the media moguls. The World Cup final is the world’s biggest TV show.”
Whatever happened ahead of the match, what followed was a sort of awakening to the intersect of football, money and power.
It was the night football lost its innocence.