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Ronaldo Basks in Redemption

July 01, 2002|MIKE PENNER

YOKOHAMA, Japan — As the rain continued to fall, mingling with the glittering silver confetti and rainbow-colored origami that floated around him, Ronaldo squinted into the night and made a remarkable personal discovery.

The World Cup isn't so heavy after all.

Only 11 pounds, barely a foot tall, it's surprising easy to lift, even after you've spent five weeks running all over Japan and South Korea, on a bad thigh and a surgically rebuilt knee, trying to escape the haunting memories of a lost weekend spent in Paris four years earlier.

Ronaldo clutched the trophy with both hands and held it over his head, basking in Brazil's 2-0 triumph over Germany. It was quite a change of pace from 1998, when the World Cup gripped Ronaldo so tightly, he could barely function.

On the morning of the 1998 World Cup final, Ronaldo lay in his hotel bed, convulsing so violently his roommate, Roberto Carlos, thought he was possessed. Carlos summoned another teammate from across the hall, Cesar Sampaio, who reportedly saved Ronaldo's life by keeping him from swallowing his tongue.

Then 21, Ronaldo already was one of the richest and most famous athletes in the world, twice selected soccer's world player of the year. He was the reason Nike had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the Brazilian national team. He was the reason Brazil was favored to defeat France that evening to claim its second consecutive world championship.

He was also a big, frightened kid, so scared of letting down his country and his sponsors that he had doctors pump his throbbing knee full of pain-killing drugs, so consumed by the pressure to produce that his body quaked from the nervous overload.

Ronaldo played that night in Paris, barely so. Looking spent and timid, he appeared to sleepwalk through the match. Following his lead, as it usually did, Brazil went down with scarcely a whimper, losing, 3-0.

Four years later, Ronaldo arrived in Asia with those numbers all but tattooed on his forehead. Every time he was asked about it, which was often, Ronaldo would either feign amnesia--I don't remember what happened, he'd repeat--or ask for another question.

Until Sunday night at Yokohama International Stadium, when Ronaldo took another tack: put up two goals in the final, maybe shut some people up.

And if the first goal was something less than vintage Ronaldo--a scruffy rebound, made possible only by German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn's first mistake this tournament--it simply underscored how much things had changed since 1998.

This is a very different Ronaldo, still not fully recovered from two knee surgeries that sidelined him for nearly three of the four years between World Cups.

Further hampered by a thigh injury he sustained in the quarterfinals, Ronaldo wasn't going to blow by any defenders Sunday, not even the plodders Germany regularly stacks around its goal, hoping that Kahn stops everything that falls through the cracks.

Here, Ronaldo has had to get by on guile. A toe-poke to defeat Turkey in the semifinal, a rebound to break open a defensive quagmire in the final. That's not Brazilian samba soccer. That's ... that's

But no one wearing a yellow shirt was volunteering to throw it back. This is a different Ronaldo, this is a different Brazil.

Ronaldo's second goal was more like it: A right-side cross from Kleberson across the top of the penalty area and a perfectly executed dummy by Rivaldo, who let the ball skip past him to an unmarked Ronaldo, who hammered a low 17-yard strike that beat Kahn just inside the right post.

Two goals in 12 minutes. Against a goalkeeper who had given up only one goal in the previous 606.

"It's the wildest dream," Ronaldo said. "I haven't had the time to think about it. It's so marvelous. I am so happy."

Maybe a little too happy.

Winning the World Cup, Ronaldo said, "is better than sex ... Both are hard to [do] without, but I am sure that sex would not be so rewarding as the World Cup."

This raised the eyebrows of hundreds of journalists, including even the soccer-obsessed Brazilians.

Ronaldo laughed and figured he'd better elaborate.

"Sex I am going to do in a few moments," he said, laughing some more. "But nothing can be so rewarding as the World Cup. Not that sex is not good. But you see, a World Cup is only every four years. Sex is not."

The FIFA official overseeing the interview figured it was time for another question. Anyone ... please.

On short notice, the best anyone could muster was another mention of 1998, asking Ronaldo to compare two performances separated by much more than only four years.

"I didn't have any debt with the Brazilian people," Ronaldo tersely said. "I did not have any feeling that I owed them from 1998."

Either way, consider the books balanced. Ronaldo led all scorers at the 2002 World Cup, totaling eight in seven matches, all of them Brazil victories. He has 12 career World Cup goals, tying him with Pele and leaving him two short of Gerd Muller's all-time record.

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