Picture the scene:
July, 17 1994, the sun beats down on close to 100,000 spectators inside the grandiose Rose Bowl in Pasadena. All wait for the FIFA World Cup Final to begin, a battle between the (then) three-time tournament winners, Italy and Brazil.
The audience anticipated a thrilling decider, but though they were just minutes from the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood, there was nothing stupefying about the football that was on show.
Instead, fans witnessed 120 minutes of lifeless football, as the would-be best traded tentative jabs, failing to threaten the delivery of a knockout blow.
Italy had done their homework to A-grade standard, and their defense—marshaled by the infallible Franco Baresi—didn't give the Brazilians one inch. Zinho's creative spark was negated and Bebeto was unable to exact his usual influence. Even the danger posed by the great Romário, whose game had been the subject of meticulous study by the Italians, was nullified.
Substitute Viola did raise pulses momentarily, courtesy of one crowd-animating dribble, but the Corinthian failed to concern Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca.
All the while, there was one Brazilian player who was still quite a mystery. Baresi and his defensive cohorts would have found it almost impossible to research this guy, due to his youth and the fact that he’d yet to play under the European spotlight. He was warming the bench, chomping at the bit, hoping coach Carlos Alberto Parreira would give him a crack at unbolting the opposition's rearguard.
That player was Ronaldo; that chance to get involved never arrived. Pelé had been given the opportunity to illuminate the World Cup Final as a 17-year-old, which he duly did, whereas the reins were held tightly on his heir apparent.
“But it's irrelevant, isn't it? Brazil won US '94, after all.”
True. But the class of '94 did not win the hearts of the footballing world as their predecessors had done in such captivating fashion: 1958, 1962, 1970 and, albeit as eventual losers, in 1950 and 1982, too. The Seleção had been crowned champions, but had needed a penalty shootout victory to claim gold. It was not the way a nation priding itself on the spectacular had desired to triumph.
Don't get me wrong. The success provoked widespread euphoria—from Boa Vista to Porto Alegre, even beyond the country's borders to its scores of migrants and vast numbers of foreign followers.
Brazilians were proud of the additional star that would adorn their forthcoming jerseys, but they were not proud of the way it had been earned. How they would have loved a winner in regulation time.
Of course, it's all hypothetical. Nobody can prove that, had he been introduced, Ronaldo would have scored that goal—Parreira used two of his three allowed substitutions—just as nobody can be sure he wouldn't have rippled Pagliuca's net.
It's all guesswork. But it’s my belief that Brazil would have had a far greater chance of besting Italy (without the need for spot-kicks) had their number 20 been given a run-out.
Why? Because Ronaldo was an unexamined quantity. Sure, all and sundry had heard of him and his superhuman talents, but the Italians hadn't played against—or even seen substantial footage of—him.
The boys in blue knew everything there was to know about Bebeto and Romário on that Sunday afternoon at the Rose Bowl. They were well aware of the tricks the Spanish-based attackers might use, knew which way they liked to turn, which foot they preferred…you name it. They would not have enjoyed this luxury had they faced Ronaldo, having no insight into his proficiencies.
Besides, if Italian defenders have one pet peeve, it's electrifying pace—something that the youngster possessed like no other.
Ultimately, we will never know what would have transpired had Ronaldo been let loose upon the Rose Bowl way back when. The mystery will forever remain.