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Ronaldo Gives Brazil Big Tip

World Cup: He uses 'toe-poke' instead of booming shot to score goal that beats Turkey, 1-0, in semifinal game.

June 27, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAITAMA, Japan — With the weight of the World Cup no longer on his shoulders, Ronaldo has been a free man in Asia, running unimpeded through the midfield, around defenders, to appointments with bad barbers and great goals, the last one carrying Brazil on Wednesday to its third consecutive World Cup final.

Four years removed from the overwhelming pressure that left him a sick and nervous wreck in Paris, Ronaldo finally delivered on the potential that had haunted him across France in 1998, producing a goal that shocked everyone on the field at Saitama Stadium--especially the opposing goalkeeper--and lifted Brazil to a 1-0 semifinal victory over Turkey.

This time, the frazzled nerves belonged to Ronaldo's teammates as they tentatively stepped onto the field for the second half, having squandered numerous chances to put away Turkey in the first 45 minutes. Dominating the early play yet having nothing tangible to show for it, Brazil had seemingly misplayed its way right into Turkey's opportunistic hands.

But then, just four minutes into the second half, Ronaldo turned the game--and the Turkish defense--inside out.

Taking a long feed down the left flank from midfielder Gilberto Silva, Ronaldo looked up and, as has often been the case this tournament, found himself surrounded by several defenders. Four of them, this time. Quadruple-teamed.

Ronaldo put his head down and bulled past Alpay Ozalan and straight toward a backpedaling Ergun Penbe. Two other Turkish defenders, Fatih Akyel and Bulent Korkmaz, quickly closed in on either side--forming a red-shirted diamond around the Brazilian forward.

Ronaldo continued to churn forward, keeping the diamond-and-one moving backward. As Turkey goalkeeper Rustu Recber readied for the inevitable big leg-whip and blast, Ronaldo tricked him by poking the ball with the tip of his boot--too quickly for Recber to react until the ball had hooked inside the far goalpost.

It was a startling goal, one that left four Turkish defenders slack-jawed and on-site commentators struggling to adequately describe it, although Ronaldo didn't seem to have much trouble.

"It was a toe-poke," he said, simply.

And Brazil-Germany, the matchup for Sunday's final in Yokohama, is just another soccer match.

"It was an important goal," he added.

How important?

With it, Brazil becomes only the second country in World Cup history to qualify for three consecutive World Cup finals. The first? Germany, of course. Germany reached three straight finals from 1982-90, winning the championship in 1990.

The goal also sets up a historic first World Cup meeting between four-time winner Brazil and three-time winner Germany. Brazil ranks first in all-time World Cup victories and winning percentage; Germany is No. 2.

Although both teams have been criticized as pale imitations of their legendary predecessors, a final between Brazil and Germany--after four weeks of inexplicable upsets and controversial underdog-aiding referee decisions--will placate purists who cringed at the thought of either South Korea or Turkey going through to Yokohama.

For Ronaldo, it means a second chance after his mysterious breakdown hours before the 1998 final against France. Reports still vary on what happened to Ronaldo that day--was it an epileptic seizure or a nervous collapse that left him listless and ineffective during Brazil's 3-0 defeat?

"I am not thinking about the last final," Ronaldo said when asked about it. "We are not thinking about it at all. I only wanted to play in a different final and to do so, we had to win today's game.

"Now, we are just going to play our football and go to the final and try to win."

Ronaldo is a different player than the overwhelmed World Cup rookie of 1998, which perhaps explains his recent break from long-standing tradition--i.e., the sensible haircut--and the introduction of the bizarre fuzz triangle that has been sculpted into his scalp--a post-modern monk sort of look.

Four years have passed since Ronaldo failed to win the Cup for Brazil. Three were lost to injuries and knee surgeries, relegating the 1996 and 1997 world player of the year to who-knows status at the start of the 2002 tournament.

But Ronaldo has been in surprisingly good form--his six goals lead all scorers in this World Cup.

Still, Brazil Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is taking no chances with his fragile star. Bothered by a sore thigh, an injury sustained in the quarterfinal against England, Ronaldo played only 19 minutes after his goal--nearly assisting on two others, only to watch teammates fail to finish. In the 68th minute, Scolari removed Ronaldo from the match, replacing him with Luizao.

"Ronaldo was not worried [about his thigh]," Scolari said. "And I was not worried about him because when I saw him with that strange haircut, I knew it was a positive sign that he would be playing this match."

Turkey, appearing in its first World Cup semifinal, was outplayed during the first half but came close to equalizing several times in the waning minutes.

Substitute Ilhan Mansiz sent Brazilian goalkeeper Marcos scurrying to palm a 79th-minute strike barely over the crossbar.

Two minutes later, Hakan Suker's twisting volley pressured Marcos again into palming the ball just out of danger.

"We came to the World Cup to take part in the festival and make an impact," Turkey Coach Senol Gunes said. "I think we've achieved our goal and I am proud of my players, who have done absolutely superbly."

This time, Turkey's players were the ones consumed by the demands of the moment.

"Yes, we lacked experience," Gunes said, "but there are also the effects of the tension back home in Turkey. They are expecting a lot from us and this created pressure on my players. This led to mistakes on the field."

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