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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

My favourite World Cup moment: The Ronaldo mystery at France 98

The original Ronaldo spearheaded Brazil into the World Cup final in 1998, then he suddenly disappeared from the team sheet

Brazilian forward Ronaldo looks dejected at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, after the 1998 World Cup final match. AFP
Brazilian forward Ronaldo looks dejected at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, after the 1998 World Cup final match. AFP

Brazil were far from world beaters in the late 90s. A flaky defence meant workmanlike international squads had a chance of an upset. Heading into France 98, however, the World Cup holders had Ronaldo.

Just 21 at the 1998 tournament, the Inter striker scored four and assisted as many as he terrorised defences with strength, speed and shooting accuracy.

The stage was set for a showdown with hosts France and their mercurial playmaker Zinedine Zidane. It was going to be an antidote to a dull and defensive 1994 final.

Then, as much of the world was plunging hands into snack bowls, the news broke: Ronaldo was out of the starting XI.

The BBC presenter Des Lynam waved the official team sheet towards the camera. On it, showing Edmundo starting in Ronaldo's place. They went to the stadium where commentator John Motson described mayhem as hundreds of shocked pundits and journalists were put to work to find out what happened as rumours of sickness or injury swirled the Stade de France. Footage of a pensive Pele beamed across the world.

David Ginola, the French winger at Tottenham, was working colour with Gary Lineker for the BBC. He grinned from ear to ear as Gallic smugness cranked up to 10. The hosts were on the Rue de Rivoli against a neutered Brazil.

But just as the world digested a final without the tournament's star player, Lineker got word that Ronaldo was back in. A yellow team sheet appeared in Lynam's clutches and Ronaldo was reinstated amid cries of conspiracy, gamesmanship and foul play. It wasn't going to be that straightforward, Ginola.

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The final started and it was evident midway through the first half that Ronaldo was performing below par. Zidane ghosted by the striker, who was marking him at a set piece, to head in a first for the French. The hosts would canter to a 3-0 win and Ronaldo, inexplicably, played the full 90 minutes.

Later it was revealed the striker had a convulsion after lunch on the day of the final. He said that he was unconscious for "about four minutes". Junior Baiano, the centre back, described the team rushing to Ronaldo's hotel room and saw their teammate "in a bad way". "He was really sick. His face was contorting and was drooling... all the players saw the horrible scene."

What caused his affliction and why he played after this episode remain a mystery, but has generated a number of fun conspiracy theories. Medical examinations came back negative. Edmundo, the benched striker, alleged that Nike ordered Ronaldo to play. The company and Fifa refuted claims they pressured the team to change the team sheet.

Ronaldo would suffer a career-threatening knee injury in 1999, but he recovered to the peak of his powers to score eight goals as Brazil lifted the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea.

Stephen Nelmes is Home Page Editor at The National